The Undisciplined Interdisciplinary Researcher

undisciplinedLast week there was an interesting conference called Undisciplining that I enjoyed following on social media. The conference subtitle was ‘Conversations From The Edges’ and its stated aim included ‘to foster collaborations and dialogues across disciplines and beyond academia’. There was live blogging, a workshop on making sociological board games, a feminist walk, and all manner of other creative ways to promote reflection and discussion at the conference and elsewhere. But although it talked about working across disciplines and beyond academia, the stated purpose of that was ‘to shape the nature and scope of the sociological’.

From what I read about this conference, its participants were keen to consider how sociology might be changed, extended, morphed into anything at all that could be useful in some way – but would still, in the end, be sociology. As the conference was sponsored by The Sociological Review this is perhaps unsurprising. Yet, despite its aspirations to interdisciplinarity – ‘undisciplining’ – it seemed like a disciplinary conference.

While I was pondering on this, my attention was drawn to a blog post by Ayona Datta about why she supports early career researchers. This sentence resonated with me: “Despite the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, there are very few institutional and intellectual spaces that actually support interdisciplinary work.”

My first degree was a BSc in social psychology at the London School of Economics. In the early 1980s, few psychologists were experimenting with qualitative research, so my degree was entirely quantitative. What I learned in my first degree influences me today, yet I’m neither a psychologist nor a quantitative researcher. I studied social research methods for my masters’ degree which was mostly taught by sociologists and anthropologists. My PhD was cross-disciplinary, with one supervisor from social policy and the other from the business school. Today, I think I am a researcher without a discipline. Perhaps I am an undisciplined researcher.

But research is a topic, not a discipline. So does this mean my work is interdisciplinary? I think it does, for two main reasons. First, my main topics of interest, i.e. research methods and ethics, are interdisciplinary. A geographer might invent a new method, which is then adapted by an anthropologist, reshaped by a poet and used by a lawyer. Research ethics don’t vary much across disciplines either. Second, I read across disciplines, like a magpie, searching by topic, picking out the texts that look shiny and passing over the dull ones. I don’t have a disciplinary imperative to keep up with this journal or that blog. I began to read like this as an undergraduate, pre-internet, finding that tracking trails of interest through bibliographies in the library was far more interesting than trudging through the prescribed reading list (though sadly it was less use when it came to writing assignments).

I’m not anti-disciplines, though, as such. I think perhaps there is merit in learning and thinking within particular fields for some purposes. But I am anti-disciplines when they constrain thought and action. To help avoid this, I think discipline-based researchers and scholars should make regular visits to other disciplines, such as through reading, collaborating, or attending conferences. During my undergraduate degree, every student was expected to take a module outside their core subject. I learned a lot from studying anthropology, sociology, and literature, which enhanced my learning of psychology. (I was amused to find that this approach has been introduced as an ‘innovation’ by another London HE setting recently. My cackling splutter of “LSE did that in the early 80s” received a frosty reception.)

Academics often tell me they can’t work in this kind of way because of constraints which, to be fair, often seem more institutional than disciplinary. So is the problem here that disciplines serve the needs of the institution? Was the Sociological Review able to sponsor a conference more radical than some because it is a publication, not an institution? Is it, as many have suggested and I myself suspect, because I work outside an institution that I can do truly interdisciplinary work?

Being a researcher, I generally have more questions than answers. I wonder, though, whether interdisciplinary work holds dangers for those in power. I wonder whether this is why independent researchers are not able to write for The Conversation or apply for funding from research councils. I suspect my forthcoming book, Research Ethics in the Real World, which certainly is interdisciplinary, is going to annoy some people. More than one academic has told me they wouldn’t have been able to write it from within academia.

I would have loved to go to the Undisciplining conference, but I couldn’t afford the cost plus the unpaid time to attend, so I’m glad they did so much on social media. I will try to do my part on that front at the Research Methods Festival in Bath next week. That’s a truly interdisciplinary conference, with geographers, philosophers, sociologists, criminologists, health researchers, artists, economists, and many others too. I’m running a workshop on writing creatively in academia, which means I get a sizeable discount plus my travel paid, which means I can attend the rest of the conference. I can’t wait!

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