If there really has been a ‘collaborative turn’ between the social and biological sciences, then the stakes of that turn are still very much to be negotiated. ‘Collaboration,’ of course, is not a practice or a structure simply to be aimed for: like all ethical and methodological commitments, collaboration is made in the turning – and thus the actual forms in which ‘biosocial’ accounts are made and registered become inseparable from the different ways in which scholars are and become turned. We have been increasingly frustrated at a lack of attention – indeed, a very specific inattention – to these kinds of questions, as well as the ever growing corpus of bureaucratic and quasi-scholarly encomia for ‘collaboration’ as such. Our article, which we recently published in Theory, Culture and Society, brings our frustration into the public sphere, and advances what we have come to call ‘experimental entanglements’ between the social sciences and the neurosciences as one way to reimagine the bonds of collaboration. Our wager is that collaborating might be imagined not simply as working in conjunction with an other or others, but might also unsettle the sedateness of such ‘conjunction’. (Let us not forget the subterfuge, uncertainties and complex relationalities that enfold the collaborator who works with the ‘enemy’).
Our article is the product of four to five years of shared distress at being, on the one hand, moved by technological and conceptual developments that hold out the hope of radically re-mapping dynamics between the social and biological sciences; and, on the other hand, a deep frustration, at every attempt to begin that cartographic work, where we seem to be endlessly confronted with a deadening bureaucratic and technocratic edifice of ‘interdisciplinarity’ – whose major purpose is to evacuate these possibilities of any real sense of experiment, risk, joy or play. The article, and our call for an attention to ‘experimental entanglement,’ is intended to stir a discussion about what we find sorely lacking in the rush to collaborate – and this is what it actually means to do collaborative work: what it can look and feel like, which ways of characterizing it expand its range of possibilities, and which ones radically foreclose them. Here, as a further contribution to that conversation, we pull out five themes of that article on which we’re inviting further dialogue. We want to use that dialogic space to maybe move beyond this sense of frustration – or, if not, at least to elaborate more clearly its contours. We want to think, in more detail, about the structures, feelings, and modes of collaboration that we would like to bring into being. And we as also want to locate other experimental modes of collaboration, beyond our own, which are already out there, but which are not recognized through the dominant rhetoric of ‘interdisciplinarity.’
(1) Experiments, not collaborations.
At the heart of our discussion is a realization that the increasingly black-boxed logics of ‘interdisciplinarity’ and ‘collaboration’ are not solutions to anything – that in fact those terms hold together sets of practices and registers that need to be opened up, problematized, and (in several cases) dissolved (here we think, for example, of the pernicious logic of ‘consilience’). But rather than get caught, as are so many others, in arid discussion about ‘forms of interdisciplinarity’, we propose moving to a new ground, and this is the ground of experiment. Because if there have been many rich elaborations of how the space between the neurosciences and social sciences might be re-configured in an era of (for example) social and cultural neuroscience, there has been much less attention to what this might actually look like methodologically and in practice. Or as we put it in the article, ‘there has been little suggestion that experimental labour itself might be worthy of sustained attention from social scientists and humanists.’ What if, instead of endlessly poring over maps of the shifting border of these sciences, vainly trying to reach a consensus on where those borders are at any given moment, we re-focused our attention on the neuroscientific experiment, as an already thick, ambiguous rubric for making sense of the biosocial intricacy of human life? Might this help us to think some more creative and entangled ways of exploring this space? And, then, could other practices and archives of experimental labour show us some interesting ways of understanding the contours of this still-emerging space? In our preference for an attention to ‘experiment’ over ‘collaboration,’ we are indebted to an article by Andreas Roepstorff and Chris Frith in Anthropological Theory, which insists on experiment as a form of avant-garde performance – an aesthetic as much as methodological rubric, which shifts the turning of collaboration to the specificity and intricacy of particular kinds of creative intervention.
(2) The world is entangled, whether we want it to be or not.
