Transdisciplinarity: The Politics and Practices of Knowledge Production

UPDATE (8 September 2014): Before she joined the expanded blog roster, Laura wrote this as a (very popular) guest post.

I am interested in disciplines, and intrigued by disciplinary transgressions. Recently, I was part of a discussion about these issues and it inspired some musings on the question of transdisciplinarity. I have a background in Social Anthropology at undergraduate level. Anthropology as a discipline is highly reflexive, resistant to abstraction, aware of the politics of representation and positionality. Back in the 1970s, anthropologist Annette B. Weiner was undertaking field research in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea (now Kiriwina Islands), with a view to unsettling disciplinary notions of common sense regarding gender neutrality of ethnographers and challenging the disciplinary canon in profound and influential ways. My postgraduate training in the discipline of International Relations (IR) was, therefore, a curious through-the-looking glass adventure in double-think. The State, the Balance of Power, a Security Dilemma: it frequently felt that I was being asked to believe at least ‘six impossible things before breakfast’.

Even having received my disciplinary training and being settled in my new ‘home’ discipline (so richly textured and evocative, the metaphor of ‘home’ allows for all sorts of interesting variants such as Christine Sylvester’s idea of camps and homesteading), I have historically not been terribly well-disciplined. As a feminist IR scholar, the work I do was once pronounced marginal; with my philosophical sympathies lying with poststructuralism my work has been aligned with ‘prolix and self-indulgent discourse … divorced from the real world.’ My encounters with my discipline have not been uncomplicated and it has provided me with plenty of material with which to think through the question of transdisciplinarity.

Before I explore what that transdisciplinarity might look like, a few words on ‘discipline’ itself: I cannot think about ‘discipline’ (academic) without thinking of ‘discipline’ (verb). According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

Discipline is ‘the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience

We might think that such a description suits the deployment of the noun in the context of, for example, military training, or even parenting, but that it has little to do with the academy. To that, I would simply say, you try submitting an analysis of, for example, the global politics of midwifery to Security Studies. There are multiple ways in which maternal mortality represents a compromise of basic human securities and the ways in which positive midwifery practices can alleviate suffering and reduce death rates but are themselves compromised by contested aid and development practices; to me, the connections to ‘security studies’ are self-evident. I suspect that the journal’s editors would disagree. Obey the rules of your discipline (research the right things, publish research in the right places, quote the right people and attend the right conferences) or the discipline will punish you accordingly.

The idea of a discipline (noun), in the academic sense, clearly derives from the verb: both relate to establishing clear boundaries between what is right and good (behaviour/research) and what is wrong and bad (behaviour/research); both have ways to correct transgression when an uninitiated (or resistant) person strays. We are trained to recognize the boundaries of our discipline and to stay within them; historians don’t usually apply for jobs as social workers just as creative writing majors don’t generally win contracts for the redesign of shopping centres.

The problem is that the boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours are a fiction. I do not mean that there are no boundaries, or that there shouldn’t be any boundaries, but rather that we can always find the exception that confounds the rule. If we begin to unpick the rule, however, it becomes very difficult to defend or justify any point of principle at all, which generally makes people feel very uncomfortable. So when I say that the concept of discipline (in academia) is a fiction, I mean that it is something ‘held to be true because it is expedient to do so’. It suits us to believe in disciplinary boundaries, just as it suits us to believe that there are solid and unbreakable rules about what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (which is why we have laws and so on).

These boundaries that we establish between little pockets of knowledge in the academy are a fiction. Transdisciplinarity, to my mind, is about challenging the fiction of disciplines, about recognizing that knowledge isn’t something that can be carved up into neatly bounded parcels that we then work either in (to produce disciplinary knowledge); at the intersection of (to produce interdisciplinary knowledge); or with (to produce multi- or cross-disciplinary knowledge). Transdisciplinary work subverts the very foundations of the concept of ‘the discipline’, resisting and transcending the always arbitrary and fictive boundaries between; borrowing from Foucault, I suggest that talk of disciplines and disciplinary boundaries bring into being the categories themselves and such categories are always normative.

Michel Foucault’s work on discipline specifically leads me further away from the idea that disciplines are neutral and administrative categories. Foucault takes the OED idea one step further, implicating political economy in the concept of discipline.

Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience)

As I understand it, Foucault argues that in order to be functional in contemporary society, one must be disciplined. Without discipline, we as subjects are of no use to the political elite, the institutions of governmentality with which he was also concerned. We are disciplined through primary education. In the Anglophone West, primary schools meet all of the requirements of a disciplinary site of power:

  • They are enclosed spaces (usually situated in buildings with walls) and limited temporally (in that one doesn’t usually stay in primary school for ever);
  • There is a hierarchy of observation (with the unruly brand-new students at the very bottom and the Principal [or equivalent] at the top. Everyone else fits somewhere in between: older students can be prefects or monitors, junior teachers gratefully follow the guidance of more senior colleagues and so on);
  • There are clearly delineated assessment processes that act as a form of normalizing judgement (and so we see statements along the lines of the following: ‘By the end of Key Stage 4 a student should be able to…’);
  • Schools exist to provide training (in social skills, writing skills, oral communication, numeracy, motor skills both gross and fine and a multitude of others).

