Interdisciplinarity: Queries and Quandaries

Theodossia-Soula Pavlidou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

Keywords: Interdisciplinarity, Critical Thinking

In reformulating my position paper from last fall (2003) (1), I am drawing on the discussion at the Travelling Concepts meeting in Trento (January 2004) and more specifically on the exchange within the ‘knowledge’ and ‘praxis’ group (2), but I am also complementing this with the experiences from two teaching activities, which were just starting when the first draft of the position paper was written and are now complete. I will be foregrounding the concept of interdisciplinarity and ending up with a cluster of interrelated concepts, better visualized as multi-dimensional network than a linear conceptual chain (as Clare Hemmings originally suggested in the early stages of our work).

1. Academic Background and Involvement in Women’s Studies
My academic background can be briefly highlighted with my studies in the USA (B.A. in Physics) and my Ph.D. in Communication Research in Germany, during which my ‘linguistic turn’ - but also my involvement in the women’s movement - came about. Since 1980, I have been working in Greece (3) at the Aristotle University as a linguist, specializing in Linguistic Pragmatics and Sociolinguistics (and in areas in-between, like Discourse Analysis, Conversation Analysis, and of course, Language and Gender).

Accordingly, I have been teaching linguistics courses at an undergraduate and post-graduate level all along trying, however, to offer courses on language and gender and/or bring up gender issues in my other courses, wherever possible within the institutional restrictions of a School of Philology and the limits of a male-dominated environment. A major aim in my teaching has been critical thinking, which in this case encompasses aspects like:
• questioning pre-theoretical assumptions and ways of looking at linguistic matters that philology students normally bring with them (from their high school education, social environment, etc.),
• urging students to reflect on the knowledge that is offered to them and, more importantly, on the conditions under which this knowledge is produced, including their own contribution to sustaining relationships of power within the institutional context of the university,
• pointing at paradigm shifts within Linguistics, but also at the circulation of different fashionable ideas/books due to the distribution of power (e.g. hegemony of the English language, certain publishers, etc.),
• adopting, wherever possible, a critical linguistic theory (e.g. Critical Discourse Analysis) as a model for doing Linguistics.

Understandably, my research also falls under the above-mentioned areas of Linguistics. With respect to the language-gender interface, in particular, my main interest lies in the dialectic between language and society. In contrast to many feminist texts outside Linguistics which refer to language in much too general a way to address such questions (4), my interest lies in the specific workings of language and language use (5) (across languages, cultures, situations, etc.) that result in the maintenance or subversion of social structures and meanings, power relations and so on. For example, Therese Garstenauer writes: ‘The manifold unequal and hierarchically structured relations that constitute - or are sometimes hidden behind - “East” and ”West” shall be analysed, with regard to their discursive production [my emphasis] as well as to the institutional and organisational conditions of this production’; my analysis would focus on the role language plays in exactly this discursive production of meanings under given conditions. And there has been a growing demand in studies on language and gender for more focused and detailed analyses of different languages and situations (6).

As for Women’s or Gender Studies per se, all these years there has not been any form of institutionalization neither at my university nor any other Greek university (although, like myself, other colleagues have been teaching courses within their own fields of expertise pertaining to gender issues). The only systematic attempt to introduce such ideas to academic life was our Women’s Studies Group (founded at the Aristotle University in 1983). This was a multidisciplinary (as a matter of fact, almost no two of us had the same disciplinary background), non-hierarchical group that survived for almost twenty years without any substantial support from the university or elsewhere, organizing (collective) open courses, conferences etc. Our attempts at establishing more permanent structures failed painfully. And by the time (four years ago) the EU made the explicit requirement that support to member states concerning education had to cover the promotion of gender equality/studies at the level of higher education, our Women’s Studies Group was reaching its expiration date.

2. Some Recent Experiences with and about Interdisciplinarity
The present academic year (2003-04) has been marked by two new teaching activities, which brought up for me an old issue in Women’s Studies, namely, interdisciplinarity.
The first teaching activity concerns an introductory course on Women’s Studies that I have been coordinating together with a colleague from the Architecture Department. This course was offered within the frame of an Interdepartmental Undergraduate Course Program on Equality and Gender that we launched last fall at the Aristotle University, supported by the Ministry of Education via the above-mentioned EU measures (7). In planning the course, I looked for introductory textbooks and found out that the situation had not changed much since the early ’90s, when the first introductory books into the field of Women’s studies started appearing: there are relatively numerous ‘collections’ of articles by different authors; there are ‘readers’, ‘glossaries’, and ‘companions’; but scarcely any comprehensive, unified (8), textbooks on Women’s Studies, by the same author or authors as the product of cooperative, but also interdisciplinary work (9).

