Multi-Disciplinarity or Inter-Disciplinarity?

At the end of March I attended the Cross-Pollinations workshop at the University of Alberta. It was promoted as an interdisciplinary workshop to bring together scholars in disciplines across the arts and humanities. In attendance were individuals from english, history, fine arts, museum studies, art history, creative writing. The presentation topics ranged from deconstructions of the poetic language of Don McKay, to a glimpse into the artistic process of Lyndell Osbourne, to creative reflections on the ravine under the Mill Creek bridge in Edmonton, to historical comparison of the Niagara and Pembina escarpments. There were lots of ideas flying around, which Sean Kheraj has better described for the Nature’s Chroniclers blog. There was also a sense of slight disconnection between the history approach to understanding the environment and that of the english and fine arts representatives. Sometimes it felt like we were not speaking the same form of English. It seemed strange that disciplines within the same faculty could not always speak directly to each other while disciplines on opposite ends of the university spectrum could — sciences and environmental history often speak to each other without need of a disciplinary translator.
History is a discipline that can be found lumped in with arts, humanities, or social sciences depending on the institution. Within a history department the approaches and topics of study of faculty and students can run from strict quantitative analysis akin to what is found in sociology to interpretative analysis of text that would not be out of place in english. This is just as true within the sub-discipline of environmental history. William Cronon’s 1992 article “A Place for Stories” is a post-structural reflection on how the story telling aspect of history shapes the narrative arch and tone forced upon past events – both declentionist and progressivist. Donald Worster’s “Transformations of the Earth” (1990) speaks to to the use of ecological ideas in environmental history, and Demeritt’s “Ecology, Objectivity, and Critique” (1994) questions the blind application of scientific theories to historical analysis and pushed for more critical reflection on those theories before their use in an wholly different field of study. These three examples illustrate ways environmental history borrows from other disciplines to better understand the nature of the past. It would seem that this is an interdisciplinary field, but is that really an accurate description of what is happening in environmental history? Has the buzz word of the past decade finally run its course?
The experience of Cross-Pollinations has further convinced me that what we call “interdisciplinarity” is a misnomer. What all the interdisciplinary departments and conferences and workshops and edited collections really do is bring together multiple theoretical and analytical approaches in the same space. It creates something that is multi-disciplinary; facilitates discussion between and among disparate fields of study in a way the enhances understanding for all involved.
Whether discussions across disciplines should be approached through the ‘inter’ or ‘multi’ lens is foremost on my mind as conference season gets into full swing. Cross-Pollinations was the first of four academic excursions on my calendar and the only one openly labeled ‘interdisciplinary’ though the next three will also cross disciplinary boundaries. Tomorrow I head south of the border to the ASEH conference in Phoenix to hear what is happening in the American environmental history circle and present a poster on Place and Placelessness. Judging by the program there will be many disciplines represented.
Oh, and with any luck the piles of snow still hanging around in Edmonton will be gone by the time I’m back from the heat of the desert.

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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1 Response to Multi-Disciplinarity or Inter-Disciplinarity?

  1. Sean says:

    Hi Lauren,

    As usual lots to think about–and digest (its lunch). So I’ll keep it blunt (have to get back to the stack of papers after all): Should not one also consider the myriad and constant ways in which these individual disciplines that make up the “inter” and/or “multi” components of the condundrum are also changing? More specifically, is it time to challenge the inviobility of what we call “environmental history?” Break up the unity that comes with placing the two words together and you also unsettle the very boundaries of each. “Multi” and “inter” become unravelled in the face of what are actually hard-to-grasp disciplines in their own right.

    Have fun in the sun Lauren–and bring the hockey Coyotes back to (insert city here) Canada while you’re at it…

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