Negotiating spaces of interdisciplinarity

By Sinead D’Silva

A few years ago I would confidently have said that I am a sociologist, and nobody would have been able to tell me otherwise. My BA in sociology was followed by an MA in Social and Cultural Geography (after a year of dabbling in the “real-world” of course). I was fascinated by the engaging work done in critical geography, and the potential to mix sociological perspectives on social practice within the gamut/realm of space. This distanced me a little from Sociology, but I thought nothing of it seeing as the work I hoped to do was often covered by ‘Development studies’ and other such departments employing sociological frameworks. At the moment, I am based in a Physics department, exploring the practices and motivations of students in undertaking employability development opportunities.

My current project is supported by the department in which I function alongside supervision in the university’s education department. The aim of funding such a project was to enquire into factors that influence the employment prospects of physics graduates. There is a considerable amount of the literature that suggests that disparities in engagement with employability development prospects and in employment can be understood through a Bourdesian understanding of the reproduction of class privilege. To take this further, I attempt to argue that in order to understand whether employability truly can be developed is by understanding motivation, practice, values and in combination, presentation (of self). It is safe to say that my project is largely within the realm of the social sciences.

Of late, there has been a keen interest in the work done in social science by those in the natural sciences, particularly within the context of Higher Education increasingly stressing on the need to consider “Learning, Teaching and Assessment excellence”. Physics has been relatively late to the party, but they are making considerable strides in the ‘pedagogy’ direction. Being a researcher within ‘Physics Education Research’ (PER) groups, I find myself in a situation that can be liberating yet at times particularly challenging. It is liberating because it permits me to explore and almost re-discover Sociology and the social sciences. In having to explain sociological concepts the fears of my education serving no particular purpose (a Sociology degree is often wrongly seen as ‘the easy way out’) are eliminated. I am confident in who I am as a social scientist. This does not give me a free pass however. It motivates me to maintain the importance of being rigorous and critical in research, and thus I take it on myself to improve my understanding where needed.

The challenges I have faced have been both personal as well as external. Personally, I wonder if my dabbling in different disciplines has left me homeless in academia. When interacting with some social scientists who have taken a relatively consistent disciplinary trajectory, I have had to respond to reactions of surprise and sometimes condescending irritation expressed for my having ‘gone to the dark side’. But I have not changed. I am a social scientist. Simultaneously, when conversing about my project on student motivation and practice in Higher Education, I must endure expressions of a preference for quantifiable truths from natural scientists whom themselves undertake pedagogic research. There are no truths. Neither in the social sciences, nor in the natural sciences. There are only ideas and speculations – the best probable explanation. It is for these reasons that I find interdisciplinarity both an enrichening and frustrating experience.

Another observation I have made from my work thus far is the appropriation of social science terminology. I suspect that much of what we do today in the knowledge society requires some amount of sophistication; at least we hope to present ourselves thus. To this end, we adopt scientific terminology be it from the social sciences and/or natural sciences. However, these terms when flowing in daily parlance may lose their essence. When they are reproduced in this way an academic environment, semi-detached from its originating conceptual framework, this becomes problematic. Take my area of study for example. Certain forms of presentation that become acceptable and normalised when apparently “developing” employability skills are really a reflection of cultural capital developed through social reproduction of privilege. I have heard (and sometimes read) propositions that students need to embrace their social and cultural capital to help them become employable. Others have suggested that there be a measure for cultural capital. It becomes fairly challenging to respond to these perceptions because the concept of cultural capital emerged as an explanation of how class reproduces itself through ‘cultured’ practice, sustaining social stratification. Further, to an extent the concept tends to explain non-quantifiable aspects of self that sustain said stratification.

The topic of methods can also be a double-ended sword sometimes. Inclusion of a social scientist in discussions around methods to explore education practice is helpful; it is a fact that we have dedicated years to studying social phenomena and behaviour. Yet, when suggestions are made to adopt qualitative research to enquire into persistent problems, an automatic dismissal of such suggestions because the “efficacy of the tool” is not quantifiable does little to support interdisciplinary research. True, methods need to be adopted where appropriate to get the best possible explanation for our questions. Therefore, while on the topic of methods, statistics is not a solution to problems – whether through questionnaires or surveys or through the quantifying of qualitative data. However, it is also wrong to presume that statistics do not have a place in social science research. Unless we are willing to learn from each other, progress in interdisciplinary work will be slow.

In everyday life, from my experience as a PhD researcher I have found that being persistent in negotiating your own space is integral to ensuring your project does not face threatening challenges. At the start of my project, I found it surprisingly difficult to explain (or perhaps to have my explanation understood) that my background made some of the required training and procedures in Physics irrelevant to me, such as with teaching assistance training. In this case, although the department offers training, I could not possibly support teaching – unless of course I could lead a tutorial on phenomenological understandings of perceptions of star formation. Yet other social science departments too did not know how to react to my situation. I have yet not received training for reasons that relate to structural changes as well as the time at which I began my research. However, I have found it particularly helpful that my supervisor is supportive and proactive. Further, by taking the time to explain my position, and taking my concern to a higher level when relevant/indicated, I have found myself in a fairly comfortable niche, only 8 months in.

Relevant to this, it would appear to me, is the role of process-establishment. Very often, the interdisciplinary researcher may find themselves in situations that do not have straightforward answers. Here, we must ask the right questions and eventually come to a mutually-beneficial conclusion. For example, as there have been no social science-driven postgraduate research in my department in Physics previously, those of Education have been adopted – the department with which my project is collaboratively supervised. Often overlooked however is the role of the individual in this process – how does their background and sense of (academic) self interact with the processes with which they are expected to engage? I find myself in tense moments of conflict owing to my prior experience in other departments – why should I not be stressing on my conceptual framework when that is what I would do otherwise? – and having a limited understanding of what I do need to do was a concern that was fortunately addressed early on in my course.

I suspect some of these experience may seem disjointed, but the problems that interdisciplinary researchers face can range from mundane, everyday bureaucratic processes to essential philosophical praxis. There are challenges that exist and some that lie ahead. All the while, we need to also consider the purpose of the research that we do, without presuming that interdisciplinary enquiry is inherently less than or better than straightforward trajectories of enquiry into knowledge.

Categories: Interdisciplinarity

4 replies »

  1. This could not have been written at a better time!
    I am going through a similar yet more complex dilemma. In Fairclough’s terms, the “transdisciplinary” nature of my work within Discourse Analysis has created an endless struggle for me since the beginning of my PhD journey! My initial proposal was referred to the School of Education, since the domain of my interest is higher education and have since been battling my way back into linguistics! What makes things more complicated is that different schools within different universities approach ‘fields of knowledge’ or ‘disciplines’ in different ways. Thus, in my case, I am a ‘proper linguist’ in some places and a very ‘odd linguist’ in others!!
    Basically, a homeless linguist at the moment until I find myself a school that appreciates the kind of work I am doing! 🙁

    • Hi Afra, I actually met someone in a similar situation as you the other day – they consider themselves a linguist, but has been put in an Education department! I have personally come to terms with being based in Physics as a Sociologist (I’m now 14 months into my PhD), but I do feel homeless in academia. I suspect the only thing we can do is rely on our own resilience, which is a little grim as I would have expected academia to be more understanding of non-normative realities!

      • Yeah, resilience is key. I’m afraid though that I would have to take a detour to achieve resilience! I’ve decided to transfer for the second time; this time to another institution.. hopefully I’ll get to call it home and conclude my PhD in a more a stronger stance!

        Good luck with your studies and I really hope you’ll get to feel more at home.

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