To the extent that we affiliate with a ‘collaborative turn,’ this – the clause above – is our entry-point. The purpose of a term like ‘entanglement’ is that it foregrounds a world, and also processes of world-making. And it provincializes the stratagems, anxieties, and sectional interests of people trying to make sense of that world – as well as the competitive jostling that goes on around different modes of sense-making. Our direct inspiration here is, of course, the work of Karen Barad (and, by implication, a broader swathe of queer and feminist science studies, which has thought for many decades – indeed has had to think – much harder about the political economy of collaboration than most). We have been especially struck by Barad’s insistence that the inseparability of agencies might well be the most basic ontological property of the world – that there is therefore no ‘under’ or ‘before’ of something like ‘collaboration.’ This is what has gotten lost in what we call ‘the regime of the inter,’ with its endless attention to, and concern for, precisely the forms of the ‘before.’ And so a ‘collaborative turn’ is – even as we remain dutifully suspicious of these namings – at least parallel to an ‘ontological turn,’ which has been much analysed here and elsewhere. Our claim is that, for those of us in the medical humanities and social sciences at least, ‘collaboration’ is the work that comes after the ontological turn. And thinking collaboration through ‘entanglement’ insists on this temporality: the starting-point is that this situation is given to us. Our predicament is thus more existential than it is disciplinary.
(3) The neurosciences are a potent site of entanglement
We do not limit our proposal to the space between the social and the neurobiological. (And indeed, much of our preoccupation is with shifting the focus away from prepositions such as ‘between’ so as attend more closely to other modes of relation). But what has invariably held our attention about the neurosciences, and in particular about neuroscientific experiments, is that they present a range of sites, a series of claims, and a set of practices, that bring precisely this entanglement of biological and social phenomena to the fore. It is, of course, sadly still the case much social scientific engagement with the effects and practices of the neurosciences (although there are some notable exceptions) understands the capacity for critique to be its singular contribution. We are not interested here (or, indeed, anywhere) in re-hashing debates about what critique should mean for a sociology or anthropology of the biosciences. In any event, whatever the potency of critique, it remains the case, as we put it in the article, ‘that many facets of human life that were, for much of the twentieth century, primarily understood through the abstractions of ‘culture’ or ‘society’ – commercial and economic life, governance, historical change, identity, distress and suffering – are increasingly understood as functions of the cerebral architecture of individuals or of groups of individuals.’ If there are risks associated with collaborating in such projects, we have been convinced (and our own experience bears out this conviction) that, as Nikolas Rose (2013) has put it, there is a sense of dynamism, complexity and unpredictability within these bioscientific forays that critics either don’t see, or don’t want to see. Becoming entangled with the neurosciences has been our own way of attempting to attend to this complexity.
(4) Many of the most conservative intellectual spaces you will find today are those that call themselves ‘interdisciplinary.’
We have been convinced of the need for a ‘collaborative’ turn for some years now. We first met – and began our own collaboration – at a networking event for junior social scientists, neuroscientists and humanists. And, since that meeting, we have been heartened by the number of funders, university departments, journal editors etc, who claim to share the same goal. But if we have ‘been inspired by broad calls for social scientists to take up new possibilities for collaboration,’ nonetheless, as we put it elsewhere, ‘we have often been dismayed by the narrow rhetorics and frameworks of interdisciplinarity that seem to govern actual, real collaborative spaces beyond those calls.’ And, at the risk of self-aggrandisement, it has become apparent that the risky and experimental space that we were trying to inhabit was not always what other people had in mind: a fairly typical ‘interdisciplinary’ interaction today is still to, for example, find a ‘philosopher’ who can ‘do’ some concept that will more narrowly parse the results of an imaging experiment – and match her with a neuroscientist with a broadly similar agenda. While this programme is wonderful in many ways, not only does it not cross any meaningful boundaries (there is, of course, often little if any epistemological separation between cognitive neuroscience and an analytic philosophy of mind) – but actually, in the way it parcels out labour and expertise, this kind of interdisciplinary interaction stridently re-enforces the very boundaries it claims to transgress. Partly the issue here is structural and temporal. (Submit a grant proposal that uses social sciences methods to push at the boundaries of neuroimaging, and – we promise you – it will be reviewed separately by a social scientist and a neuroscientist, both of whom will hate it. But this will likely change in time). More broadly, though, there is a general limit of imagination in self-established, increasingly self-congratulatory interdisciplinary spaces, and also a collective horror of risk. The regime of the inter is an entirely – and quite self-consciously – self-cancelling space.
