Centre for Culture, Media & Governance organized a symposium on Interdisciplinarity in Communication Studies on 6 November 2013 at Tagore Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. The following scholars made presentations in the symposium:
1. Prof. David Deacon, Professor of Communication and Media Analysis and Head of Department for Social Sciences, Loughborough University, UK
2. Dr. Laura Stein, Associate Professor in the Department of Radio-TV-Film, University of Texas, Austin, US.
3. Prof. Biswajit Das, Professor and Director, Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi
4. Prof. Graham Murdock, Professor of Culture and Economy, Loughborough University, UK
5. Dr. Emily Keightley, Senior Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies, Loughborough University, UK
6. Prof. John Downey, Professor of Comparative Media, Loughborough University, UK
7. Dr. Pradip Ninan Thomas, Associate Professor and Co-Director, Centre for Communication and Social Change, University of Queensland, Australia
8. Prof. Bishnu Mohapatra, Professor, Azim Premji University, India
The Indian Medialogue presents transcript of the proceedings moderated by Dr. Pradip Ninan Thomas. Below is the fifth part. (The previous postings of the proceedings can be accessed here: first, second, third and fourth )
Prof. Bishnu Mohapatra
Professor, Azim Premji University, India
Actually, I feel like an interloper, as I don’t belong to Communication Studies. I recently joined the Azim Premji University in Bangalore in Development Studies, where they raise questions similar to the ones you describe. The people who do Development Studies also tend to think like the Communication Studies people. The background and the basis of the discipline lies in interdisciplinarity. In a sense, there is no such thing as Development Studies – we get people from Politics, Economics, Sociology, and so on. But having said that, I think I have a few things to say about our own experience in Indian academia of interdisciplinarity, or what some people call transdisciplinarity.
I have a provocative hypothesis to offer, which is that sometimes what is globally described as interdisciplinarity is actually a function of strong social science and humanities disciplines. It is in Anglo-American academia, where the disciplines have rooted themselves strongly – institutionally, in terms of funding, in terms of their identity constructions, in terms of maintaining their boundaries – we find that interdisciplinarity emerges. I am talking about modern interdisciplinarity, because I believe that people have thought about the enterprise of knowledge and epistemology very differently in different times. If we think of modern interdisciplinarity, it emerges in a historical period when disciplines are trying to entrench themselves in academia and in society. Therefore, I agree with Edward Said, for example, that the way we think – and this includes disciplines – is historically grounded, institutionally fostered and institutionally contested, and it is also about funding resources. When Prof. Downey speaks of how many people go to how many conferences, or of political scientists going to Cultural Studies conferences, these are the markers by which we can calibrate the progress or lack thereof of interdisciplinarity. In a sense, it is because of the way disciplines are rooted: interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are a function of that. So one can practise interdisciplinarity because one can apply for funding and then come back and protect the territory of one’s own discipline.
I believe that people have thought about the enterprise of knowledge and epistemology very differently in different times. If we think of modern interdisciplinarity, it emerges in a historical period when disciplines are trying to entrench themselves in academia and in society. Therefore, I agree with Edward Said, for example, that the way we think – and this includes disciplines – is historically grounded, institutionally fostered and institutionally contested, and it is also about funding resources.
It is also perfectly possible to have interdisciplinarity without a great deal of conversation across disciplines, without being swept off one’s intellectual feet by other things. Therefore, one way of looking at it is that interdisciplinarity is a function of disciplinarity, in a modern institutional and functional sense.
In the case of Indian academia, apart from History, Philosophy and to some extent Sociology, there are few professional associations. Compared to Europe and America, such associations are not very strong in India. You could ask any social scientists here: in ten years, I have never gone to a political science association, because no such association exists in India. As a political scientist I have never been to any political association meeting, and I know nothing about such associations. It is not that I am exceptional or eccentric. I know of many colleagues who have never been to association meetings. In fact, a friend of mine who taught at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for many years – a former colleague who became the vice-president of the American Political Science Association two years ago – said we should have a professional association. But here, when our disciplinary institutional matrix is weak, when we don’t need to defend our boundaries, when we don’t have a journal to fight for, when we don’t go to funding institutions to get a fair distribution of resources for research, the whole meaning of interdisciplinarity changes.
