What are disciplines?

I’ve entered the Connecting Epistemologies project as an inherently interdisciplinary researcher. I started my intellectual journey as a historian, then went onto study town planning, which is inherently interdisciplinary, before finding myself doing a PhD in policy analysis/political science and now I’ve ended up being a lecturer in social policy. A winding journey across epistemologies and methodologies.

Town planning and social policy are both interesting disciplines because they are both, arguably, quite UK-specific (social policy more so than town planning, probably) and also defined by the profession they’re attached to. As this paper by Pendlebury and Davoudi on town planning highlights, much of planning’s early history as a discipline was structured by curriculums provided by the Royal Town Planning Institute. Other academic disciplines have older traditions and come much more clearly from the academy itself and provide specific epistemologies and methods for people to use.

So, why am I reflecting on disciplines? I’ve now started coproducing my part of this project with my two early-career researchers and an early theme that is emerging in different ways between the two of them is the importance and scope of disciplines. Academic disciplines are not just important for providing us with epistemological and methodological grounding, but also provide us with collegial support and a strong sense of identity.

Like all identities, they tend to be developed in opposition: “I am A because I am different to B”. Two particular aspects of this have emerged in my early conversations with participants. Firstly, is how we understand and get at that “difference”. This has also been a debate in another project I’m involved with. As someone with a background in interpretive policy analysis and, to an extent, participatory action research (PAR), the main question of difference is where does PAR as social science practice end and participatory arts practice begin?

My immediate thoughts are they are similar – they both try and create change in a very organic, participant-led way using a multiplicity of ways. They both have a strong focus on process in research rather than outputs and outcomes as well. But there is a strong disciplinary divide between the two. I wonder how much this is about the language used to describe research practice. I also wonder, and I mean to be critically reflexive on my own role as a social scientist here, how much it is about arts practice defending itself from encroaching ethnographic approaches like PAR who are trying to stake out new territory for the social sciences.

This brings me to the other issue that has emerged, the inherent “power” of disciplines. In a bigger picture sense, this links to debates around the “crisis of the humanities” and the growing dominance of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Immediately, I feel a Foucauldian approach to understanding power-as-process is helpful here. One of the disciplines I’ve been in discussion about is very fragile – it is rooted in a history of gentlemanly amateurism and marked by temporary contracts and insecurity. Therefore bigger trends like falling funding, greater job insecurity, and de-professionalisation impact much more on this discipline. This, in turn, means that trends lauded by the Connected Communities programme as a whole, particularly community-led research, can threaten the nature of expertise and its inherent powerfulness in this discipline: if everyone can do it, why do we pay professional experts to do it?

These thoughts are just based on the first few conversations I’ve had with participants and hopefully these are questions we can get some more substantial answers too over the summer of fieldwork and in the final workshop.