(5) Collaboration as/and subjection
We have never understood the desire for collaborators to be – and, worse, the well-meaning advice that they should be – scrupulously honest, fair, and on a par with one another. If we were endlessly upfront with our colleagues from different disciplines, or if we insisted on fairness vis-a-vis recognition of our desires, we would, in all frankness, have hardly any collaborators by now, and even fewer friends. We are confident that the same can be said on their parts (i.e. that our collaborators have bitten their tongues many times in conversation with us). This is, of course, a fairly mundane reflection on what it means to get along with different kinds of people – but still it tends to get lost in intellectual and disciplinary contexts (i.e those in the humanities and social sciences) that are not much practised at tongue-biting. The point here is that collaboration happens in an (ethically, methodologically, conceptually) ambiguous mode, and much of the work of collaboration is thus learning to live ambiguously. The subject of collaboration, in her turn, lives an ambiguous life, and not always (indeed, perhaps only rarely) a happy one – so here we resist calls to distinguish between, as Anthony Stavrianakis articulates it in this case, the collaborator and cooperator. Living well in a collaborative mode is about resisting the urge to sort things out – it is about quelling the desire to be clear, at all times, on who ‘I’ am, and what ‘I’ am doing, and whether or not ‘I’ am getting anything out of this anyway. Indeed, much of our own learning to live in this mode has not at all been about clarifying things, but about learning to play with them – and play, as Andrew Balmer reminds us in his association of collaboration with BDSM, is a complex and at times violent ethical structure. Certainly, it allows the collaborator to confuse her subjectivity and her subjection. It might even help her to learn to find joy and insight in that confusion.
Des Fitzgerald is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London, where he works at the ‘Urban Brain Lab’ , a project attempting to re-vitalize the relationship between sociology and psychiatry through a study of mental life and the city. He completed his doctoral work in 2013, where he focused on attempts to understand the autism spectrum neurobiologically – describing the ways in which neuroscientific knowledge negotiates the space between the biological and diagnostic definitions of autism, the hopes and disappointments of high-tech bioscience, and the intellectual and affective labours of laboratory research.
Felicity Callard is Reader in Social Science for Medical Humanities at Durham University and has wide-ranging research interests in 20th- and 21st-century psychiatry, neuroscience and psychoanalysis. One strand of her research comprises an interrogation of new models of self and the experimental subject within the cognitive neurosciences and biological psychiatry. She is Group Leader of the ﬁrst residency of The Hub at Wellcome Collection, which will conduct interdisciplinary experiments (on ‘rest’ and its opposites) across the social sciences, humanities, arts and neurosciences. She is also incoming Editor-in-Chief of History of the Human Sciences.
Further reading and listening
Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard, 2014. Social Science and Neuroscience beyond Interdisciplinarity: Experimental Entanglements. Theory, Culture, and Society,
The entanglements of interdisciplinarity: An interview with Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard. Theory, Culture, and Society blog, September 17, 2014.
