Friday, September 2, 2011

Disciplines unbound?: some thoughts on the maintenance and transcendence of academic boundaries

In the inaugural issue of anthropologies, Megan Maurer answered the question “what is anthropology?” with the statement that “anthropology is not geography,” persuasively arguing that while geography includes people and some geographers may even use ethnography as a research and writing method, practitioners of anthropology start with people, people whose stories we seek to tell, whose experiences we seek to document, whose perspectives we seek to understand. This statement brought to mind several conversations with a geographer friend, in which he located the disciplinary boundary thus: geographers work on space, anthropologists work on place. I don't disagree with this working definition. To a considerable extent, geography is a spatial science, while anthropology is a social science. Whereas geographers might study land tenure and resource use with an eye to empirical economic and environmental outcomes, many anthropologists would approach the same situations intent on describing and analyzing the – potentially more subjective – cultural aspects of place-making and people's experiences and interpretations of engaging with their surroundings. But these easy distinctions leave me unsettled, especially as I reflect on my own experience, and they lead me to reflect on the relevance of disciplinary boundaries in my work and on the future of the traditional disciplines in both academic institutions and outside the academy.

In principle, I should be a thoroughly disciplined anthropologist. I began my undergraduate studies with a declared major in anthropology, having been inspired by an excellent high school social studies teacher and, perhaps ironically, by my mom's lifetime subscription to National Geographic. At the time, I wasn't fully aware of the broad scope and diversity of anthropology, nor of the sometimes deep divisions between the sub-disciplines. During four years in a four-fields department this started to become more clear, and despite my abiding interest in everything from ethnography to forensic anthropology, I began to focus on cultural anthropology and environmental studies. Working towards a BA, my appetite for anthropology courses was one of the factors that drove me to change from a major to a BA Honors degree, allowing me to increase the number of anthro credits that would count towards my degree while also doing an independent research project. Before graduating, I knew I would pursue graduate studies in cultural anthropology, and I did, leading eventually to completing my PhD last year. I'm a firm believer that there is something unique and particularly powerful in anthropological ethnography, and in the way anthropologists combine description, analysis, and critique in our writing. This is even one of the central themes running through the courses I teach. But I'm not sure my formation as an anthropologist is reflected in my approach to research.

My research topics lend themselves to disciplinary boundary crossing. In addition to my somewhat stereotypically cultural-anthropological interests in the cultural politics of ethnicity, identity, and belonging, I work on land tenure, resource rights, and environmental politics in rural Kenya. All of these have been subjected to extensive scrutiny by scholars from a range of disciplines. While my field research methods are obviously rooted in anthropological tradition – with a heavy reliance on long-term participant-observation and open-ended conversations with a variety of key informants and diverse interlocutors – my approach to “the literature” is different. In my projects thus far, I have tended to take particular issues as my starting point, reading topically, rather than by discipline. In doing so, I've read anthropologists, historians, political scientists, geographers and others, trying to look at the larger debates rather than disciplinary differences and nuances. My goal has usually been to find ideas and examples that help me to better understand what I experienced and learned in the field, or perhaps to develop research proposals that contextualize important questions that my field research can help to answer. I doubt I'm alone in this approach.

It's not that I abhor literature reviews that distinguish among anthropological, geographical, historical, and other approaches to a given topic. There's tremendous value in such endeavours, from gaining a better understanding of the state of current (and past) knowledge and teaching anthropologists-in-training about our roots and routes, to facilitating interdisciplinary communication in an organized manner. I'd love to see more in-depth research on subject formation in the disciplines as well, mirroring ethnographic studies of laboratory sciences and scientists, which would go a long way to interrogating the kind of boundary maintenance we often engage in [what anthropologist hasn't cracked a joke about our historically urban cousins – the sociologists – with their surveys and statistics?]. Such research could also provide valuable insights into the pathways through which knowledge circulates to be reproduced or reconfigured, which could in turn provide new perspectives on the perpetuation of disciplinary boundaries beyond what happens in institutionalized research groups and centers, faculty meetings, and graduate student pubs.

