Monday 27 February 2017

The prison house of disciplinarity and the poverty of paraphrasism

Working within a discipline is a tricky thing, particularly when your work doesn't fit at all neatly into any discipline in particular. Such are the quandaries of inter- trans- or multi-disciplinary, neatly summarised here:
Intradisciplinary: working within a single discipline.
Crossdisciplinary: viewing one discipline from the perspective of another.
Multidisciplinary: people from different disciplines working together, each drawing on their disciplinary knowledge.
Interdisciplinary: integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches.
Transdisciplinary: creating a unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives.
My PhD project involves writing a history of the concept of the environment, particularly in the 19th century. One basic methodological principle I have adopted is to work 'semasiologically' – that is, to take a word and explore its possible meanings as opposed to 'onomasiologically,' which takes a concept or thing and explores its possible significations.

Of course, these approaches are not mutually exclusive. However, prioritising the former has an important consequence: it is impossible to limit the study to pre-specified disciplinary domains. For example, while geographical uses of 'environment' are extremely important to the story I'm telling, they cannot be prematurely isolated from the popularisation of 'milieu' as a term in literary theory or linguistics.

Disciplinarily, I am housed within and funded by a department of International Politics, although I also have supervision from geography and the history of science. This is working out to be a very productive arrangement as it combines a substantial degree of intellectual freedom with a continual demand to think more intensively about the political consequences of what I'm working on.

So, clearly my work is inter- or multi-disciplinary, depending on how you look at it. It is also trans-disciplinary inasmuch as I am not just combining different areas of knowledge haphazardly or indifferently but also thinking about things that none of these 'boxes' really encourage (although, institutionally, they may to some extent facilitate).

However, it is perhaps easier to define the kind of disciplinarity that I am working against than what I am working towards. Obviously, nothing about this project is 'intra-disciplinary.' However, it seems to me that strict intra-disciplinarity is becoming more and more rare, at least in the areas that I am familiar with.

The aspect of disciplinarity that I would really see myself as resisting has more to do with the 'cross-disciplinary,' or perhaps a better term would be 'para-disciplinary.' This is something that I find to be particularly prevalent in International Relations, although by no means only there.

In a word, I would call it 'paraphrasism' – that is, the norm that a scholar residing within one discipline, looking to other disciplines for interesting ideas and then essentially paraphrasing these ideas, repackaging them for colleagues in their home discipline, makes not only an acceptable but a highly valued form of intellectual contribution to collective knowledge.

For example, within IR it is possible to be a scholar who works primarily on the philosophy of science. To varying degrees, ideas taken from disciplinary philosophy of science may be adapted to the specificities of IR; however, equally they may remain debated in the abstract among other IR-philosophers. Sometimes such debates do get to the point of going beyond what has been said elsewhere. However, the important point is that paraphrasing and 'bringing in' these ideas is considered to be original intellectual work in itself.

Such para-disciplinary repackagings seem to score highly on assessment metrics and are generally a sound route to professional success. I find this rather disappointing. I hasten to add that I'm not condemning or demeaning this sort of endeavour. It is worthwhile. However, it is also extremely limited.

I try to set myself quite different goals. If I am making use of ideas derived from the philosophy of science, the history of science and anthropology, I want my recombination and rethinking of these ideas to entail original contributions to each of these areas. That is, every significant adoption should entertain the possibility of productively feeding back on whence it came.

I hasten to add once again that this is extremely difficult to achieve and that I do not expect that I am any more capable of this than anyone else. It is difficult to add to any one area of knowledge, never mind several. However, this is rather beside the point. The important thing is to choose your implausible objectives very carefully – to construct one's own intellectual obligations in such a way as to make such a thing possible rather than foreclosed from the start.

I expect that this is not an altogether original thought. However, I don't know of anyone articulating it in quite this way. For example, in Why International Relations has Failed as an Intellectual Project and What to do About it (2001), Barry Buzan and Richard Little argue that the "semipermeable membrane that allows ideas from other disciplines to filter into IR, but seems to block substantial traffic in the other direction" amounts to their discipline's 'failure.' They propose that IR qua coherent, ontologically grounded discipline must have something to 'give back,' balancing the trade deficit with other coherent, ontological grounded disciplines, particularly sociology. That 'something' is the very thing that gives the discipline its 'ground': the concept of 'international systems.' Along very similar lines, in International Relations in the prison of Political Science (2016), Justin Rosenberg proposes that the discipline find its ground in the concept of 'political multiplicity' – it is this disciplinary heartland that will let IR scholars hold their heads high at the table of social sciences.

Personally, I have little interest in such intra- and inter-disciplinary politics. I have the luxury, at present, of ignoring such things. However, at some point, I will have to dress myself in the garb of one house or another. Clearly, my past and present institutional circumstances have effected my reference points for thinking about these things. Disciplinarity is certainly not something that can be shrugged off. It is an ongoing, continual conditioning effect operating via a variety of means, obvious and otherwise. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing – I mean it when I write that my situation in an IR department provokes me to think politically in a way that I would not elsewhere.

There is something of a tightrope to navigate. However, I won't content myself with paraphrasism, even if that would make for an easier life. I just find that altogether too boring.