Archives par mot-clé : Area studies

Interdisciplinarity: walking a fine line or walking on the wild side?

By Christelle Klein-Scholz, post-doctoral fellow, LERMA (E.A 853)
Aix-Marseille University

Area studies are intrinsically interdisciplinary: ‘[c]ultures, in their ever-shifting interactions and complexities, need to be both researched and taught from interdisciplinary perspectives’.[1] Characterized by hybridity, breadth, general knowledge and synthesis, they aim at ‘interconnect[ing] and transgress[ing] boundaries’[2] so as to implement a synergistic approach to ‘the growing number of problems “without a discipline”’.[3] ‘Commitment’ can be thought of as one such problem, and the 2015 LERMAsteriales were undoubtedly ‘at the boundary of the individual disciplines’ – literature, history, enunciation, linguistics, translation, photography, art, religion, politics, and language – ‘where they begin to merge and intermingle, clash and jar.’[4]

The concern that comes to mind when dealing with interdisciplinary studies is addressed on the website of the Arts and Science programmes at University College London: ‘If I take an interdisciplinary approach, won’t I just learn a little bit about everything and not much about anything?’; the answer that is provided aims at being both upfront about the issue at hand and reassuring to prospective students:

On Arts and Sciences, you cannot learn as much in one particular discipline as you can on a single-subject degree. There are only 24 hours in a day. But your breadth of knowledge, and the interdisciplinary approach you have followed, will give you different, and arguably more widely valued, strengths. Importantly, it also depends on what you think is a ‘thingʼ worth studying![5]

It is no wonder the lexicon used is that of subjectivity: it is about getting ‘more widely valued’ skills on what ‘you think’ is ‘worth studying.’ ‘[A]rguably’ is the key word: interdisciplinarity has supporters and detractors, and what can be thought of as their ‘quarrel’ can probably be boiled down to the fact that ‘there currently exists no agreed-upon definition of the term’[6]—umbrella terms have a way of drawing suspicion.

Overcoming the segmentation of knowledge is a challenging task and requires new paradigms, new methodologies, new dynamics, new ways to interact with other fields (and therefore with other people—it is no coincidence that interdisciplinarity has become a ‘fashion’, to use Michael Burawoy’s term[7], concomitantly to the explosion of information and interconnectedness on the web), and the risk is to do so 1) for the sake of it and 2) at the expense of well-established, traditional disciplines (they are traditional and well-established for a reason): ‘The danger of interdisciplinarity, therefore, is to abandon disciplines for a superficial fusing of incompatible frameworks, repressing their elaborate structures that have been created in a painstaking fashion by the collaborative work of generations of scholars.’[8]

There is a fine line between ‘thinking outside the box’ and ‘lacking commitment to scientific rigor’, but walking it is rewarding because it is an epistemological means to an ontological end: ‘When we have unified enough certain knowledge, we will understand who we are and why we are here.’[9]

[1] Grant Cornwell and Eve Stoddard, “Things Fall Together: A Critique of Multicultural Curricular Reform,” Liberal Education, Fall 1994: 44.

[2] Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean, American Cultural Studies. An Introduction to American Culture, Third Edition, New York, Routledge, 2012: 13.

[3] Julie Thompson Klein, “Interdisciplinarity and Complexity: An Evolving Relationship,” E:CO, vol. 6, issue 1-2, 2004: 4.

[4] Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean: 12.

[5] http://www.ucl.ac.uk/basc/faq/interdisciplinarity

[6] James Britt Holbrook, “What is interdisciplinary communication? Reflections on the Very Idea of Disciplinary Integration,” Synthese, July 2013, vol. 190, issue 11: 1865.

[7] Michael Burawoy, “Sociology and Interdisciplinarity: The Promise and the Perils,” Philippine Sociological Review, vol. 61, 2013: 7.

[8] Michael Burawoy: 13.

[9] Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, New York, Vintage, 1998: 7.