This is rather strange, given that ‘interdisciplinarity’ has been one of the cornerstones of Women’s Studies, with repercussions for theory and methodology ―at least in the discussions I was involved in, in Germany in the late ’70s. On the other hand, this development seems to match other experiences over time, as several examples show. For one, in our Women’s Studies Group of the Aristotle University, although the concept of interdisciplinarity retained a pivotal role all along, we never actually got around to giving a meaning to ‘interdisciplinary’ that would differentiate it substantially from ‘multidisciplinary’. Further, even reference to ‘interdisciplinarity’ has been diminishing or, on occasion, dropped altogether. For example, in Nina Lykke’s plenary lecture in Lund only multidisciplinarity features (10); similarly, Iris van der Tuin in a first draft of her position paper talked of transdisciplinarity (she says, her main interest lies in ‘transdisciplinary dialogues’, without specifying what she means by that. There may be all sorts of external reasons for such developments, but what really interests me are possible inherent reasons. I am not clinging to terms, and there may be perfect reasons for giving up one in favor of another, but we should at least be clear about the processes through which we give up the inter- to turn to other –disciplinarities. It seems to me this is a case of ‘travelling’ - and being transformed or evaporating - in time, but not necessarily in space, which we also have to look at.

Presumably, one of the prerequisites for interdisciplinary approaches is the development of shared knowledge, common ground, shared background assumptions, presuppositions (or whatever you want to call it). This involves more than using the same words when talking about things, but also acknowledging the rooting of the meaning of a word in a specific context. When a term/concept ‘travels’ from one field to another (or from one culture to another) the old context is left behind, and another one usually becomes operative; and in this new context a different bundle of significations may accompany the/some nuclear meaning that was supposed to be carried over. An interdisciplinary approach would probably have to assess both contexts in order to gain full understanding of what is going on.

An example of this is the concept of performativity, known in Gender Studies through Judith Butler’s work. This concept has been one of the fundaments of Linguistic Pragmatics via Speech Act Theory (via the Philosophy of Ordinary Language). When I first read Butler (1990), I had difficulty figuring out whether she was talking about something totally new or whether she was borrowing the concept and broadening it out; you see, Butler does not even mention Austin (the philosopher who introduced the notion of performativity in his groundbreaking lectures in the ’50s). Similar stories can be said about intersubjectivity and accountability, both known in Linguistics through Conversation Analysis, an off-shoot of Ethnomethodology. To be able to talk across fields in an interdisciplinary mode (11), I think, it would not suffice that we all read e.g. Butler; we would also have to understand the different trajectories that e.g. ‘performativity’ has followed (if that’s the case) within the special field of each one of us. The latter, however, implies greater commitment and harder work for most of us, since it involves practices (both linguistic and social) on a meta-level. And, perhaps, this is the key to interdisciplinarity, but also to the idea of travelling concepts, i.e. understanding the practices that lie behind a discipline or a concept; which brings me to the second teaching activity.

The second teaching activity concerns a postgraduate course for students of Linguistics (which turned out to be a single sex group, at times reminiscent of the old consciousness raising women’s groups) on ‘Linguistic spaces of gender construction and representation’. The aim of the course was to consolidate some basic concepts and ideas (philosophical, sociological, etc.) which feminist linguistic thought has been utilizing (and, of course, to work towards a comprehensive theory of language and gender); in this sense, there were some first steps in the (one-way) direction of interdisciplinarity. But this ‘opening’ up to other disciplines often implied an opening up of oneself to the other members of the group and a collectivity that moved beyond shared knowledge towards an (academic) community of practice: ‘an aggregate of people who come together around mutual engagement in some common endeavor. Ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, values, power relations - in short, practices - emerge in the course of their joint activity around that endeavor’ (Eckert & Mc Connell-Ginet, 1998: 490).

The experience with this group of young women from one discipline - Linguistics - was much more interdisciplinary than with the audience of the introductory Women’s studies course I mentioned above, despite the fact that this latter interdepartmental audience, as well as the staff, was multidisciplinary. There were, of course, many other differences between the two groups: the Linguistics students, being postgraduates, were more mature; they had more specific goals when choosing the course; they were, on the whole, much better acquainted with the teacher (me), better motivated, etc. It was such features that allowed for potential negotiation of power relations to a greater extent in the Linguistics group, and thus made the abrogation of the subject-object distinction more possible. But I think, it was mainly the linguistic group’s closer involvement that allowed them to engage in practices on a meta-level and to understand the rooting of the concepts in the different contexts, thus taking the first steps towards interdisciplinarity (12).

3. From Interdisciplinarity to Negotiation of Power in Communities of Practice
One of the participants in the meeting in Trento posed the provocative question: Does it matter, if we do not share the knowledge that we think we share? If shared knowledge is crucial to interdisciplinarity, and if we do care for the latter, then the answer to this question can only be affirmative (13). Also, shared knowledge cannot but be crucial to intersubjectivity. My point is, however, - in a line similar to Eva Skaerbeck’s argument - that neither can in effect be attainable unless embedded in enduring communities of practice whose members are willing, among other things, to negotiate hierarchies of knowledge and power relations.

