On interdisciplinarity

I was chatting with a colleague at a party, along these lines. (Subspecialties have been changed to protect the guilty.)

Colleague: I know you do discourse analysis, and I respect that, but on one level I think it’s kind of bullshit. But don’t take it personally. That guy over there, he’s my best friend, I respect the hell out of him, but he’s an experimental psycholinguist and I think that’s kind of bullshit. And he thinks my work in theoretical phonology is kind of bullshit too.

I’ve felt these impulses in myself as well. The more I pigeonhole myself, the more I want to separate the world into “us” and “them.” I’m a linguist; an applied linguist; a sociolinguist; a discourse analyst; this means “we” do conversation analysis, and “they” do sociophonetic variation. I get into systemic functional linguistics a little, and I go around saying things like “I don’t believe in pragmatics.”

Honestly, the more I think about it, the more I feel like this is probably what’s bullshit. But why do we do it, and how can we get away from it?

I can think of two reasons for this kind of attitude. The first is tribalism, and the second is politics.

The tribalistic impulse is all about trying to find “my people.” Research can be lonely, and education is all about professionalization and enculturation, so I need to find a community of people doing similar work to what I’m doing. These people, if they’re fellow students, are my support network; if they’re senior researchers, they’re potential mentors. So far, so good. But how do I define “similar,” and how do I find these people? Talking about your work is good, but saying “I’m an experimental psycholinguist, so I think theoretical phonology is bullshit” basically amounts to flashing academic gang signs. I’m looking for someone else to say “I know, right?” and then we’ve recognized one another. Problem is, we’ve recognized one another at the expense of the entire field of theoretical phonology. Now I can write them off altogether, ignore any results they may produce, and not feel like I’m missing anything important or regret my choice of specialization.

As far as politics, I read somewhere that what makes good policy often makes bad politics. If you think of it in United-States-Congress terms, good policy could theoretically come from either political party, or both parties could propose different policies that each contain pieces of the ideal. In a perfect world, the system would reward them for coming together and enacting that ideal. But in practice, politicians are often rewarded more (in the sense of campaign contributions and votes) for scoring points off one another than they are for passing laws.

Unfortunately, the same thing seems to be true of the culture of academia, in a way.

E. O. Wilson wrote about how much work there is to be done on the borders between traditional disciplines. If I’m a biologist and you’re a chemist, we can each separately work on our core biological and chemical fields of study, but then we’re ignoring biochemistry. Ta-da! Whole new worlds of inquiry open up. Or getting a little closer to home, there are clearly important things to be discovered along the border between sociology and linguistic theory. This is good policy.

But if I want to have a university department, or be included on a panel of experts, or receive any kind of funding or recognition, I can’t be “that guy who does really interesting work that isn’t quite linguistics and it isn’t quite sociology.” I have to turn my border into a territory of its own, and say “Now I am a sociolinguist, and you should hire me because you don’t have one on faculty.” Instead of being part theoretical linguist and part sociologist, I am now neither one of those things. This is bad policy, in a way, but good politics.

Well, except that it doesn’t have to be. The actual sociolinguists that I know still tend to read in sociology and in linguistics to some extent. What I’m interested in, though, is being more intentional about it. I don’t want to shut myself off from any useful field of research; that’s work that was done by smart people, and even if it’s not research that I’m interested in doing myself, maybe I can learn from them. So today I tried to move away from “pragmatics doesn’t exist” to this:

Hey, people who think pragmatics is interestingly distinct from semantics: what are the core phenomena that make you think that?

Or, to be a little less pollyanna, maybe it will turn out I don’t agree with them, but I have to give them some respect. As the inimitable Philosophy Bro writes:

… if a guy is really, really famous for philosophy, at the very least a bunch of professors with PhD’s think his ideas are valuable in some way, so don’t be dismissive out of hand. You will be a much, much better thinker if you learn to respect your ideological opponents’ strength. Because if you call some bro lazy or confused and it turns out you’re wrong and their shit is super-rigorous and really thorough, then you look like a fuckwad instead of an engaged and intelligent participant in dialogue.

“Engaged and intelligent participant in dialogue” … I’d be satisfied to have that on my tombstone.

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One comment on “On interdisciplinarity
  1. You seriously keep writing about things that I’m currently thinking about or have recently been reading about. I’m learning about Legitimation Code Theory which builds on Bernstein’s work on knowledge structures, horizontal and vertal discourse, etc. Maton 2007 (http://www.legitimationcodetheory.com/pdf/2007SFLKrstrs.pdf) talks about KNOWER structures in the ‘two cultures debate’ – that is to say that science is presented as having heirarchichal knowledge structures while humanities is presented as horizontal. However he suggests humanities has heirarchical knower structures – so we define people as appropriate knowers. So in linguistics we vary in how much importance we place in approach. Interestingly in a recent seminar he talks about the Chomskian vs SFL situation and explains it as generative grammairians prioritising the approach and less the ontological relations to the real-life situation, while SFLers prioritse applicability to the context and have weaker controls on the approach.

    Also I’ve started reading (though I’ve leant it to my supervisor and have to get it back to read any more) “Disciplinarity” which is editted by Christie and Maton and only just published. It has a really interesting perspective on what ‘disciplinarity’ and ‘interdisciplinarity’ are and how important it is to know the values and power claims of your discipline.

    The conclusion in the work between sociology and SFL is that what is important is to enable knowledge building – being able to encompass more phenomenon with less principles. So sometimes this means being tribal, or doctrinal, and training more people to look at things the right way so you share language and agree on what’s appropriate for study even if your discussions are in fact arguments. And sometimes it means opening the discipline up to other approaches, other influences, and other people to gain what they bring to knowledge, even if it means lessening your own personal power.

    At the same time, though, know what you mean! There is research that I struggle to believe in the value of, partly coming off my experience as a BA graduate and my desire to renounce or at least transcend the more ethereal aspects of the humanities. But my recent experience has been somewhat of the reverse – I’ve been meeting and talking to students from other disciplines and other faculties and it is a pleasant surprise when we can see the value in each other’s work and even more realise our commonalities as HDR students.

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