On illusion of interdisciplinarity

Here is a link to two tweets by Prof. Trisha Greenhalgh in which she says that a journal has only a pre-determined list of keywords from which to choose. Needless to say, the keywords she would like to use are not on the list. I think the problem is, at least partly, to do with interdisciplinarity or, more accurately, its absence in Academia. The tweet inspired me to write the post I’ve been thinking about for some time.

To a considerable extent, interdisciplinarity, is the story of my research life. I always say I am a linguist (unless I say that I’m a Polish philologist), unfortunately, I operate  off the trodden path of linguistics.  I’ve never been particularly interested in what is often referred to as traditional or structuralist linguistics. Wonders of phonology or morphology have always eluded me and ever since my master’s thesis (which was on the model of space encoded in language and which was bought from me by my University), I’ve been interested in linguistics which draws from social anthropology, sociology, or philosophy (the last one is really a much unsuccessful venture for me, though).

And so, I started my linguistic journey by reading on anthropology of space, or later, in my doctoral dissertation, which was on how people boast, exploring issues of ingratiation or social taboo. At that time in Poland, however, linguists’ excursions outside the linguistic system were not encouraged, although they were not anathema. For interdisciplinarity meant dabbling in other disciplines, using the occasional concept, article or book. I quickly realised, however, that psychology from which I was drawing more than other disciplines (boasting, deception, identity) was completely uninterested in what I had to say, not even in saying I didn’t understand anything. I wasn’t particularly fussed about it, though, because what I was doing was still considered linguistics, at least by some.

But trouble was just round the corner. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ caught up with me when I presented my portfolio of work for the so-called state professorship  in Poland (the title of professor is conferred on an individual by the president of Poland). My latest book at the time was ‘Men and the Language of Emotions’ and, it seems, I tried the patience of my fellow Polish linguists enough. The board of an institute that was to recommend my candidacy for professorship debated for 18 months, continually concluding that what I was doing was not linguistics at all. Even though I analysed language, I analysed ‘wrong language’, so to say. Apparently, no self-respecting linguist analyses how men (or women for that matter) talk about their emotions; this is so obviously outside linguistics that I should not have bothered them at all. It might have been psychology (I asked psychologists and was told to shove off) or anthropology (who were equally unimpressed). After much kerfuffle, I eventually did get my professorship, but it was the first time I seriously started wondering about interdisciplinarity and what it meant.

The conclusions were not encouraging. Each discipline was interested in their own perspective and, absurdly, the purity of the discipline (yes, a genuine phrase). While they all were interested in interdisciplinarity very much, it was not much more than rhetoric. When push came to shove, interdisciplinary was happily defenestrated without a second thought. Still, things were not bad, linguists west of Poland were more understanding, I was still publishing, so my problem with interdisciplinarity was not acute.

Little did I know, things were about to get much worse and my belief in interdisciplinarity was to be undermined much further. About 10 or so years ago (time does fly!) I decided to write about men’s experience of depression. I was between book projects and I wrote to a former co-author of mine and suggested we write another book together. We talked and talked, came up with men’s depression and eventually decided to write our books separately. And so, I moved to the realm of clinical psychology and psychiatry. It turned out it’s a world I don’t really fit into; it is consumed by problems which I hadn’t thought about before. Like at all. Let me give you some examples.

The first, and apparently crucial issue which (just about) everybody in the Psy-World (part of the larger Med-World universe) is concerned with is the war between qualitative or quantitative research. Yes, it’s not a discussion – it’s war. I must admit that before I ventured into psychology, I had barely been aware of the conflict and so, I was not fully au fait with its arguments. Now, I am expertly familiar with all the arguments which, I suggest, boil down to both sides saying something like:

We know better. Do research the way we do or we’ll never countenance it, let alone publish it.

Of course, second, those who see the futility of such an argument, want to end it by saying that the division is not that important, as what is really important is that research be good, regardless of how it’s done. Of course, one should never be taken in by this. This is because, however good qualitative research is, the number crunchers are still uninterested in it, while the story-tellers still don’t want to hear about qualitative research which is not done ‘their way’.

So, the quantitative perspective can be exemplified by the keyword problem suggested by Trisha Greenhalgh, which I’ve encountered myself as well. Of course, we welcome qualitative research, except there are no keywords which describe your research. And so, I had a paper desk-rejected on the basis of wrong keywords assigned to the paper. Yes, it’s completely absurd, yes, it’s completely idiotic, but hey, we’ve got plenty submissions even without your stupid paper.

Somewhat surprisingly, it’s actually similar with qualitative research. For example, discourse analysis is a possible method, but only done a la Foucault (I don’t want to be disparaging, but I’m yet to see a ‘Foucauldian analysis’ which doesn’t consist in making statements with hardly any evidence), thematic analysis, or IPA. Linguistic DA? Please, go away, you really don’t know how to do ‘proper’ qualitative research, which is how we do it. (And when, like me, you fall between all the possible cracks and neither number crunchers nor story tellers want to know about what you do, you’re in trouble.)

The third example I want to give is most absurd I think. When I started reading psychiatry and psychology, I was very encouraged to see that both disciplines were fairly interested in language. I have much to say to them, I thought. And I could not have been more wrong. They (is it you?) don’t really want to know. You say that the distinction between open and closed questions doesn’t really make much sense communicatively, you’re looked at like you had just come from outer space. You say that it makes no sense to focus only on lexical material, apparently everybody knows that. And then focuses on the ‘bad words’ and ‘good words’.

Context? Bloody hell, of course, everybody in psychiatry and psychology knows about context. They live and breathe context. Which, of course, doesn’t prevent them from saying that the word ‘love’ must  necessarily be positive and the word ‘anger’ must be necessarily negative. And that suicide notes refer to love as the reason for suicidal death? Oh well, presumably, they should stop. You say that medical language has its uses, that probably means you haven’t seen light, yet.

No, the Psy-World isn’t really interested what linguistics has to say about language. The Psy-World knows better. In fact, it knows much better and doesn’t need any bloody linguists to tell them anything, thank you very much. Exaggerated? Probably, but not too much.

And so, I come to the point of this post. My excursion into what turned out to be a parallel universe, which concerns itself with problems I had not thought of, reassured me in my thinking that interdisciplinarity is just about impossible. Well, it’s very very difficult. Does it matter? No, not so much. Those who practice it keep finding a way…So, my post, really, is just getting my frustration with the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity off my chest. And also say that when I hear of transdisciplinarity and other such X-disciplinarities, I sometimes have a fit of laughter. It’s like we haven’t yet managed to put the foundations of the house, but are already talking about smart systems in it.


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