I wasn't trained as a historian of science. Being an anxious thinker that I am, this of course causes grief. I mean the intellectual kind. The good kind, usually. The paralyzing kind, as N. calls it, sometimes. Just to be clear, that's the one that leaves you incapable of working. Since I started my PhD, not being a historian and the paralyzing intellectual grief have troubled me quite a bit. Sometimes, those two things are connected. It, I think, finally coalesced into something that can be written down.
I was trained as a psychologist, but through some weird stroke of luck (I obviously had nothing to do with it), I ended up doing a PhD surrounded by historians of science, with a sprinkling of philosophers of science and all kinds of other interesting people. Everything I do nowadays, in the sexy lingo of 21st century university, reeks of interdisciplinarity. I talk about psychology, but not how my psychology professors have trained me to talk. This makes for a weird kind of interdisciplinarity, where your discipline becomes your subject of research instead of a script for thinking and asking and answering questions. It makes for surreal thinking. I must admit, it's slightly addictive.
Something needs to be said about interdisciplinarity though: The calls for interdisciplinary research at modern universities usually provoke a knee-jerk reaction in me. It's sexy, it often means money, and it's clothed in all those modern buzzwords that the uni managers and funders adore. We stole (appropriated khm) this poster from our coffee room that says: "Relevant research, that is what society wants." shudder It was just so evocative and eerie that we had to have it in our workplace for the giggles.
Interdisciplinarity on the level of association falls exactly under that simplified and condescending tone.The science and education managers with MBAs will explain the inputs and outputs to us and tell us what is it exactly that society wants. We, from within academia, are obviously clueless about that. Hey, look at our ivory tower! Our ivory tower obviously grows out of nothing and into nothing, it can't have anything to do with society at large! Please save us from that through valorization. The flip-side of this cynic rant is: Scientists and scholars have their heads up their arses and can't be trusted with the billions of [insert appropriate currency] that we trust them with without oversight. They will squander it on useless research. The above is a bit of an angry oversimplification, but the debate can often take both turns. points toward to protests in Amsterdam
On a more serious note, what interdisciplinary usually means is that your established feudal academic identities will try to communicate between their fiefdoms to at least nominally conduct a project that can be labeled as interdisciplinary. Don't get me wrong, I like those fiefdoms. I love them even. Maybe instead of cynically calling them feudal, a better metaphor would be an academic archipelago. Whatever they are - the communication between them and the work that communication subsumes is rife with issues. The vocabularies are vastly different even between close (sub)disciplines, the methods of research too, but the real fun starts when research questions and potential answers start being debated.
Just an example. What is a research question for a philosopher of science ("How do we demarcate science from pseudoscience" - asked young Popper?) is potentially irrelevant for a scholar with a different disciplinary allegiance, or even worse, it's irreverent ("What do you mean demarcate, my young Popper? Do not be presentist and anachronistic!" - says the old and wizened historian of science).
Being a green PhD candidate whose project falls squarely in the interdisciplinary basket, the above is experienced daily. I work on a project I devised on my own. It took me a year to be able to spell out what it is in a sentence: I look at how methodologies developed alongside psychological theories and see how they interact. In even simpler and vaguer terms with a nice convoluted ring to it (in the best tradition of Bilbo's little gem: "I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.") in my research I think about people thinking about people thinking.
Now, when I wrote my proposal, I was sure in two things: that psychology is disintegrating as a discipline and that quantitative methodologies have something to do with that. The mass of theories and models I was trained in as a psychologist in Zagreb were constantly diverging, with no end or convergence in sight, while psychologists' departments proliferated and journals grew like mushrooms in the rain. To be sure, rain of money. Ruud, my supervisor, calls it the research confetti factory. De Solla Price called it the exponential expansion of literatures and communities. Science is ever-growing, and ever expanding. So is psychology. This is rarely seen as a problem, since we follow the straightforward logic of SCIENCE = GOOD, then MOAR SCIENCE = EVEN GOODER. Well, I'm not so sure about that. I don't believe in an invisible hand of science to sort that mess into something coherent, in just "adding to the literature one article at a time, hoping to glimpse the light of Truth emerging from that morass."
I took significance testing, experimental designs, general linear models, psychometrics, meta-analyses, and lack of replication as both a symptom of this confetti factory and its perpetuating factor. So I wrote a proposal about it under the title Is psychology a theoretically balkanized field? and got into a PhD to investigate it. The balkanized started as a nervous joke, but when you go into the dictionary definitions of what it means, it seems highly appropriate as a label for all these worries about the state of psychology.Armed with my hunches and a lot of hopes, I delved into an alien institute in a strange land and into the even weirder fields of history of science, philosophy of science, and science and technologies studies. A stranger in a strange land indeed, and oh boy, do I love it.