- Magic Words: A Numbered List
- On the pragmatics and politics of collaborative work between the social and life sciences
- Experimental anthropology in the making: a conversation with Andreas Roepstorff
- “Health Humanities: Building the Future of Research and Teaching” - a Conference Report
- Top of the Heap: Alexander I. Stingl
I am very sympathetic to Callard and Fitzgerald’s project. I have only two comments. Firstly I think, in support of their argument, that the shift from a regime of inter-disciplinarity to one of entanglement reflects actually a more profound shift in the relationship between the sciences of life and the sciences of the socio-cultural. I have no space to go into this seriously here, but the point I’d like to make is that with the erosion of hard-heredity as the core notion of biological inheritance (because of epigenetics, postgenomics, the reactive genome etc.) the increasing porosity between the biological and the sociocultural makes inter-disciplinarity increasingly outdated. The new social biology of this early twenty-first century (see my How Biology Became Social, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-954X.12151/abstract) implies exactly what Callard and Fitzgerald, expanding on Barad, claim, that is that things increasingly look inseparable in a growing imbroglio of biosocial and biocultural events. The new postgenomic biology is really a biology of incessant osmosis between the sociocultural and the genetic moment which explains why entanglement is a better label for the new collaborative strategy.
But here comes my criticism, and second comment, to Felicity and Des. I am not sure that the slightly idiosyncratic and postmodernist style of presenting things they use is what we need to work on a new synthesis of the social and the biological which the new postgenomic episteme would allow probably for the first time.
There are plenty of biologists, historians of science, cultural and medical anthropologists, philosophers of biology and (even) sociologists, who are increasingly dissatisfied with the way the inter-disciplinary regime has worked and sense that an epistemic shift is occurring today in the direction of a new biosocial and biocultural approach. But we need, I think, to persuade them with a detailed analysis of how the conceptual structure of the life-sciences has been changing over the last 2-3 decades in the direction of a stronger porosity to the social. To do this we need detailed and sophisticated reconstructions from the history of science, refined analyses from philosophy of biology and the social sciences, where we can show the increasing implausibility of the former ‘unsocial’ synthesis of neo-Darwinism, the historical reasons that made the separation of the biological and the social necessary (but not perennial), and the growing importance of investigating new sites where the biological is turned into the social and vice-versa. I’d be tempted to say that we need a realist, sober and rational reconstruction that does not concede anything to possible accusations of perpetuating the sterile period of the science wars, because in a sense it is science itself that increasingly lends itself to sociocultural explanations. The sociocultural is a realistic moment in biology, not a socially constructed one. The polarization of language between sober scientific analyses and verbose postmodernist claims reflected that dichotomous epistemic regime that we don’t need any more in a postgenomic time. We need a new synthesis and an adequate, persuasive language for that.
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As a long-time admirer of Des and Felicity’s work and a co-editor of this particular series, I’m heartened to see a critical dialogue beginning to emerge here. I also want to make it explicit that my comments/responses are not intended as a critique of this work so much as a parallel call to address (or ‘(re-)center’) what I see as critical practical issues that are (too) often insufficiently attended to in discussions of collaboration and interdisciplinarity. I parse these into three general areas:
(1) At least from my vantage point in the US, the institutional infrastructure that would support more meaningful collaboration, ‘experimentality’ & boundary crossing seems largely absent. Here one might look to pervasive and entrenched hierarchies of power/funding/knowledge in academia in general and bioscientific or clinical “lab” settings in particular, and rewards systems (in the sense of tenure and promotions, PI eligibility and so forth) that often strongly devalue both publications and research trajectories that deviate from a clear disciplinary path: for example, the junior neuroscientist who publishes four articles in philosophy of science journals and only one in a high-ranked science journal; the junior anthropologist who fails to publish a single-authored ethnographic monograph but engages in much collaborative work. Institutional support for substantive cross-training in the areas of the particular methods or expertise so often necessary to meaningfully engage across various borders and boundaries (for example, longitudinal modeling, discourse analysis, or experimental design) is also exceedingly rare.
