Sunday, December 13, 2015

'Mainly' anthropologist: the journey of an interdisplinarist in a non-interdisciplinary world

When schmoozing and networking, I introduce myself as an anthropologist. That makes sense. I have attended seven courses in Anthropology, wrote my MA thesis in Anthropology, and now am writing my quite anthropological thesis based on my ethnographic fieldwork. By far, Anthropology is the language I speak and the questions that I ask about the world are very anthropological. In the course of their training, all academics get by necessity indoctrinated in the axioms and terminology of their discipline. By that token, I am at most ease talking to other anthropologists: we share the same theoretical and methodological base that enables a meaningful qualitative argument (see, anthropologists don't really use regression analysis or p-values to prove their points).

At the same time, I have done more than that. I have taken courses and research method seminars in History, Political Science, Sociology, Cultural Studies, Psychology, Psychosocial Studies, Art History, Linguistics, Studies of Religions, and even Cross-Cultural Management and Quantitative Methods. Each time I sincerely and earnestly went "local" and, by a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, assumed their epistemological claims to be true. The expected and oft achieved result was of the kind that Evans-Pritchard got after living with the Azande and studying their belief system: it all makes sense from within the system. Up to a point, however. The leap of faith, the effort to acknowledge what you see (e.g., another academic discipline) for what it is, is a conscious effort to suspend your judgement just for a while. Eventually, however, the Doubt - one of the great propelling forces of Science - creeps in. Warts, patches and chinks in the armour come to light. You still see the merits and strong points, but not with the starry-eyed naïveté of a full-on convert.

To illustrate the point I'm trying to drive home here, I often recur to the tale of an elephant and the six blind men of Hindustan. When they came across the animal one sunny day, they all tried to figure out what it was like by touching it. Each one assumed that it was like the part that he touched. Each one was, effectively, neither completely right, nor completely wrong: knowing well one part of the beast, but not really its ontological entirety. That is how the various branches of science operate: they know a lot about one particular part or aspect they chose to focus on, but next to none about other parts and aspects. They often do not even suspect that the elephant actually exists and is bigger than any of its constituent parts.

I feel like my blindfold has fallen a bit. I don't claim to know everything about the elephant, but at least I know that what I know is far from perfect. I also have had glimpses of the whole picture. In broader terms of the philosophy of science (shame it is not even part of most PhD courses!), this elephant metaphor is situated at a very particular place in the history of the Western scientific project.

The way I see the "academic condition" in our time is that we have moved along the (modified) Fichtean triad from the Cartesian Thesis: "what happens if we assess reality only with oursenses?", to the Modernist Analysis, where we have classified the world into multitudes of competing taxonomies consisting of neat(ish) and handy dichotomies, and now finally to the Post-Modernist Critique, where it has dawned on (some of) us that the taxonomies and dichotomies are but imperfect mental tools, and are not reality. At this point, however, science has faltered for a while: the Post-Modernist debate has largely degraded into the increasingly abstruse debates that mostly resemble spectacularly prolific projectile verbal vomiting. There are still departments and faculties organised alongside Modernist divisions, and also those organised around various brands of Post-Modern  critique. All of them keep getting increasingly specialised (the phenomenon known as academic tribalisation) getting sort of hyphenated identities: the Anthropology of Tourism, Environmental History, the Studies of Yoga and Meditation, let alone the Critical Studies of Medieval Korean Pottery. (Ok, just taking the piss with the last one here, by no means to look down on the ever-rising professional finesse of the actual sub-disciplines). Essentially, however, instead of trying to assemble a holistic picture of the elephant, we got on with specialising in the ever smaller bits of it, while a vociferous minority of Post-Modernists, Post-Colonialists, Literary Criticists, Feminists and such, keep decrying all research results, past and present, in increasingly abstract terms. The critical bunch analyse the socks off the Modernist analysis, while the adepts of the latter, in their turn, analyse the output of the former. This way we're not getting anywhere remotely close  to the final destination of the Fichtean triad, the Synthesis, where the concerned parties would come to understand the entirety of the methaphorical elephant. Diagnosis: analysis paralysis. I won't even go on with any graphic allusive metaphors to the overflow of the cognate 'anal' in this discourse. In psychiatry, however, this level of hyper-reflexivity - thinking, then thinking about thinking, then thinking about thinking about thinking, etc. ad nauseam - is commonly exhibited in schizophrenia. I'm saying no more.

Back to my academic affiliation and  sense of disciplinary belonging. Academically, I'm an anthropologically grounded generalist, a Jack of many trades, a master of a couple. I humbly see myself as a kind of, so to speak, God's vessel for the good of the Synthesis stage in science. I'm quite certain that there are others like me out there, probably, increasingly so. However, I'm yet to meet one.  

That is the case also because, to make my eclectic professional stance even more interesting, bureaucratically, I'm affiliated not with the Department of Anthropology but with the only supposedly interdisciplinary centre in my very non-interdisciplinary university. The centre too, in fact, has turned out to be anything but. I have chaired a panel and then presented a paper at what was supposed to be interdisciplinary conferences but they turned out to be 'this-and-that-disciplinary' rather than anything coherent theoretically or methodologically. Last few years, I have often felt like a motherless child, having to find my own course in the vast ocean of science. I do have a sense of purpose and direction, but it still does feel like a very lonely journey. 

But there's still hope. Coincidentally, while writing this piece, I decided to do what I always recommend my students: google around.  And this is what I've come across:  King's Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Centre KISS DTC. I shall try my luck there and tell you about the outcome.

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