Despite the increasingly encouraging calls for interdisciplinary research, interdisciplinary life is more than working with different backgrounds. In this week’s PhD Life post, Aya Nassar describes her thoughts on being an interdisciplinary PhD researcher…
My favourite imagination of academia comes from Edward Said, the key post-colonial scholar. In an article about inhabiting academia he says:
‘…we should regard knowledge as something for which to risk identity, and we should think of academic freedom as an invitation to give up on identity in the hope of understanding and perhaps even assuming more than one. We must always view the academy as a place to voyage in, owning none of it but at home everywhere in it.’ (p.17)
I love it because Said suggests that instead of us viewing academia as a space where we excel and master a discipline, it could be a space that promises us wonder (and wandering), a space for travelling, traversing, taking risks and even experiencing estrangement. Instead of being professional academics worried and concerned about establishing our legitimate expertise, we could embark on the no less serious quest of academic travelling:
‘Most of all, and most unlike the potentate who must guard only one place and defend its frontiers, the traveler crosses over, traverses territory, and abandons fixed positions, all the time. To do this with dedication and love as well as a realistic sense of the terrain is, I believe, a kind of academic freedom at its highest’ (p. 17).
One way we could understand this seductive promise of travelling is what is now the catchphrase ‘interdisciplinary research’. Our institutions and funding organizations and even multiple calls for papers repeatedly tell us, young researchers and academics, that it is a good thing to do. Nevertheless, I find that inhabiting an interdisciplinary academic life entails taking more profound risks – that are nevertheless still rewarding – than teaming up with colleagues from different departments. It risks as Said tells us being comfortable with giving up identity and venturing to unlearn what we know, and to understand and learn from other people and other places. I feel that by taking the experimental sense of wonderment that Said suggests we adopt, we enter in a relationship with knowledge that is open to continuous negotiation and re-scripting of who we think we are.
I remember when I first decided to write about ‘the city’ in a department of politics. I would get reactions that seem to be suddenly surprised, or taken back, because I am researching something that was not – in that institution – a common topic on the agenda of research. It wasn’t particularly new and I didn’t invent a complicated or bizarre topic of research, I only borrowed it from sister disciplines of urban sociology and geography. We use the word ‘city’ in our everyday language, we increasingly live in cities as most statistics tell us, and we experience ‘cityness’ every day. Yet in the academic world I inhabited it would have been more natural if I said ‘political parties’, or ‘political systems’ because these were part of the common language of the discipline. These reactions of surprise never failed to remind me that no matter how prepared I was to explain the relevance or importance of my research as I saw it, to do interdisciplinary research entails taking risks. It probably entails taking distances from the group of colleagues and peers with whom we have studied and learned so hard to create a shared world of meaning, conventions, and rituals of understanding in our specific disciplines. By venturing into bringing in something ‘else’ we travel, as well as disrupt the familiar world that had given us the comfort of shared interest and purpose. It follows that inter-disciplinary research can indeed become very lonely, particularly in a PhD.
We have to spend more time, and effort thinking about places and spaces of belonging. We might find ourselves in continuous modes of translating our research to the different audiences we need to engage, we might need to be kind and faithful to what we think is a liberating, adventurous, honest, or necessary mode of telling the academic story we need to tell. We might sometimes enjoy the un-disciplinary adventure of lack of mastery, and learning from other places, other departments, and other literatures. But we might also have to resist falling into the trap of claiming a mastery, expertise, and fixed identity that we might have set out to dismantle from the very beginning. This I find is the most difficult aspect of all!
Over to you, what are the most challenging aspect you find in interdisciplinary research? How do you think about overcoming them? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at email@example.com, or leave a comment below.
Aya Nassar is a PhD student in the department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS), Warwick University. Her research is on cities, space, and the politics of the Middle East. She tweets at @A_M_Nassar.