(2) In line with debates over the ethics of promoting humanities PhD programs more generally, I worry that the explosion of “interdisciplinary” graduate and postdoctoral fellowships in the past decade (whether more or less entangled or experimental in their internal structures) has likely not improved—and perhaps worsened– outcomes in terms of placement or (as much as I dislike the term) “professional development,” broadly construed. In some cases, it may even be reasonable to suggest that such junior interdisciplinary workers themselves constitute or enact a kind of academic ‘experiment’ in the more troubling sense of this word (or perhaps ‘sacrifice’ would tap the more appropriate discourse). At least in the US, such worries would presumably be borne out by basic statistics concerning the relative number of post-postdoctoral (especially tenure-stream) positions and research funding opportunities available for traditional biomedical or bioscientific research versus those available for either ‘interdisciplinary’ and/or critical/theoretically-driven science-oriented ‘social science’ projects. Statistics that, each new fiscal year, appear to be moving in the ‘wrong’ direction. The neoliberal entanglements of “interdisciplinary” PhDs and postdocs who fail to find academic placements and instead turn to ‘industry’ also undoubtedly merit greater attention in such a discussion.
(3) Jaime Saris, in the final passage of a review of Jenkin and Barrett’s Schizophrenia, Culture and Subjectivity (a review I’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of lately!), observes that while the collection “accomplishes its goal of reinvigorating a century-long conversation between psychiatry and various social sciences . . . [i]t remains to be seen whether both sides are talking about the same issues and according to whose agenda the meeting will be run.” My concern here—again conceding my geopolitical location and its limitations—is that the role of humanities scholars and critical social scientists (and their contributions) even in ostensibly interdisciplinary arenas and/or in projects carried out under related funding schemes remains decisively marginal relative to that of ‘hard’ scientists or quantitative methodologists. I very much doubt any interdisciplinary scholar I know would disagree with this. I nevertheless venture that what we most urgently need is discussion and development of concrete tactics, tools and strategies aimed at actualizing and enacting the sort of vision which Des and Felicity so eloquently describe. I would also—albeit much more tentatively—venture that the relative dearth of such conversation is itself (at least in part) an effect or artifact of ongoing, visible or invisible, processes of disciplinarity in the sense (at least) of continued bifurcations between “theory and critique” and “(laboratory) techniques or practices” as they plays out across multiple registers (or, perhaps more to the point, what constitutes sophisticated discussion of such, understood in disciplinary terms and extending right down to the forms of argumentation, citational and ‘circumstantial’ evidence, and syntax employed). This perhaps coincides with Maurizio’s concluding comment. *How* forward?
This is a great starting point to investigate some of the changes that social scientific knowledge production as a social practice has undergone lately. Thanks. From my own work within the lifesciences (molecular biology) and now the global change community, I can contribute the following six points that are mostly supportive of your argument:
1. Co-laboration not collaboration: Apart from the unfortunate association with the ‘collaborateur’ (NB: the para-site suffers from the same problem), collaboration also conjures up images of shared (political) intentions and goals. The field of collaborative ethnography (as a branch of public sociology/anthropology) attests to that. I agree that this is less than helpful, particularly given the political economy and epistemic stance of some of the fields that the social sciences care about. My suggestion has thus been co-laboration for pretty much the reasons that you mention. (a) Labouring together is not about a shared goal but about conducting epistemic work together. It may turn out that co-labouring may lead to very different, and perhaps even contradictory, results for those involved; at least the format should allow for that. (b) The association of co-laboration with laboratory creates the link to the experiment or the experimental system in a semi-controlled space with a set of agreed upon rules.
