The Rachel Carson Center’s Minding the Gap: Working Across Disciplines in Environmental Studies has come out (in PDF and MOBI formats). It includes pieces by Gregg Mitman, Rob Nixon, SueEllen Campbell, John Meyer, Basarab Nicolescu, and others.
My piece, “The Discipline of Interdisciplines” (pp. 11-13), is intended as something of a collective statement from my generation (the first generation) of ES doctoral graduates. (Apologies for being so bold, but no one else has done it, to my knowledge, so I thought I’d try.)
I’m sharing it below.
The Discipline of Interdiscipline
Training in a discipline is a honing of skills comparable to any craft—like that involved, say, in running a farm. One masters the tools and learns the routines. One gains a feel for the soil, the moisture, the weather, the signs and clues coming from one’s animals, and in the process internalizes the daily, seasonal, and annual round of activities. One comes to inhabit those skills, background assumptions, and tacit knowledges in ways that reshape one’s very demeanor, posture, gait, and sensibility.
For such a farmer, a sedentary knowledge-maker, interdisciplinarity is a walk in the mountainous woods separating one’s cultivated plain from another’s. Or it is something even more foreign—perhaps the nomadic movement of traders setting off on journeys or meeting in ports, where goods will be exchanged and prices negotiated, but where food is now a product, a currency, not one’s lifeblood (or that of one’s animals).
One could wander by chance into interdisciplinary woods. But just as one cannot successfully cultivate a field one just happened to wander into, so is interdisciplinarity nothing without its methods, skills, and knowledges. Interdisciplinary fields—area studies, urban studies, ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, environmental studies, cultural studies, semiotics, science and technology studies, global studies, complexity theory, sustainability science, and others—arise when new problems have emerged and the old tools no longer suffice for addressing them. New toolkits and sheds must be built before they can become “homes” for new trainees (and those homes may never be as comfortable as the disciplinary ones, into which the interdisciplinarian may gaze longingly from the outside).
My graduate training came from an institution of environmental interdisciplinarity. The Faculty of Environmental Studies at Toronto’s York University was a school that had been formed by a quirky assemblage of geographers, urban planners, environmental philosophers, organizational managers, and natural scientists in 1970, during the heyday of the first environmental revolution. My master’s and doctoral defense committees included a cultural anthropologist, a human geographer, a sociologist of media and culture, a political scientist turned geographer, a filmmaker-philosopher-naturalist, a biologist turned ecophilosopher, and an Allende-era Chilean socialist politician turned political ecologist. None of them began as an “environmental studies scholar,” so it was up to my generation—the first to graduate with environmental studies PhDs in North America—to define what it means to be one.
We defined it through a process not too different from the one that forms disciplines: trial, error, and the messy bricolage of collective self-fashioning. Making our way through North American academe, we learned to pay attention to disciplinary boundaries and maps. We learned to compare these maps and negotiate our ways between them, to probe the disjunctions between one map and another, and between the maps and the territories they ostensibly referred to. It was these territories, after all—the “real world” of (in our case) socioecological problems—that prompted the birth of our interdiscipline.
But being an effective interdisciplinarian, we realized, required even more discipline to be effective—and to communicate effectively, and convincingly, to and between other disciplines. It required learning the methods, crafts, rules of conduct, and modes of existence (as Bruno Latour calls them) of not one discipline, but several. It required learning the skills of translation—the habitus of the ethnographer of academe. It required skill in seeing how concepts, methods, and tools travel across domains, and how they could be bent to travel more smoothly.
Environmental scholarship—of the sort that might effectively tackle the complex, multiscalar problems we identify as “environmental” today—is inherently interdisciplinary at its outset, if not transdisciplinary (since it is rooted in and actively responds to real world affairs). But this interdisciplinarity is not some supplement grafted onto a set of primary homes called disciplines. Rather, it is paradoxically the best name we have for a practice of knowledge-making that is hybrid at its origins. Knowledge is bricolage; it is an understanding of things that draws on methods and practices that did not begin as a standardized set of disciplinary measures, but only became so over time. Knowledge is always “inter,” always between: between the knower and the known, but also between the knower and other knowers, including those who know things differently, knowers in the past who have shaped our knowledge, and future knowers to whom we direct our efforts. Disciplined knowledge becomes “trans” when a leap between levels or discourses becomes necessary: between academe and the “real world,” or between a paradigm being questioned and a new one that is called for.
The question for me is as much “when should environmental scholarship become inter-(or trans-) disciplinary?” as it is “when should environmental scholarship remain firmly rooted within a single discipline?” In the face of the environmental crisis, perhaps the onus should be on the disciplines to reassert their value. There is no doubt in my mind that historians, philosophers, classicists, literary and art scholars, and others bring much value to environmental scholarship. Some of their labor can certainly be carried out in the traditional confines of disciplinary discourse, for that is where disciplinary tools are refined and strengthened. But some of what they do ought to be done with others—across boundaries dividing disciplines and even those separating academe from lived reality. It need not be obligatory to abandon our ships to swim in the tempestuous currents of transdisciplinary seas. But disciplinarity and transdisciplinarity ought to be seen as the two faces—the inward gaze and the outward gaze— that shape the ways we make, negotiate, and question our knowledge, and the ways we constitute our common world.