No more grand claims about ‘interdisciplinarity’

by Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald, authors of Rethinking Interdisciplinarity across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences

© SpringerNeither of us set out with the intention to become interdisciplinary. Rather – as social scientists interested in questions of mind and brain, and in the historical, social and territorial elements of those questions – it became clear to us that our usual critical reflexes had lost their acuity. This was not because we had forgotten the art of critique. Far from it: our different forms of training – in geography and sociology respectively – had long positioned certain kinds of critique at their heart. What was at issue, instead, was that we felt increasingly uncomfortable with standing to one side of the neurosciences, and attempting – on the basis of a critical practice – to adjudicate what was problematic about a complex set of methods, epistemologies, techniques and practices that we undoubtedly did not fully understand.

So we moved. We committed ourselves to working alongside and in collaboration with life scientists rather than peering at them. (We were aided, here, by the happy fact that there were a number of platforms and courses that were designed, specifically, to bring neuroscientists, social scientists and humanities researchers into proximity with one another.) We did not pretend to be done with critique, but we did want to explore different topologies through which we might think and work with the problematics with which we were concerned. In particular, we want to explore modes of thinking in and through the psychiatric and brain sciences, beyond easy aspersions against the ‘reductionism’ of ‘the biomedical model’. For both of us, understanding the articulation between the so-called inner spaces (of mind, brain and physiology) and outer ones (the so-called ‘environment’ – whether physical, social, or historical) would be achieved only by taking seriously the strangeness, and fecundity of epistemologies of the life sciences as well as of the social sciences. We wanted, in other words, to move.

Well, we were moved. Through working much more closely with those employing methods and developing paradigms unfamiliar to the interpretive social sciences, we became interested in how adjusting and playing with these paradigms (from the neurosciences and psychology, for example) might re-assemble and re-arrange what we come to consider as the biological, the social and the cultural. We came to realize, in a very literal way, that experimenting – whether as scientists, social scientists, or artists – is an art of distributing objects, subjects and agencies differently, and of opening up new ways of understanding how the world is, and might be, organized. In our work, we take this commitment seriously. We do not want to describe what we are doing as bringing social scientific perspectives or contexts into the life sciences. This, we think, would be a disaster. Rather, we want to see our collaborative work as perturbing how the relationship ‘between’ the social, biological and cultural is usually understood.

It is this question of perturbation that keeps us within the interdisciplinary field. But if we are increasingly (and not always willingly) described as interdisciplinary researchers, we want, also, to deflate some of the claims that are commonly used to justify or characterize interdisciplinary projects. These include such well-known exhortations as: the production of integrated knowledge; the virtues of multiple perspectives; the pooling of expertise; the establishing of equal relationships between the disciplines. Such claims are omnipresent in the literature on interdisciplinarity. (We know: we’ve read an awful lot of it.) And yet we have never understood why ‘integration’ is the only way (or even one of the better ways) through which to understand what happens when those that bring different sets of expertise work intimately with one another: as if interesting knowledge and artefacts might not be produced – and, indeed, have not on many occasions been produced – in situations characterized by much more awkward relations of inequality, inhospitability, resentment, and so on.

If we both remain (reluctantly) committed to the work of interdisciplinarity, we depart from much of the rhetoric that is used to advocate on its behalf. We call for fewer grand claims about the benefits of integrated knowledge, and more interest in taking seriously what might happen if we – we from different disciplines and domains of expertise – learn to experiment, over a sustained period of time, with different ways of thinking and working together. 

Felicity Callard (@felicitycallard) is Director of Hubbub and Reader in Social Science for Medical Humanities at Durham University.

Des Fitzgerald (@Des_Fitzgerald) is Lecturer in Sociology at Cardiff University.

Rethinking Interdisciplinarity across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences is available Open Access here.