2. Experiment: I fully understand where you are trying to go with the notion of experiment, particularly with the reference to its playful dimension (as in the mode ‘experiment as aesthetic’ that Andreas Roepstorff and Chris Frith are talking about). I am just not sure that broader discourses will share that reading and I wonder what the dominant interpretations of and responses to the notion of ‘experiment’ will be. It would be very unfortunate to see the social sciences being pushed into a new kind of scientistic mode; but maybe that is an unnecessary concern. (dito being pushed into a postmodernist playfulness vis-a-vis a serious university science)
3. Reflexivity: Key to this new mode – whichever form and label it takes – seems to be a different type of reflexivity. Rather than sticking with the role of the modest witness and withdrawing to critical distance to reflect as an individual, desk-based practice, we may also engage in ‘modest withness’ (Estrid Sørensen), ground our reflections in comparing different kinds of (experimental) involvement and produce reflexivity as a truly social and even co-present practice. Dominic Boyer at Rice University has some thoughts on this: https://www.academia.edu/414411/Reflexivity_Reloaded
4. Oscillation: An inventory of actual ‘working together’ as it currently happens may also make clear that there is little need for value-laden debates over the use and legitimacy of different modes of knowledge production. Oscillating between different modes seems to hold great potential for producing curious findings.
5. Widerstandsaviso: In my own work, I have always thought of co-laborating as a means of producing what Ludwik Fleck called a Widerstandsaviso, i.e. reality’s resistance to being treated in certain ways by a thought collective. Rather than reality producing the resistance, it is experimental co-laboration that produces findings that can then be taken back to the co-labourers’ respective communities and do epistemic work there; perhaps by resisting undue reductions in thought styles.
6. Trust: In my experience, key to a co-laborative agenda has been trust. I agree that this is not about absolute openness, honesty and fairness. Yet a degree of trust in my experience is prerequisite for people to be prepared to come out to play. The fear of being ‘deconstructed’ or somehow exposed is real at least amongst those who have not yet risen to the upper echelons of scientific truth and beyond doubt; and only those seem co-labourers worth social science’s while. This fear or uncertainty is often prolonged by the fact that the social scientific aim of co-laboration is often less than clear. Few life scientists buy ‘curiosity’ as a motive and many sense a lurking dissatisfaction with existing reductionisms. Here, an open discussion of just what experiments of this kind do and where they lead to will be helpful.
Many thanks to Des and Felicity. The blog format suits them, as their summary of key contributions and ideas is compelling and accessible. The analysis they present captures many aspects of how Greg Downey and I have worked on Neuroanthropology since 2007, which gained shape through being both a blog and a field of inquiry. To wit:
Experiment, not Collaboration: The blog started as an experiment and grew from here, a place where we and others conversed and communed and sketched out the outlines for what a collaborative project might look like.
The World Is Entangled: Certainly it is digitally, because we became entangled with others – neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, journalists, therapists – through working online and in public. But the origins of Greg and my approach, prior to the blog, lay in ethnographic entanglements, with trying to understand what our informants showed us and finding empirical purchase through an entangled disciplinarity.
Neurosciences as Site: More than a site, and with the growing recognition that neuroscience is broad and diverse. But, yes, neuroscience offers something value-added to social scientists and humanists struggling with fundamental questions (or at least that is what we found with neuroanthropology). Part of this value-added is in how the neuro- is good to think with, data-wise. But part of it is also because the neuro- is often as alien as anything else we study, and that opens up our interdisciplinary eyes.
Interdisciplinarity as Conservative: Hear hear. A major issue faced by anyone on the social/human side is the sciences want to do interdisciplinary work on their own terms. And that doesn’t work well. Neuroanthropology might be called interdisciplinary, but in the end, it’s more anthropology than neuroscience, and for now, that’s not a bad thing. It permits certain things to grow that wouldn’t otherwise grow in a more interdisciplinary institute ruled by certain types of data, funding, or sheer numbers.
Collaboration as Ambiguous: Biting your tongue and being comfortable with the process of fumbling forward into shady arenas. Yes, it takes a certain sort to do this sort of work, and that exists in many ways at odds with the crystalline but often demanding bureaucracy that surrounds many interdisciplinary efforts. But that is not quite subjugation, but a cultivation of common sense. And that often applies to how people get things done outside academic institutions, from loving marriages to start-up companies.