(1) When I did this, I did not have Mieke Bal’s Travelling Concepts (2002) at hand. I only got the book very recently and found some striking similarities between the thoughts presented here rather sketchily and Bal’s extensive argumentation. I am not sure, however, whether these similarities will withstand closer scrutiny when I get better acquainted with the book.
(2) Although the group formation was contested during the meeting, it was useful to have an exchange of ideas in a smaller circle too. It was also helpful, in working over my first position paper, to limit possible interconnections to the other five papers in the ‘knowledge and praxis’ group (those by Liana Borghi, Clare Hemmings, Therese Garstenauer, Eva Skaerbaek and Iris van der Tuin), even though this grouping is not equally motivated in all cases. However, as the present paper has been getting longer and longer, I am afraid I was not able to make all the connections I had in mind to these five papers.
(3) This seeming stability was a welcome change to the previous years of changing places, disciplines, etc., and to being always an ‘other’ (among other things, I was the only female student in my U.S. college class who studied Physics); but it, too, entailed all sorts of ‘otherness’, e.g. being the only non-philologist among philologists, the first woman full professor in a traditionally male-dominated area, the only female chairperson of the School of Philology, and so on. Moreover, all this time, I have been sustaining an across-borders family and been ‘commuting’ between Greece and Germany, since the German part of the family works in Germany. Looking back, I sometimes think that my adult history has been, in a sense, a (more or less conscious) practice in ‘otherness’.
(4) In addition, I have been getting more and more uneasy (e.g. at the Bologna and Lund conferences) at the gap between feminist linguistics and other feminist discussions and the ease with which linguistic terms seem to be ‘borrowed’, ‘used’ (or even ‘misused’) by the latter ― surely, a case of travelling concepts between disciplines.
(5) See, for example, some of my recent work: Pavlidou, 2002; Pavlidou, 2003a; Pavlidou 2003b; Pavlidou, Alvanoudi, Karafoti, 2004.
(6) Cf. e.g. Eckert & Mc Connell-Ginet, 1999, Hellinger & Bussmann, 2001-2003.
(7) This, and similar programs at other universities, are in effect the first steps towards an institutionalization of Gender Studies in Greece, with limited perspectives of consolidation, however, since financial support runs only for two years. The launching of three MA programmes relating to gender a year earlier goes in the same direction.
(8) By this, I definitely do not mean ‘unified positions’, a single ‘feminism’ or similar things.
(9) My colleague and I, as coordinators of the above mentioned course, also ended up inviting different colleagues from different fields to present, e.g. how ‘gender’ has been taken in their specific field and with what consequences.
(10) In her position paper (May 2004), in which she makes a case for the definition of Women’s Studies as a ‘post-disciplinary discipline’ (sic, p. 96), Lykke distinguishes three kinds of interdisciplinarity: multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity (per se, I would call it) and transdisciplinarity. The second is defined as transgressing ‘borders between disciplinary canons and approaches in a theoretical and methodological bricolage that allows for new synergies to emerge’ and is, thus, juxtaposed to the ‘additive’ approach of the first (multidisciplinarity). Whereas interdisciplinarity per se still relates to disciplinary borders, transdisciplinarity goes ‘beyond disciplines and beyond existing canons’. Although all this is quite useful, Lykke does not address the problem that I am trying to tackle here, namely, how this interdisciplinarity of the second kind is to come about and what sort of standards it has to meet.
(11) Cf. also Liana Borghi’s reference to discourse analysis: ‘We could apply tropes used in science to literature, film, discourse analysis’. It is not self-evident that Liana and I both mean the same thing and, much less, that we draw on the same background assumptions when referring to discourse analysis.
(12) Participants of the postgraduate course who have read a draft of this position paper have confirmed enthusiastically the description and assessment of the experiences in the course presented here.
(13) Another participant in the Trento meeting thought it important that we try to formulate points of dissent. But even for that some shared knowledge would be necessary.

Butler J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.
Eckert P. & Mc Connell-Ginet, S. (1998). Communities of Practice: Where Language, Gender, and Power all Live. In J. Coates (Ed.), Language and Gender: A Reader. (pp. 484-494). Oxford: Blackwell.
Eckert P. & Mc Connell-Ginet, S. (1999). New Generalizations and Explanations in Language and Gender Research. Language in Society. 28: 185-201.
Hellinger M. & Bussmann, H. (Eds) (2001-2003). Gender across Languages. 3 volumes. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Lykke N. (2004). Position Paper: Women’s/Gender/Feminist Studies ― a Post-Disciplinary Discipline? The Making of European Women’s Studies. vol. V: 91-101.
Pavlidou T.-S. 2002. [in Greek] Language - Grammatical Gender - Social Gender: Problems, Inquiries and the Modern Greek Language. In: Pavlidou T.-S. (Ed.), Language - Grammatical Gender - Social Gender, 13-76. Thessaloniki: Paratiritis.
Pavlidou T.-S. (2003a). Women, Gender and Modern Greek. In M. Hellinger & H. Bussmann (Eds.), Gender across Languages. vol. 3. (pp. 175-199). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Pavlidou T.-S. (2003b). Patterns of Participation in Classroom Interaction: Girls’ and Boys’ Non-compliance in a Greek High School. Linguistics and Education 14: 123-141.
Pavlidou T.-S., Alvanoudi, A., Karafoti, E. (2004). [in Greek] Grammatical Gender and Semantic Content: Preliminary Remarks on the Lexical Representation of the Genders. Studies in Modern Greek 24: 543-553.

© 2005