Multidisciplinarity or Encroachment

In the Eyes of the Turf-Holder?

How to Cite

Mason, F. (2004). Multidisciplinarity or Encroachment: In the Eyes of the Turf-Holder?. M/C Journal, 7(2).
Vol. 7 No. 2 (2004): Turf
Published 2004-03-01

“Interdisciplinarity” and “multidisciplinarity” are buzz-words indicating one of the main directions in which the academy is currently proceeding. As one example, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) includes multidisciplinarity as one of its six funding objectives. Under the “Standard Research Grants” program, SSHRC lists the objective to “foster and develop vigorous collaborative, multidisciplinary research activities among researchers in the social sciences and humanities” (n.pag.). Of course, this is not simply a Canadian phenomenon—institutes of higher education all over the world are endorsing the ideas of cross-disciplinary fertilization and interdisciplinarity as the path for the future. Certain tensions accompany this move, most particularly a concern for the maintenance of disciplinary boundaries. SSHRC objectives reflect this tension as well. Another SHRRC objective is to “maintain and develop vigorous disciplinary research activities” which requires the maintenance of disciplinary boundaries to some extent. Scholars within different disciplines in the social sciences and humanities have reacted with varying degrees of enthusiasm to the drive for inter/multidisciplinarity, ranging from enthusiastic approbation to outright hostility. This paper details the experiences of one scholar, myself, whose attempts at multidisciplinarity received more, and less, favourable responses from different disciplines with which he came into contact, and relates these responses to the disciplines’ attitudes toward multidisciplinarity and perceived needs for protection of their academic turf.

This article draws primarily from multidisciplinarity rather than interdisciplinarity; a full treatment of the latter would require consideration of collaborative work by scholars in multiple disciplines. The disciplines I consider here include sociology, media and communication studies, English language and literature, and history. I turn to experiences at conferences and in graduate courses, and to correspondence with book and journal editors in writing this article. I am not suggesting mine is a universal experience, but I believe it makes a useful case study. I come to the social sciences and humanities disciplines as somewhat of an outsider. Although I possess an undergraduate degree in sociology, I undertook my graduate training within kinesiology departments, with a Masters in sport sociology, and a doctorate in sport history. I have been required to take the majority of my graduate courses outside of kinesiology, delving mostly into the offerings of history and sociology departments. Over the past seven years, I have attended and presented at conferences devoted to history, sociology, sport history and sport sociology, medical history, military history, communications, and “socialist studies.”

In my experience, sociology is the discipline most open to multidisciplinarity and work from outside scholars. Likely, this is in part because sociology tends to borrow theories from a wide range of other areas, and the field itself encompasses a variety of perspectives. Certainly, there have always been attempts to define a single, coherent approach to society, such as Marx’s theories early in the discipline’s history, and, recently, Anthony Giddens’s ideas about structuration, circa 1984. Despite this emphasis upon unity and coherence, any introductory text to the field reveals several different approaches to social phenomena. Taken as a whole, sociology remains relatively tolerant of the different approaches taken by scholars under its banner, and to multidisciplinary endeavours: when you perceive the whole social world as your turf, outside perspectives are none too threatening.

Generally, I have received two sorts of responses from the field of media and communication studies. Scholars interested in the topic of sport and the media have been interested in multidisciplinary overtures and greatly assisted my research endeavours. Scholars who are not interested in sport-related topics often simply ignore my work, or, on rare occasions, treated it with disdain. I do not read these varying responses as an indicator of a dislike for multidisciplinarity or as a form of turf protection. Media and communication scholars often take a multidisciplinary approach. As David Crowley and David Mitchell write, “If contemporary studies of communication exhibit a widening diversity of approaches, in part this phenomenon sends a signal about the discovery of communication and media issues by other areas of scholarship, with the resulting cross-talk” (2). At the source of this, therefore, lies an internal debate over what constitutes appropriate research topics in a field with an expanding research base rather than a resistance to outside dialogue. In this sense, these responses suggest an intradisciplinary rather than inter-disciplinary turf war.