As critique, I offer the following. I think that what ends up from the type of interdisciplinary effort that Des and Felicity describe will look quite different than what happens as par-for-the-course in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities today. An entangled world is one we don’t see well at all, and might be out of the grasp of any of the three dominant approaches – reductive, communal, or interpretive. Entanglement happens through all three at once, making use of neural and social facts and doing so through means and ends that are often foreign to our normal forms of making meaning. This is the para-site, in both senses, that we need to better explore.
Thanks hugely to everyone who has responded! With a view to keeping the discussion going, we’re replying probably more hastily than we would like, to some of the major points above:
Maurizio, thanks for drawing attention to the broader epistemic shift in which the kinds of moves/stratagems we set out here become possible. The work of you’ve done on the ‘new social biology’ has been especially helpful here. But there is a difference between the high-level mapping of the intellectual landscape of biology as such, which you do so well, and the kind of mundane, everyday experimental endeavours that we’ve found ourselves involved in, entered into with particular kinds of inchoate desires, and then tried to understand retrospectively. So our position is not ‘the intellectual landscape has moved; we need to move with it.’ It’s much more ‘we have followed our interests into spaces that we don’t really understand, and that it turns out no one else really does either – so what are we going to do to make sense of it?’ We are even tempted to declare a bit of an indifference to the ‘postgenomic’ moment – not least because, as you know better than we do, crossings between the biological and the social are not exhausted by it (thinking here e.g. of Des’s recent work thinking through the urban sociology of Chicago in the 1930s, or of Felicity’s interest in how psychoanalysis’s model of ‘psychic life’ has had, since its inception, an intimate and ambivalent relationship to ‘the biological’), and also because we have never been (consciously anyway) motivated by it. So we don’t want to map a landscape and then re-distribute people around it; we want to understand the mess we’ve found ourselves in, and if that’s helpful to others (we think it will be), then great. There is much more to be said here, and we’d really like to continue this exchange.
Nev, the attention you draw to infrastructures that discipline scholars is crucial (in sociology, for example, the single-authored article in the ‘top’ sociology journal remains the golden ticket), and we are also very aware that our arguments emerge out of a particular historical-geographical site. The constraints you identify are still very present in the UK. However, at the level of funders, change does seem to be afoot (we’re thinking, for example, of the Wellcome Trust’s championing of creative interdisciplinary projects [e.g. in Hubbub and Hearing the Voice], and the AHRC’s funding of the “Centre for Medical Humanities New Generations Programme”). In addition to the differences you point out between international infrastructures, there’s also a division that might be drawn between funders and research managers who encourage one thing, and senior/entrenched scholars who insist on another (we have certainly seen this play out in different settings). There’s work to be done mapping this landscape in a much more detailed way. Similarly with the point you make re job markets and people making (having to make) experiments of their ‘professional development’ (the term ‘sacrifice’ is really interesting here – not least because of its resonance with animal studies). We agree that it is surely true that job market statistics won’t tell a happy story about interdisciplinarity (although not about the ‘bio’ as such, there is the well-known ‘no DH; no interview’ piece from a couple of years back). And even if the experimenters do make it work, that doesn’t say anything about the broader miasma of humanistic and social-science thought, and whether the ‘interdiscipline’ has done anything for its sustainability. Finally, we absolutely agree that in these interdisciplinary spaces, the role of the humanities scholar or social scientist often ‘remains decisively marginal relative to that of ‘hard’ scientists or quantitative methodologists’—indeed, that was one of the starting points for our developing a model of experimental entanglement that acknowledges these profound differences of epistemic and material ‘power’. We’re conscious, too, of how much our own investment in thinking through this, and being seen to think it through, is also a kind of careerist self-positioning (Felicity is particularly aware of a sense of relief that her gambit of working in a number of disciplinary departments over the years seems not to have ended in disaster).
