What makes an -ologist, -osopher, -ographer?

What, for instance, makes one an anthropologist? A geographer? A philosopher? A scientist?

Scene 1:

As chair of a search committee looking to hire a political ecologist, a tenure-track position to be shared between a Geography department and an Environmental Studies program, I’ve been involved in intensive discussion of what would make one enough of a geographer for the job. We are open to interdisciplinarians, and a lot of environmental anthropologists and other social scientists have applied — understandably, given how the field of political ecology has been evolving — but the person will be required to teach some geography courses and to successfully navigate their review/promotion/tenure career in the Geography Department.

What we seem to be settling on is something like “experience or a very clear capacity to teach introductory geography courses, and clear indication of experience and participation in the development of geographic concepts, theoretical approaches, associations, etc.” So if you’re not a geographer but have gone to an AAG and had a publication in Society and Space, you just might be alright by us. (But not necessarily by others.)

Scene 2:

As a participant in the 1st General Assembly of World Anthropologists to Support Occupy Wall Street and Associated Movements, held on November 17 in Montreal as part of the American Anthropological Association annual meeting, and peripherally involved in the listserv that emerged out of it, I find myself asking “Am I enough of an anthropologist to be part of this?” Is it appropriate for me to be a member of a group dedicated to “occupying anthropology”?

I am a member of the AAA and attend its meetings from time to time, use ethnographic methods in my work (sometimes), interact with and even publish alongside anthropologists. Given the sorts of theoretical questions that abound in anthropology, I find it one of the more exciting disciplines  around. But I have no degrees in the field, and if push came to shove, I’d have to admit that I’m an interloper.

Scene 3:

As a faculty member at a school dedicated to the study of “environment and natural resources” and dominated by natural scientists, with a strong minority of social scientists and perhaps one-and-a-half humanists, I often find myself querying the definition of science that’s taken for granted by the majority.

There is a world of difference, for instance, between characterizing our School as one made up of “scientists and social scientists” as opposed to one of “natural and social scientists.” The first presupposes a science that does not include social science, making the latter a strange hybrid. The second presumes a science where the natural (physical and life) sciences, with their paradigmatic transparency and order, and the social sciences, with their paradigmatic unruliness, are both considered normative, at least within their own worlds.

But where does either characterization leave the humanities, whose practitioners, “humanists,” might even be as non-anthropocentric (non-capital-h-Humanist) as humans can get?

These are the kinds of questions interdisciplinarians — such as those coming out of doctoral programs in environmental studies, science studies, women’s and gender studies, American studies, History of Consciousness (capitalized because there’s only one place I’m aware of that grants Ph.D.’s in it, UC Santa Cruz), and other fields like these — find themselves grappling with all the time. They strike at the very essence of what constitutes interdisciplinary scholarship.

Aspiring grad students often ask me about this sort of thing when they are starting to think about their future employment prospects. My general response is that if you want to be an interdisciplinarian, it doesn’t hurt to have a disciplinary home or two you can retreat to when the going gets tough, like the ecological refugia where species protect themselves in a glacial onslaught. And some such homes are more welcoming than others. (Geography, for instance, is infinitely more embracing of us environmental sorts than, say, philosophy.)

You are, however, more likely to get hired (if you’re hired at all) by an interdisciplinary program than a disciplinary one. So it would help if you identified the interdisciplinary niches you could fill, and make them several (for instance, environmental studies, science and technology studies, women’s studies, and so on). Interdisciplinarians like and easily recognize other interdisciplinarians.

But realize also that there’s discipline to interdisciplinarity, if it’s to be done well. There’s a science to border crossing and to the cross-fertilization of ideas, methods, and practices. There’s a real craft to the sort of skillful movement across boundaries that generates results not only somewhere out there at (or beyond) the frontiers, but also in the disciplinary trenches where most research gets done.

There was a discussion recently on a listserv I’m on about Morris Berman, who I’ve always thought of as a kind of American countercultural version of a Michel Foucault, but one who lacked the pedigree or support of the French or the American scholarly establishments to make it big the way Foucault did. As a result, his scholarship ended up falling mainly on deaf ears, or in fields well outside traditional academe. (And, as a result, perhaps, he moved away from the radical implications of his own work toward the darkly pessimistic but less generative and provocative  critique of American empire that has characterized his last few books.)

How does one take on the history of the human mind-body relationship, as Berman attempted in his first trilogy, when most academics don’t even recognize that there is such a history, that it’s not just a taken-for-granted, unchanging sort of relationship? That’s where Foucault succeeded in making an impact, and Berman for the most part did not. But his work ought to be taken up again, because in among the interdisciplinary threads, loosely tangled together and frayed at the edges as they are, Berman was onto some wonderful insights. More on that in a future post, perhaps.

All of that aside, the question that opens this post is intended to raise a broader question of the virtue and value of all of these disciplinary (and disciplining) categories in themselves. An -ologist is presumably someone who knows what is to be known (the logos) in a given field. An -ographer is one who can write (graphein) or communicate in the  language of a given field. And an -osopher is one who is wise in the ways of a given field.

But not quite. “Philosophy” has things a little backward in the order of its terms: it refers to the love (philo-) of wisdom (sophia), not to the knowledge/wisdom of love. By this backwards logic, “sophophilia” would be that wisdom of love. And a geographer, if we were precise, would be an earth-writer or earth-describer (geo-graphein), while earth-knowledge would be reserved for geologists. When Thomas Berry called himself a “geologian,” he was slyly revising his previous coat-hook as a theologian to make the point that God and Ge(o-) are one. Berry was, if anything, a Geosophist and a Geophile. Combining the two, of course, we get geophilosophy. Is there discipline in that? (Don’t judge by this blog.)

Disciplining oneself can be a matter of taking on the constraints of a certain rubric of rules and practices. Seen as a practice, a pragmatic means toward a processually articulated goal, there is nothing wrong with it. One takes it on, and at the end of the day one sheds it, flexes one’s muscles and measures the changes that have occurred, then moves laterally on to an altogether different terrain.

This is the joy of being interdisciplinarian. Which, when encompassed within a single individual’s work, also means being transdisciplinarian. Being a disciplinary tranny. Being as much at home in extra- or a-disciplinary realities as in thoroughly disciplined terrains, those through which one passes while retaining not the brittleness of the disciplines learned but only their enabling capacities.

But this is also the loneliness of being interdisciplinary, since your companions are not likely to move along with you across the same junctures and boundaries. They won’t be carrying (or forging) quite the same passports and visas as you. They may not embrace the joys of a musculature that’s different from their own (though if they’re intellectual trannies, they will at least get it).

Play along, and get good at it, but keep moving, and root yourself only in the wilderness of reality. There is discipline to that, just as there is to -ologies, -ographies, and -osophies. And to -ophily, too, which is the love of it all. For us non-philosophers, it’s all philosophy. (Or sophophily, if you prefer.)


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