March 26, 2013

Inter– or trans–disciplinary: the perils of definitions (and diagrams)

Recently, I started drawing diagrams to visualise my thoughts. This has been particularly useful for mapping the intersection between fields or schools of thought as it allows precise delineations of the subject under consideration. Like mind maps, they help to order, elucidate and explain. Or so I thought when I started.

My first reaction to the difficulty in understanding the specificities of inter- and trans-disciplinary (as discussed in Sabine Hark’s article Magical Sign) was to render them in visual form. I hoped this would allow insight into the subject, however in the end it has raised more questions than it yield answers.

During the discussion itself I drew a preliminary diagram which looked like a smiling face:

Diagram 1

I strove to illustrate that whilst the basis of inter-disciplinary study assumes the communication between distinct fields (the arrows), trans-disciplinary attempts to erase the boundaries between them (depicted as the green oval which envelops them).

However, this diagram would assume that the fields are entirely distinct from one another. This is not the case. One of the issues raised at the reading group was the notion that advocating the "purity" of a particular discipline functions as a legitimising strategy. To be recognised it needs to be distinguished from others (a necessary prerequisite for its right to exist as a discipline). There are subjects which would be considered "pure": mathematics for example would be a science, no question. Yet some disciplines, whilst recognised "in their own right", are nevertheless seen to draw on, or bridge between, different fields. Gender Studies is a prime example. Looking back at my diagram, where exactly would I place gender studies? Would it go in social sciences? Humanities? Or maybe on one of the arrows?

What we are dealing with, it seems, are "degrees of purity". To accommodate this I’ve drawn another diagram.

Diagram 2

Some subjects would lie at the edges of the circles, some closer to the centre, and by extension closer to the blurred space of the inter-disciplinary. Yet, if trans-disciplinary is once again the green circle which envelops them, than what is the blurry bit in the middle where all the circles intersect? Wouldn't that be a more apt delineation of trans-disciplinary? So once again I drew a new diagram.

Diagram 3

The circles are now permeated to show that none of them are "closed sets". What do they open into, however? What is that vast white space which surrounds them? The space of possibility? I honestly don't know.

However, that is not the only problem with diagram 3. I began wondering: why have I only drawn three circles? Where in this diagram would law go? Or engineering? What about applied sciences? Would it go between science and social science? Shouldn't science be re-labelled as "natural science"? The questions just kept pouring in, leading me to "update" the previous diagram. The problem of the white space remained.

Diagram 4

This left another pressing question. Whilst the intersections between social sciences and humanities and social science and science are easily visualised, what of the intersection between humanities and sciences? Does it really exist? What would it look like?

Pondering this, I was led to a book I have read recently: José van Dijck's Mediated Memories in the Digital Age. In her work, van Dijck attempts to account for the ways in which memory changes in relation to technological advancement. Her argument is nuanced and she does not, as I may have accidentally suggested, argue that technology changes our memories, but rather it should be seen as a two-way process. New media offer new ways to accommodate the evolution of human perception of the self. Of interest to this discussion is her insight into neuroscience as an attempt to explain the workings of memory. As an example, she argues that recent research has led to understanding memory not as a storage space, where remembering means simply calling forth something which has been put away in our brains (as previously envisioned), but rather, every time we remember we conjure the past anew, within the parameters of the present. Thus, new technologies offering not only storage but also the possibility of altering our memory objects ("doctoring" photographs for example) result in a more flexible approach to dealing with memory. In her research she not only draws on neurobiological research, but also argues that science could greatly benefit from studies which concern themselves with the representation of memory. The ways we strive to visualise our relation with the past in the arts could provide crucial insights into our brains, as well as bridge new pathways for exploration in which science, social science and humanities would go side by side.

Could this be the trans-disciplinarity that we are aiming for? But wouldn't it still fall into one of the circles, even if simply for the purpose of shelving in the library? After all, in order to bridge, we do need two separate entities to exist in the first place.


van Dijick, José, Mediated Memories in the Digital Age (Stanford University Press, 2007)

Hark, Sabine, “Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity”, in Graduate Journal of Social Science 4:2 (2007), pp. 11-33.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Sam

    Marta, i think this entry is fantastic and through me straight back into the conversations that we had at the reading group – thank you for your work!

    08 Apr 2013, 13:41

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