My few forays into the discipline of English literature have produced the same result. I have been ignored by conference organisers and book and journal editors to whom I made submissions , receiving, in most cases, no response. I suggest several possible reasons for this:

1) Quality—My submissions fail to meet a perceived standard, or, being an outsider, I am missing some nuance in the disciplinary approach.

2) Content—Despite my work relating sport to other disciplines, those disciplines may not consider sport related topics as being of serious scholarly interest. However, not all my work in this area is readily identifiable as a sport-related topic.

3) Practicalities—The editors and conference organisers are so inundated with submissions that they pick from within their discipline first.

4) Protection—A certain amount of turf protection is occurring. Reserving conference and publication slots for those situated within the discipline preserves the traditional research areas and prevents outsiders from encroaching into them.

Reasons 3 and 4, above, seem the most plausible explanations. Realistically, English language and literature is one of the largest disciplines within the humanities, so “promoting from within” is only a sensible survival strategy. Furthermore, opening the traditional base of the discipline (writing and literature) to scholars from outside disciplines arguably might erode the academic turf upon which the discipline has always stood. This protectionism is somewhat ironic in that, as Keith Windschuttle notes, scholars within the English/literary studies area have been the group who have most widely ranged over the other traditional humanities and social sciences—such as history and philosophy, in the last three decades (16-19). Multidisciplinarity is possible: for example, the small but congenial Sport Literature Association comprises scholars from English departments and kinesiology/physical education departments in equal measures. However, my concern is that such cross-disciplinary connection will likely only occur for the time being in marginal topic areas like sport literature.

In the discipline of history, I have met both the strongest supporters of multidisciplinarity and its staunchest opponents. Curiously, I did not encounter the fiercest resistance among the “old guard” of the profession, but instead among graduate students who firmly held to visions of objective historians searching for truth. In addition to being a legitimate historiographical viewpoint, graduate student support for disciplinary boundaries and traditional norms may represent a means of group affiliation and a strategy of personal academic survival.

Many historians who operate in areas where they deal intimately with practitioners, such as medical and military history, openly welcome outside scholars. However, within the mainstream of the discipline, I have encountered scholars who believe that anyone not trained in a traditional historical method should not be researching historical topics. This relates to two turf wars for history, one within the discipline and one waged on outside scholars. Within history, scholars who believe the traditional notion of objective, positivistic research are fighting against newer methods largely borrowed from other disciplines. Several historians wrote books on this topic in the 1980s and 1990s, including Peter Novick’s well-balanced That Noble Dream (1988) and Norman F. Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages (1991), the latter filled with ad hominem attacks on anyone not following the tradition. The second turf war is a rear-guard action against outside scholars who began to write on historical topics over the last three decades, a turf war represented by such books as Richard Evans’s In Defence of History (1997) and Windschuttle’s more vociferous The Killing of History (1994). Scholars engaged in this battle argue that they are not only protecting their academic turf, but preserving the life of their discipline.

In my experience, the disciplines of English literature and history are less open to multidisciplinarity than either sociology or communication studies. This reflects the traditional stance of the disciplines, but it may also be due, in part, to the recent change in the status of these disciplines within the university environment. Fifty years ago, history and English were central departments in any university, but with recent stresses on multidisciplinarity, commercialization and the scientific fields, their centrality has eroded. This highlights an inherent danger that accompanies multidisciplinarity—the erosion of individual disciplines. Multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary endeavours attract funding and attention, but they blur disciplinary boundaries and may ultimately affect the status of different disciplines in the academic sphere. Depending on the discipline, and allowing for national and regional variation, multidisciplinarity may be taken as an opportunity, or as encroachment by outsiders. Disciplines, departments and individual scholars need to determine their own stance on the issue, and negotiate their position between these two poles.

Author Biography

Fred Mason