Interdisciplinarity is a function of disciplinarity, in a modern institutional and functional sense.
Here interdisciplinarity is an anarchic enterprise. You practise interdisciplinarity because you tend to think differently. It is more anarchic. It is not a paradigm. There are people trying to bring a new paradigm, but this is not about that; it is about being anarchic. Therefore, there is something about interdisciplinarity here that is not domesticated or institutionalised in the way it has been institutionalised, bandied about, subjected to funding constraints, and indexed [elsewhere]. I am not defending it; I am just trying to describe the beast called interdisciplinarity here. There is no way that you can describe it by citing some data to prove or disprove something.
So how does this happen? How does the conversation which is supposed to happen across disciplines take place? A lot of people will say they want to teach Politics or History, and that their students learn their core skills and they go out and do other things. But the core skills are very popular in many disciplines, not only here but I think across the world. We are talking about the core skills of a discipline that have evolved over a period of time. There is no divine beginning; they have evolved over a period of time, and people have defended the sociological method or historical method with a lot of support from people, institutions and thinking.
But there is a kind of interdisciplinarity that occurs in a very anarchic fashion. I will not call it true interdisciplinarity, but it is nevertheless of a variety different from that generated by funding, conferences and so forth. It is not happening in India, but there are some mavericks who are interdisciplinary here. They are the people who read Said, Weber, Marx, Benedict Anderson, Gellner, not treating anything as untouchable, anything as outside the pale, as it were, of our intellectual curiosity. Why can this kind of interdisciplinarity not go very far? Why is it only the mavericks who practise it? It is because of our institutions, who will ask: how do we hire somebody in Political Science if he hasn’t published anything in Political Science? How do we hire somebody who says he studied the history of thinking but his work is in other areas? So there is lot of institutional conservatism here. Such people are not encouraged here because they run contrary to institutional conservatism. This institutional conservatism, as far as disciplines are concerned, is fairly widespread. Today, we all aspire to become transdisciplinarians or interdisciplinarians. But long live the disciplines. And that is where I shall end.
Associate Professor and Co-Director
Centre for Communication and Social Change, University of Queensland, Australia
I think we can follow up on what has so far been said by focussing on one or two issues. One is the issue of conceptual appropriation, which Emily had put forward. An instance of it arose when I was working on a special issue of Media International Australia on the public sphere in India. We all have some knowledge about where this concept originated from and what it meant in Europe. But when it is used in India, what does it mean? This is a tough one. It is not only these kinds of concepts, but also for concepts in communication and development and social change. When I was doing my PhD in Leicester back in the 1980s on communication development, I came to know that already by the 1980s there were at least 60 or 70 PhDs from India in Michigan State University. What had they looked at? They had researched [words indistinct]… when I looked at their studies, there was absolutely nothing connected to the Indian context. Now, one of the issues is: how do we use these concepts in different contexts? That is a major issue, I think, which we shall be having a chat on now.
Another big issue is: interdisciplinarity for what and for whom? If you spend a little more time with Graham (Murdoch), he says very interesting things about the creative industries project, He is very critical of creative industries, and the whole concept of them. Because the issue for me, and for my neighbours in QUT (Queensland University of Technology), lies in the questions: Who are they? Whom is a creative industry for? They are terrifically interdisciplinary, but whom are they catering to? They are catering to industry, not to students. They are catering mainly to industry. So, interdisciplinarity for whom and for what? That is a critical issue.
In terms of conceptual appropriation, I have a story. In the mid-1990s I was involved in a media, religion and culture conference with Prof. Stewart Hoover, who is one of the best-known figures [in the field]. He was working on a proposal, and one of the things he did at the conference is that during a plenary session, he gave his proposal to anthropologists, sociologists and people from other disciplines. The way he went about it was very honest. They critiqued his proposal and it was incredible, because they gave a completely different spin to some of the concepts that he had used. This is, I think, an issue in Communication Studies. A lot of us borrow very freely from other disciplines without really knowing how to do that. I think that is one issue. But so far I think the discussions from India and the US and England have been really stimulating, and I am sure there will be things which we can discuss further. I’m going to open the floor now for discussions and questions.
(To be continued)