Institutionalized disciplinary boundaries have come under substantial challenge in the past fifteen to twenty years through a profusion of interdisciplinary research projects, funding opportunities, and inter/trans/post-disciplinary degree programs [and, in fact, a quick google scholar search for “interdisciplinarity and higher education” turns up a number of books and articles published as far back as the early 1970s]. But I suspect that disciplinary boundaries have been troubled for much longer, perhaps as long as they've existed, and not just by transgressions from outsiders. Geography and anthropology alike are riven by sub-disciplinary boundaries and debates – sometimes disputes – of varying intensity. Those dividing physical and human geography and physical and cultural anthropology seem to produce the most friction, with tectonic fissures shaking departments asunder and separating scientists from non-scientists. Note the recent outrage over the alleged removal of the word “science” from the AAAs statement of its long-range plan. Even within these larger factions, specialization has led to sub-sub-disciplinarity; in cultural anthropology – if I dare use such a broad category – we have scholarly communities organized around geographical regions, topical specializations, and schools of thought: Africanists, North-Americanists, Latin Americanists; environmental, medical, political, economic anthropologists; phenomenologists, post-modernists, Marxists, even Geertzians. Each of these overlaps with others and can be further sub-divided in innumerable ways, suggesting a sort of recursive, fractal structure.

Despite these numerous challenges, disciplines are maintained through the inertia of institutional structures, the narcissism of minor differences, and origin myths taught to undergraduates and graduate students. In the best cases, these histories reveal linkages between the disciplines, where we share genealogies – it is more than a historical curiosity that the founding father of American anthropology, Franz Boas, did post-doctoral work in geography – but they sometimes fall short in dealing with the continued intellectual interpenetration after the moment of speciation. Perhaps departmental boundaries should be presented with another challenge, this time in the form of rigorous investigation of the hypothesis that the disciplines are far less relevant in individual research practice than in the bureaucratic complexes that academics inhabit. I imagine that, in practice, a conceptual model of the boundary-crossing relationships between disciplined thinkers would go far beyond a series of Venn diagrams showing that the work of some anthropologists draws upon and is remarkably similar to the work of some geographers, and vice versa. In the place of interlocking circles, we might visualize an almost organic meshwork, with countless nodes linking individuals, written works, conference presentations, and informal conversations, extenuating and attenuating flows of ideas, questions, and criticisms with little regard for departmental affiliations or credentials.

I'm not calling here for the abolition of academic disciplines. Far from it. I am suggesting that the boundaries between them can be, and are, transcended in practice, and that there is much benefit to derive from increased recognition of this fact. Conversation and collaboration across disciplines can be powerful enhancements to improve our understanding of the objects and subjects of our research, and for producing analyses and recommendations – I hesitate to say solutions – to practical problems in applied work. A better understanding of how and why researchers and other disciplined professionals cross boundaries could also lead to more successful collaborations in large-scale projects, such as environmental and social impact assessments for development or conservation initiatives. The era of the token anthropologist, whose work was often a mere curiosity to contributors from more “rigorous, scientific” disciplines, being hired to add a component to a compartmentalized, multi-volume report on the potential impacts of a new hydro-electric dam, strip-mine, or wilderness reserve, was outdated long ago. But this inter/trans-disciplinary future can, I think, be achieved while maintaining the current academic framework of faculties and departments organized along disciplinary lines, given that we allocate more attention to bringing the way we teach our disciplines and disciplinary histories more in line with the way we actually practice our professions. Rather than a blurring of disciplinary boundaries leading to the convergence of scholarship into some blob of generalized, but still heterogeneous, humanistic social science, attention to the history of both these boundaries and their transgression could encourage creative interaction and contribute to the growth and preservation of intellectual diversity.

Scott Matter

1 comment:

Scott M said...

Here's a fascinating piece from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, describing an emerging tool under development by the Eigenfactor folks.

The article includes an illustration of cross-talk between disciplinary journals in JSTOR and reveals a lot of back-and-forth between Stats and Econ, as well as between Sociology, Education, Management, and Political Science. Interestingly, both Anthropology and Geography have relatively weak inter-citation with each other and with other disciplines. I wonder, though, whether this is in part an artifact of publication volume rather than a true reflection of interdisciplinarity.

I guess the next step would be to go beyond journal databases and include books and their bibliographies.