Interdisciplinarity versus structure and agency?

I have just applied to attend a research development workshop organized by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. They call it a Funding opportunity of particular interest to those working on loneliness, isolation, exclusion, alienation, marginalization, discrimination, conflict and extremism and low levels of civic participation and/or engagement

This sounds much more the sort of thing you would expect from the ESRC rather than the AHRC, but they are particularly interested in ‘creative’ approaches to working with ‘diverse’ communities  – which in turn got me thinking again about interdisciplinarity, one of the 21st century buzz-words in academia. The push towards interdisciplinarity is not a bad thing in itself but it does raise the question of who has what power to direct research in which directions, and to what extent these forces should be resisted.

Way back in 2009 I wrote a rather obscure and little-cited article about interdisciplinarity (reference below). It was based on my personal experience of working with people from different disciplines (social anthropologists, geographers, epidemiologists, economists, lawyers, and social policy researchers), and I concluded that not only did we learn to accommodate each other, we also learned from each other.

But, I was also at pains to emphasise that interdisciplinarity nevertheless requires disciplines (and discipline). I was in danger of becoming undisciplined in my work; I said then: ‘Most of all, I have not been able to make the most important contribution to my work that sociology can make – that is to ensure I include both macro- and micro-perspectives, overtly to consider both constraints and actions, or (to be more precise) to theorize the relationship between what individuals intend and mean and the culture and conditions within which their actions take place. I am afraid I thus have doubts about the limits of interdisciplinarity and wish to return to more discipline in my own work’ (p227). 

I think I have remedied that to some extent in my more recent work, but, as I start to engage with artists and designers in researching the social inclusiveness of arts projects, I thought I would take this opportunity to remind myself (and anyone else who might be listening), what a distinct and disciplined sociological perspective consists of. As I said:

To return to John Scott’s (2005a, 2005b) arguments, a disciplined sociology … is not just one or other position, conception, theory, approach or methodology. It is a culmination… of ideas, all of which together attempt to understand the social in terms of the inter- relationship of social actors and social structures… This work began with the foundational theorists, who separately conceived of the realm of the social in terms of, inter alia, a materialist conception of history (Marx), the existence of social facts sui generis (Durkheim), meaningful action (Weber) or emergent forms of social life (Simmel). It is continued in the work of more contemporary theorists who conceive of the social using, for example, a theory of practice (Bourdieu 1977), structuration theory (Giddens 1984), analytical dualism (Archer 1995), or strong structuration (Stones 2005). It is advanced by developing concepts, whose task it is to bridge the particular and the general, such as habitus and field (Bourdieu 1977, 1985), position practices (Bhaskar 1979), internalized structures (Stones 2005), performance and embodiment; or by resisting any ‘‘elision’’ of conditions, on the one hand, and actions, on the other (Archer 1995).’ (P228)

So, the question now is how to bring the sociological habitus to interdisciplinary work without ending up with too much of a fractured habitus…. 

O’Reilly, K 2009. ‘For interdisciplinarity and a disciplined, professional sociology’, Innovation. The European Journal of Social Science Research. 22(2): 219-232

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