On Academic In-di

Interdisciplinarity (“in-di”*) is the multiculturalism of academia. That is, it is the kind of a diversity-related buzzword which has a significant rhetorical power that is in direct tension with its actual practices. In-di research, like multiculturalism, might be “celebrated” (whatever that means) in academia, but its realities are much trickier and often a lot less straightforward, comfortable or forgiving in comparison with research that is more wholly contained within the recognized borders of an existing traditional discipline.

This is the case, I think, because in-di research raises the same kind of identity issues generated by life in a multicultural reality: who am I, and where do I belong? In-di researchers are often faced with uneasy questions regarding the most basic building blocks of their work (e.g. what makes a good research question, and how are hypotheses to be tested?), intellectual community (which societies should I belong to? Which journals should I focus on? Where should I apply for funding?), employment options (which departments will understand the importance of what I do, without seeing me as an outsider?), and many others. This seems to be particularly the case in an age in which more simplistic metrics, such as disciplinary journal ranking and formal suitability to teach introductory undergraduate courses, are being increasingly used in hiring and promotion decisions.

In less general terms, my own case is a pretty good example of just that. I double-majored in political science and linguistics, specializing in political philosophy which was also the field of my DPhil. My postdoc institutions were (primarily) philosophy departments. My main work connects ethics, power and language in several different permutations which are not always easily or even properly identified as interconnected in any way (e.g. language policy and political epistemology). The upshot of this epistemic compound is that I do not fit too easily into existing institutionalized knowledge structures. Publishing in top journals in one of my disciplines is most often invisible or meaningless in the eyes of the others (ironically, my highest impact factor publication to date was in neither of my core disciplines**).

So, it means that I routinely move between intellectual communities (conferences, societies, journals) and epistemic frameworks - a wonderfully enriching and stimulating practice that is in fact much more conducive to creative and original work. But it also means that there are very few places where I feel at home, because life as what Burt called a “structural hole” means that it is harder for non in-di researchers to “get” who I am and what I do. I am sometimes perceived as not enough of a philosopher for some in philosophy, a pseudo political scientist for some in poli-sci, and a faux linguist in the eyes of some linguists My epistemic loyalties, in a sense, are often perceived as divided. This is not the kind of peer-perception that makes one’s life particularly easy in the current academic world, which is becoming increasingly reliant on formal standardized metrics that tend to disadvantage in-di research.

The problem with the kind of epistemic “Westphalian” thinking, however, is that it stifles important and groundbreaking work. Imagine a world in which it would be inconceivable to have fields such as economic history or biochemistry, simply because their intrinsic epistemic messiness is perceived as a threat to a static and institutionalized equilibrium of who’s doing what. A Westphalian approach to knowledge conflates the crucial distinction between an idea (or a thought, intuition, insight or observation) and the way(s) in which we are used to think about it. Ideas, of course, always come from somewhere, and disciplinary biographies certainly play an important role in that regard. But it does not mean, however, that they must always go (that is, be formulated and tested) in the same way. If they do, then we are no longer doing research, but rather simply playing out a script that has been written by others and upon which we have little influence. This practice may have many names, but “science” (in the sense of Wissenschaft, i.e. a systematic and dynamic inquiry) probably isn’t one of them.

* Having been “raised” in more than one academic discipline, most of my work is interdisciplinary by nature. However, having to use that word repeatedly in talks can be a true verbal torture. So, the solution that I found several years ago is to abbreviate “in-ter-di-scip-li-na-ri-ty” to “in-di”, which is much kinder on one’s productive flow of speech during oral presentations. It also makes a nice homophone with “indie” (e.g. in art, music, design) while sharing its spirit of independence and creativity, which is practically a prerequisite in good in-di research.

** IF 31.477, to be precise. The irony still makes me smile sometimes.