I remember my first few months, I could barely talk to the other guys at my office. At least I felt like that, this self-imposed paralysis of the ignorant. I have read my fair share of Kuhn and Feyerabend, Popper and Lakatos, bits and pieces of Heidegger, Gadamer, Derrida, Foucualt; but what I was getting into was far above and beyond that. Fast forward about half a year - and hundreds of pages of Bruno Latour, Shapin and Schaffer, Galison and Pickering, Hacking, Foucault and Nikolas Rose, Lorraine Daston, Nelson Goodman, Kurt Danziger and Roger Smith, and streams of articles from the Journal for the History of Behavioral Sciences and Theory & Psychology. I don't list this ream of names to brag, just to show my ignorance. I lacked basic vocabulary to communicate with my then office colleagues, now friends. I had ideas, but lacked the analytic sophistication and the words to express them. And lacking words is a disconcerting state for a person like me. I needed a crash course in history and philosophy, and read voraciously to accommodate for that. I can't say I am fully comfortable in my new academic surroundings, but definitely much more than before. I can join an academic debate, ask critical questions, refer to the literature, and feel good about it. I have taken the challenge, and my usual anxiety just grew it into something stunning, at least that's how I feel when I think about it now.
I stopped being just a psychologist with a quirky interest, and became an investigator - armed with a set of questions, a way to answer them, and an inbuilt valorization - a sense why it was important.
What this insane reading trip also resulted in, though, was a reconsideration of the questions I started with. After learning the lay of the land, and a few long conversations with both of my supervisors, I started doubting not only if I could answer the questions I began with, but were they viable research questions at all. They were for a psychologist, but for somebody swimming in the interdisciplinary waters, my old questions seemed naive. My initial plan was to engage what I later learned to call the narratives of disunity in 20th century psychology; but what I was supposed to do now was to describe them and investigate them. Not join the diachronic army pulling apart and at times stitching together the rag that is psychology, but instead to describe this intellectual and institutional tug-of-war. Historians even have a word for it - I was not supposed to doxographically engage the psychologists. (Just a few days ago I read an article and attended a lecture by Frank Huisman where he argues there are different traditions within history of science, and some do engage their actors in debates, but I am not talking about those traditions now).
One of the precepts of a historian of science is: Do not engage your actors in a debate. Describe the debate, contextualize it, try to draw conclusions and even speculate about the reasons how and why, but DO NOT engage. There is an enchanting objectivity to the historians, this notion that they are above the discussions they make the point of their interest. Calling it a notion sounds paternalistic, but I mean it in the best sense possible - it is a value you go about and it makes for an interesting position, with the right balance of distance and immersion that allows description, and potentially drawing of some sort of conclusions. It becomes quite complicated when you put the methodological precept to an actual test, in trying to craft a narrative out of it.
Here's a few examples out of psychology.
Was there such a thing as a cognitive evolution? (There was no such thing as a Cognitive Revolution and this is a book about it.). But if you deny the notion of revolution, don't you by definition engage today's cognitive psychologists or cognitive neuroscientists? If there was no revolution, what happens with the disciplines that were founded on its laurels? Or, in something even close to home, to my own research, are the dominant methodologies in postwar psychology disintegrative? There is a value judgment in this, built into the question - if they are disintegrative, they have something to balkanize. There was a unity to begin with, that is slowly getting chopped into bits and pieces.
I am probably over-thinking it, as I usually do, but I do not think that you can avoid being doxographical. It just depends how far you extend your argument and its possible repercussions. I look into the period of the past sixty years, so it naturally follows that the historical development in that time had a direct impact on what we have now - psychology in 2014 has much to do with psychology in 2000. The same could be argued with the psychology in 1901, but the amounts of contexts, actors, shifts and confluences of influence add up to such an enormous amount that it is difficult to develop a straight narrative of this historical change.
Building a story about disintegration of psychology, then, brings a number of constraints that were uncalled for, but they are there. The essentialist notion that there is such a thing as a discipline of psychology that can get disintegrated (from a unity into a patchwork!). There is also a romanticism to this metaphysical constraint - especially if you call it balkanization - if it is getting disintegrated, it used to be an unified whole that served us better. It is intellectually reactionary.
The other possible constraint is that it is reductionist. If the current pluralism of psychologies, the balkanized discipline, used to be more unitary, that means that our assembly of perspectives can be reduced to a smaller set of perspectives, or even, to one psychology. It is intellectually imperialist.
Now, these aren't the kinds of arguments I want to make. As a historian of science wanna-be, I should not be allowed to make arguments like that. This is the paralyzing part. If I internalize the historians anti-doxographical precept I cannot be intellectually reactionary nor imperialist. Essentialism was a word I forgot after high school, but when my research started centering on the discipline of psychology from the 1950's to today, I became quite aware of my biases. My education has left me with a clear sense of what psychology is, of the contours and the form it takes in the back of my mind, of a thing out there that organizes and orders my academic experience, and experience in general. When I try to look inward, then, I am not supposed to engage it, but just stare at it and describe it.
Quite schizophrenic, right?
This is something I have been trying to articulate for the past few months. The larger part of my project is taking massive amounts of abstracts published in psychological journals in the past sixty years and textcavating them for concepts, that I then map in these abstract and slightly psychedelic concept maps - cognitive ecologies is the word I like the most for it. Now, if done consistently and on a large scale, this will give you the contours of that thing in the back of my mind, that I got through fragmented bits and pieces of the dozens and dozens of courses in my BA and my Master. It gives you the contours of a discipline. And then, when you get it, you are not supposed to take it for granted, as a representation of something in the back of your mind, and you're not supposed to make value judgments about it. You are just supposed to describe and tell a story about it.
The way out of the intellectual grief-induced paralysis, I think, is to make an explicit vow not to engage psychologists like a psychologist and just tell the story. If it's any good, the story will engage them on its own.