Crucial to Foucault’s analysis is the idea that without this basic training we do not learn to be functional (productive) members of society and if we are not functional and productive members of society then we are a net cost. Put simply: the more obedient we are, the more useful we are. Our utility is directly proportionate to the extent to which we are disciplined.

Foucault was, of course, writing about Anglophone Western society as a whole, not about academia specifically. It’s clear from the above, however, that the disciplinary techniques evident in primary schools function in exactly the same way in the academy. We enrol students by the dozen and we teach them what it means to ‘be’ an IR scholar.

Students stay with us for three years, maybe four, and during that time they have to submit hundreds of assessments that have clearly delineated standards that students must attain in order to pass. From the outset, we offer in our course guides clear indications of the normalizing judgement employed in our courses: ‘Upon successful completion of this course, you should be able to…’. We chose textbooks carefully, mindful of the student’s tendency to accept textbooks as the Source Of All Truth, and we teach the basics of our discipline. We set exams, we write learning outcomes, we teach students how to write evidence-based argument and to integrate theoretical discussion with empirical analysis. We grant credit points to students that meet our requirements; students eventually accrue enough credit points to graduate and they do so.

At no point, usually, do we encourage students to question why they’re doing what they’re doing. Sometimes, in fact, such questioning is positively discouraged – seen as impertinent, troublesome, ill-disciplined. We perpetuate the narrative that they are in university to receive training in their discipline and that they will graduate as members of their discipline. Everything that we do as scholar-educators eases this progression. We teach first years the disciplinary basics (what is considered to be the appropriate object of study, what are the various theoretical perspectives common to work on those objects of study, how we can make claims ‘to know’ something about those objects) and we reaffirm those basics in every course thereafter.

In IR, those disciplinary basics are usually (in order) as follows: the state and related but much less significant non-state actors; the theories of realism, liberalism and (maybe) the others (see also the structure of the discipline as organized by the ‘Great Debates’); we make claims to know on the basis of scientific enquiry. Truly transdisciplinary IR would, then, subvert these basic truths. As noted above, I have historically been quite ill-disciplined. I teach IR as a politics of the everyday; I ask students to locate themselves in the practices of global politics. I recount the discipline as a series of narratives and challenges to those narratives and my work is explicitly anti-positivist. Does this mean I have transcended IR? Along with others, in my research I have enacted methodologies drawn from other disciplines (Cultural Studies, Anthropology, Literature), engaged with the world from a situated and contextual perspective that I acknowledge and reflect upon, and made fundamentally different types of knowledge claim than those permissible within a scientistic framework. I don’t think, though, that these transgressions of disciplinary codes have enabled me to transcend IR.

At the heart of every discipline is its knowledge. Knowledge, as we know, is power; at the heart of every discipline, then, is its politics of knowledge production. What counts as knowledge? How can we evaluate the credibility of a claim to know? In Dance, we can enact or perform and judge technique. In Mechanical Engineering, we can build a bridge from A to B and judge its structural integrity. In Medicine, we can diagnose a patient or carry out a surgery and judge accuracy of diagnosis or the success of the surgical intervention. We have no such markers in Social Science; we have only the strength of our arguments and we measure that strength by its evidence base.

We may disagree over what counts as evidence (does a Presidential statement carry the same weight as an anonymous comment on a blog somewhere?); over whether claims to know are universal or particular; over whether knowledge is objective, subjective or constituted as knowledge through the specific discursive conditions of its emergence. We might frame our knowledge production as ‘hypothesis testing’ or ‘story telling’ and we might offer our conclusions as one possible interpretation among many or as The Proven Truth; whatever our framing, however, what we are framing is evidence-based.

At the heart of the discipline of IR, there is a fetish for evidence, a fetishisation of evidence-based argument. On this, implicitly or explicitly, IR scholars agree. We want evidence in my own work, and we demand it from my students. ‘What is the basis of this claim?’, I scribble in margins. ‘You can’t just assume that this is the case. What’s your evidence?’. ‘Disciplines’ are constituted by their non-negotiables. They are fictive, but given meaning through our continued invocation of them as meaningful categories. They teach us how to behave in our intellectual pursuits and, while disciplines allow vigorous debate over ontological assumptions, epistemological positions and methodological choices, there are boundaries that cannot be transgressed without corrupting the notion of disciplinary belonging. Transdisciplinarity is a chimera. Once you are there, you are not-there, because to transcend a discipline illuminates the arbitrary nature of all disciplinary boundaries and the fiction that provides us with spaces between.

