The difficulty of interdisciplinary narratives
Posted by Heather Wiltse
This post is also cross posted on heatherwiltse.me.
Interdisciplinarity is a concept that is frequently lauded but notoriously challenging to realize. Practical realities like publication and tenure requirements and conceptions of what counts as valid research in established fields tend to push even the best-intentioned academics toward more well-trodden and recognizable paths, despite the potential benefits of interdisciplinary perspectives and collaborations. There is also the intellectual challenge of bringing possibly quite different intellectual traditions into conversation with each other in substantive and non-dilettantish ways.
This last challenge in particular is one that I have been wrestling with in framing my dissertation research. I have been for the last few months working on my dissertation proposal, with my literature review chapter being inordinately irksome. My research deals with the ways in which interactive technologies can mediate engagement with the world in our everyday lives, and aims to develop grounded theoretical frameworks and critical perspectives that can inform technology design and critique. I am actively trying to bridge Social Informatics/STS, HCI design, and philosophy of technology in order to consider social implications of technologies in ways that can speak to their design.
My work is thus suspended in the middle of these three areas, with a number of others being potentially relevant (e.g., media studies, cultural studies, critical theory, information and information society studies, infrastructure, etc.). Just identifying which literatures and theoretical perspectives I should engage with, and how, and why, has been a daunting task. But now that I have this more or less pinned down and have been trying to corral it all into some manageable structure for my literature review I have discovered another, perhaps more basic but still vexing, challenge: that of crafting a narrative to provide the theoretical backdrop for my research.
My Informatics colleagues and I have joked about wishing we were doing something easy, like theoretical physics, because then at least we would have a fairly well-defined problem space (or an established paradigm, in the Kuhnian sense). A scholar working in such an established discipline is able to present (or assume) a boring, predictable setup for her research: the history of her discipline, its intellectual traditions, questions, and progress made toward addressing the problem at hand. Included in this nifty paradigmatic package are also shared conceptions of what count as acceptable problems, methods, and solutions. Of course, even research that fits this pattern has its own significant challenges that I do not mean to trivialize. But at least framing and rhetoric can be fairly straightforward.
When choosing to take a fundamentally interdisciplinary perspective, however, these things cannot be taken for granted. If the problem/question is not well set up (and sanctioned qua problem/question) by any single discipline, one can be left to at least some extent appealing to the audience’s intuitive and practical sense of something being a real problem in the world that requires such a newfangled approach. And one person’s interesting question is often another person’s uninteresting assumption.
Nonetheless, I am convinced that the issues I am wrestling with require multiple perspectives to understand and address, and that understanding and addressing them is important. So I’m going to keep wrestling, and if I figure out this whole interdisciplinary narrative thing I’ll let you know.