David McGillivray

Professor, interested in events, culture, digital participation & sport.

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Interdisciplinarity and the PhD process

Recently I had the pleasure of being invited to contribute to a fantastic vlog (video blogs!) series hosted by Tara Brabazon, Dean of Graduate Research and Professor of Cultural Studies at Flinders University. She invited me to talk about the possibilities and pitfalls of interdisciplinary research and the results of this discussion are available to watch in this vlog.

In preparing for this vlog, I returned to my own doctoral student experience, in particular the reflective piece  I include in my final thesis. Here are some extracts that summarise what vein an interdisciplinary researcher meant to me, and I’m sure many of these points will chime with current doctoral students, and perhaps some tenured academic staff too!

 The choice of Michel Foucault as the principal theorist in the development of this work serves several purposes. Indeed, his intellectual preoccupations with power, discipline, the body, governance and organisations fit well with my own primary academic concerns. However, his approach to the world of academia per se also sits comfortably with my own uncertainties over the status of multi-disciplinary ‘academics’ (albeit many view these terms as incongruous). Foucault himself continuously rejected others’ attempts to label his work, to locate him in a particular bounded, coherent academic tradition. In many ways, multi-disciplinary scholars face similar problems (or opportunities?) emanating from their rejection of (or rejection from) single discipline academic investigations.

What is your area of expertise they ask? These questions normally emanate from a concern with legitimacy, from an appreciation that recognised bodies of knowledge are (and have been from the seventeenth century) tied by some ‘rules’ to particular modern academic disciplines. In his writing, Foucault sought to problematise the construction, maintenance and reinforcement of these particular ways of knowing, seeing and doing. In the Archaeology of Knowledge and the Order of Things among others he detailed meticulously the construction of particular knowledge bases, opening them up for interrogation, so as to allow the possibility of knowing otherwise, of ‘being’ differently in the world. He considered the conditions of possibility and enlightened us to the ways in which knowledge is anything but neutral or objective – and is instead infused by power. For Foucault, knowledge has no fixed ontological anchors and only by accepting this can we move forwards and create the space to think differently. As a result of these unpopular views, he has been accused (though this can be read as a compliment) of simply being concerned with undermining, acting as the precocious child at a party (Kendall and Wickham, 1999). But, as with the precocious child, these challenges to accepted academic wisdom often found an unwelcome audience. I suggest that the challenges posed by the peripheral figure of the multi-disciplinary scholar are similarly unwelcome, invariably swatted away by legitimate disciplinary experts. Additionally, by interiorising his or her own subordination, the multi-disciplinarian merely strengthens the dominant ‘Other’.

In my brief taste of academic life, I have already endured several legitimation crises as a scholar in a multi-disciplinary area of study. Such crises are amplified when one embarks upon doctoral studies, which invade the territories of others and dance within the blurred distinctions between discipline specific areas (i.e. medicine, organisation studies, leisure studies). Perhaps I am in the fortunate position of being able to look in from the outside, to reflect critically upon the status of knowledge, the limits of particular ways of thinking, especially of those epistemes enshrined within traditional academic disciplines. On the other hand, if I consider my own experiences in writing a doctoral thesis in the absence of a discipline-specific ‘grounding’, then being part of an academic community seemingly secure, certain and confident about the knowledge base concomitant with their discipline area seems attractive. Comparisons with the multi-disciplinary academic constantly searching for legitimacy within this community – trapped in a space of aporia with no ultimate exit point – can easily explain the allure of this exclusive club to its potential members.

However, notwithstanding this depiction of the uncertain, insecure, transient existence of the multi-disciplinary scholar, there is a more optimistic portrayal of the displaced multi-disciplinarian. This perspective locates the multi-disciplinary academic in a privileged position, working outside the boundaries (and constraints) of a single discipline and able to subvert the rules imposed upon academics within that structure. In this sense, multi-disciplinary scholars are given creative license to experiment with new approaches, to go out on a limb in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be called to account for their actions by a recognisable subject peer group. The world is their oyster, as long as they expect little in the way of acceptance from their single discipline-specific colleagues.

In claiming to contribute to (or problematise the construction of) knowledge of organisational wellness – itself an emerging (reified) area of academic investigation – I have faced many of the dilemmas alluded to above. Those to whom I spoke were generally welcoming of the freshness that an alternative approach to enquiry brought to their own specialism. It is worth documenting some of the lessons to be learnt from a task of this sort. Firstly, in approaching doctoral studies from a first degree in an interdisciplinary area, the development of a conceptual framework was more problematic than it might have otherwise been for a single discipline student (e.g. sociology). As a result, the tendency is for the ‘issue’ or the topic to occupy the mind to the detriment of the conceptual development of the work. This leaves the student in a position of weakness, as the absence of a clear framework to direct methodological preoccupations induces insecurity. Immersion in a conceptual terrain (in this case Foucauldian) provided a focus, a way of seeing, of conceptualising the topic. So, rather than being led by observations, by the empirical, I was more able to frame my investigations in a coherent theoretical terrain.

The point about conceptual development links to my second main lesson learnt – student empowerment in the research process. In the early stages I lacked the necessary assertiveness and confidence to take control of the research process, instead tending to acquiesce rather than intervene when the direction of the thesis was not to my liking. In overcoming this, I regained control of my own destiny and was able to manage my studies much more effectively. This also enhanced my relationship with the supervision team, as I was more able to convince them of the appropriateness of my ideas. This was also facilitated by a change of supervision arrangements, introducing the necessary sociological expertise to counsel on the conceptual integrity of the work.

In summary, what I want to point out here is that if you’re a multi- or interdisciplinary doctoral student he path towards your ultimate goal is unlikely to be straightforward, comfortable or without the experience of legitimacy crises. However, the academic landscape is changing and interdisciplinary work is now being rewarded by funding councils, research excellence exercises and publishers. Stick with it and you’ll prevail!

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David McGillivray • June 22, 2017


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