To your most potent remark (also asked by Maurizio) – so *how* forward? We don’t have a good answer to this (and are interested in whether/how some ‘forward’ might emerge from this conversation). We’re also currently putting together a short monograph on this topic, where we will work through a lot of our loose thoughts on this in much more detail. But one of the ideas we’re tentatively working towards (and we talk about this in the article), is that there might not be a ‘forward’ – but rather only a temporary and contingent ‘across,’ with no clear directionality, and yet in such a way that the patchwork of crossings, retrenchments and re-crossings (in individual projects, individual careers, departmental ruptures, closures, and so on) ultimately amounts to something. This is not an especially happy story – but we think it a more likely and realistic one than e.g. the grand/happy interdisciplinary future that one sees advertised elsewhere.
As to how this is read, and the kind of theoretical tone/stance we need to, or should adopt – a point made by Maurizio and Jörg, and also by colleagues away from these discussions … Sure, we have a tone and register that is self-consciously doing work as a tone and register (although probably we would not concede that it is redolent of the pomo stance adopted during the ‘science wars,’ however nostalgic we might, at times, be for the 1990s!). Partly this is strategic: we use the language, terminology and gestures of people whom we think should be – or whom we would like to be – our allies, but are not yet. (And this is not people in the biosciences, who in our experience will need less persuasion – and who, we’re also fully aware, are less likely to moved by the tone we adopt here). It’s also about different scenes – of course the tone you adopt on Somatosphere or in Theory, Culture and Society is not the one you’d go for when talking to bioscientists or research funders (we have published some rather sober ‘scientific’ articles that employ a very different register; this is a truism of intellectual life, whether one is avowedly ‘interdisciplinary’ or not. But it’s also partly because it’s what we want to do – we don’t ‘do’ interdisciplinarity because we feel we have to, and must thus (re-)learn to comport ourselves in particular ways. We do it because (right now) it’s what we find interesting and enjoyable, and we have always insisted that collaboration doesn’t mean giving up on your own sense of how you want to play with, work on, and write through things. So, you can be involved in neuroscientific projects, and you can also write cultural theory – we have always insisted on both, albeit not always at the same time, rather than being the sober arbiters between the two.
Jörg, we especially like your proposal for ‘producing curious findings’ (and are grateful for the reference to ‘modest withness,’ which, shamefully, is new to us). ‘Curious oscillation’ seems as good a descriptor of – and motivation for – the kind of ‘interdisciplinarity’ we favour as any other. Although, now that you raise it, ‘oscillation’ does contain a notion of a ‘return’ which we’re not totally convinced about – we’re not sure, as in the Widerstandsaviso model you outline, if we do simply want to return to our thought communities, and do the epistemic work there. This thought needs more work – but there’s something to be said here about how the epistemic work is in the movement, and especially in that movement’s constancy’ (fumbling in the shade, as Daniel very nicely puts it below). As ambivalent as we are about turning, we’re not so sure about the return either. The same might be said vis-à-vis ‘trust’: we absolutely agree that certain things make it more or less likely that people are able to ‘play’, but we’re not so sure that trust is a ‘prerequisite’ (in the sense that it needs to be there ‘prior’ to something else being able to occur). When we reflect on the various ‘collaborations’ that we’ve each (separately and together) been part of, some of those that might—further down the line—be described as in some way rewarding (or at least not a total failure) were not characterized by trust at the outset.
Daniel – thanks a lot for drawing readers’ attentions to the Neuranthropology blog, which is a wonderful resource, and precisely the kind of experiment (or set of experiments) that we find so valuable. Precisely what we have found so invigorating there is the sort of undramatic insistence that neuroscientific data can be good to think with – as an ethnographic object sure, but also as a kind of interesting ‘other’ in the field, with its own ideas/thoughts/forms of intervention. And we agree fully with your reflections on tongue-biting as you fumble through the shade – although this common sense is, unfortunately, surprisingly uncommon in our experience. Your suggestion that all of this is as much a quality of loving partnership as it is of what we (a bit tongue in cheek) call ‘subjugation’ is very welcome, and no doubt an improvement, so thanks for that 🙂
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