Roland Bleiker wrote a profound and brilliant paper years ago exhorting the discipline to ‘forget IR theory’. Perhaps the only way to transcend the discipline is to forget IR. In IR, I think that means problematizing our fetish for evidence and investigating how else we might construct a contribution to knowledge, if not a claim to know: experiential accounts; art; fiction writing; poetry. Perhaps if International Studies Quarterly publishes a collection of poems and photographs that stand alone as a comment on practices of global politics, then we will know we have forgotten, have transcended IR.

15 thoughts on “Transdisciplinarity: The Politics and Practices of Knowledge Production

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  3. Thanks for this, Laura. I really like it.

    I think that we would probably find more evidence of the ‘fiction of disciplines’ if we compared them across languages, or between nations. That is, the rules and boundaries of the discipline of international relations might look different if we examined the Literature in Mandarin or French. The rules and boundaries of the discipline of Australian Studies are, I suspect, subtly different from those of Canadian Studies.

    And, of course, disciplines change over time. Some die (phrenology, anyone?), others merge and new ones emerge. The rules and boundaries change over time, too, as new areas of research emerge and ‘home truths’ become outmoded.

    That being said, the question becomes how much leverage you can muster to move your discipline in a new direction, perhaps.


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  5. Excellent iconoclasm, Laura! For me your post raises the question, Are the social sciences a grand display of high IQ self-deception? What is the difference between Anthropology, Sociology, and Political Science, except a Gentleman’s [yes] Agreement? Each pretends to be a distinct ‘discipline.’ But both use the same methods of observation and counting to study what is often the same behavior – folks vying for power and prestige. (Political Sociology is an instance of reneging on that agreement.)

    The fetish for evidence is compelled by our addiction to aping the methods of the Natural Sciences, including the need to sustain the myth of ‘value free’ social science; a well beaten topic. Yet, in the US, our dominant corporate Political Science, what Aristotle called ‘the master science,’ implies that, as Hegel said, ‘what is is good,’ by its phony descriptivism. Transdisciplinarity seems like a useful way of kicking some cracks in the ill-fitting mold that social scientists are crammed into by our graduate training.

    William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
    Twitter: wjkno1



    • “Perhaps if International Studies Quarterly publishes a collection of poems and photographs that stand alone as a comment on practices of global politics, then we will know we have forgotten, have transcended IR.” –Thank you, Laura, for this beautiful reflection and beautiful dream. I wonder about one thing, though: how will we live, and who will we be, in this world without IR? Will we all be poets, writing poetry all day? Will all disciplines have disappeared? Will there be no discipline anymore? But where and how will we start to think, then, if there is no discipline? Can we think, and can we live, without discipline? Didn’t the post-structuralists, and also Foucault, teach us that to say one thing is to deny another; and that therefore every one thing you say or create (IR theory, performance or poem) will exclude and thus ‘discipline’ another? And isn’t, after all, our resistance against disciplines itself a quite productive form of power?


    • Thanks, everyone, for the engagement. It’s been summer holiday season here in Australia so I’ve been off being ill-disciplined, sorry it’s taken me so long to reply.

      Jonathan: ‘the question becomes how much leverage you can muster to move your discipline in a new direction’ – this is exactly the right question to be asking, I think. not only the leverage but also the energy and the courage. It takes energy to be constantly pushing at the disciplinary boundaries: writing letters to journal editors protesting that ‘desk reject’ issued on the basis that the submitted article doesn’t really reflect the disciplinary priorities of the readers; presenting at conferences to audiences of one or two, if your panel submission is accepted at all; defending your research interests (and, by corollary, your appointment) to colleagues. It takes courage, especially when starting out, to resist those neat disciplinary categories. Job advertisements seek ‘Lecturers in [insert discipline here]’ and it takes courage to apply, while wondering if your publication record or research history belies your claim to fit in that box. But yes, energy and courage to move your discipline, leverage comes after, I think – usually from those in positions senior enough to not have to worry so much…

      William: ‘a Gentleman’s Agreement’ indeed and in deed, most of the time. This is probably why I consider myself ill-disciplined.

      And B.S., these questions entertain me also. Given my research interests, I wonder a lot how we would live in a world without gender, a world in which no infant is forcibly gendered at birth and the current gendered logics that organise so much of our thought and practice are dissolved. I wonder the same about the state as a form of political community and, as this post suggests, I have recently begun to wonder the same about academic disciplines. I do agree that ‘resistance against disciplines itself a quite productive form of power’ and I am intrigued to see what it would produce. I am not at all sure it would be any ‘better’ and I have no idea how we would measure ‘better’ in any case, but I think it would be interesting to investigate.


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