Sunday, June 24, 2012

Little Boxes Made of Ticky Tack: Musings on Academic Disciplinarity

One of the problems, in my opinion, with academia and, as a result, academic culture as it has evolved, developed, devolved, choose your poison, is the division of the social sciences and the humanities into disciplinary territories with names like History, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, Economics, Folklore, English, and so on and on and on.

It is interesting to compare academic times present with intellectual times past. In the nineteenth century, before the development of academic disciplines and before social science and humanities fossilised or hardened into what they are today, the interdisiplinary and totalistic and wholisic intellectual life was actually treasured and rewarded. Some of those who engaged in the grand interdisiplinary and wholistic enterprise, in fact, became the totemistic godfathers of the biological sciences, Sociology, and Anthropology and remain very much so today. Charles Darwin, for instance, in his Origins of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871) pointed out that all species, including man, humans, were the products of the interaction between biology and environment. He called it adaptation. Karl Marx in his various writings, polemical and "scientific", explored the prehistory and history of human economic activity from hunter-gatherer societies through agricultural feudal societies to industrial capitalist societies. Max Weber explored in great detail and depth the question of why capitalism arose in the West by focusing on variety of factors that contributed to the development of modern capitalism in the West including Western Calvinism. Emile Durkheim analysed how societies made themselves into objects of their own transcendental desire and how modern societies differed from pre-modern societies

The development of academia into disciplines claiming special knowledge over a particular territory of human knowledge in the late 19th and early 20th century has been all for the bad, in my opinion, when it comes to understanding human life in all its shapes, forms, and sizes particularly when compared with the comparative interdisciplinarity of the 19th century. On the historical and sociological level the disciplining of academia is a reflection of the same specialisation of labour processes that have occurred in other sectors of the modern world thanks to such things as capitalism, industrialisation, centralisation, professionalisation, and bureaucratisation. On the sociology of knowledge level this specialisation has had a particularly deleterious effect because, if we really want to understand humankind in all of its historical and cultural forms, we have to look at humans through the broad lenses of biology, economics, culture, politics, and geography not through the narrowly focused nearsighted lenses of academic disciplines. We have to do this because, as Darwin recognised over a hundred years ago, human life is the product of both nature (biology, genetics, demography) and nurture (economics, culture, politics, and geography). For this reason dividing knowledge into little or not so little territorial boxes, as academia has done, does not help us understand human life and human culture in general. In fact it actually hinders us.

American Anthropology recognised this when it subdivided itself into Biological or Evolutionary Anthropology, Cultural or Social Anthropology, Linguistics, and Archaeology as it bureaucratised. What sounds great in theory has not proved as wonderful in practise, however. The various strands of academic Anthropology, like academia in general, have developed their own specialised knowledges, their own bureaucratic practises, and their own distinct languages, making discourse between all four branches difficult if not impossible and not always desirable to Bioanthropologists, Ethnographers and Ethnologists, Linguists, and Anthropological Archaeologists with distinct senses of self and collective identity. Moreover, American Anthropology as practised has long had another problem. Cultural and Social Anthropology has tended to focus on non-modern societies and cultures leaving the moderns to Sociology while Anthropological Archaeology has little if anything to do with Ancient and Classical Archaeology thanks to disciplinary territorial boundaries. So even the one discipline that attempted in theory to be wholistic and which made sacred the collection of materials from around the world on every hunter-gatherer, pastoral, agricultural, water based societies and cultures for their Human Relations Area Files, hasn't really been engaged in this necessary and essential interdisciplinary and comparative work in practise. And while this may be partly due to increasing human complexity and the increasing size of the Western world in particular it also has something, a large something in my opinion, to do with Western specialisation, centralisation, professionalisation, and bureaucratisation.

I regard this little fable about the failures of wholistic Anthropology, by the way, as the proverbial canary in the coal mine waring us that the notion that all disciplines working together will produce a general understanding of and knowledge of the world we live in in all its glory is an illusion if not a hallucination. Specialisation generally leads to the development of separate (but not equal) academic disciplines and "distinct" academic knowledges, academic knowledge specialisation (the higher education bureaucracy's version of the division of labour), and languages. It leads, in other words, to academic little boxes rather than to interdisciplinary interaction or a broad understanding of the world and the humans who live in that world.

Thankfully interdisciplinary and comparative explorations of human life and human culture in all their complexity is not yet dead as the writings of Jurgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu, and others show. Such interdisciplinary attempts to get at humans, human society, and human culture are, however, anomalies in an academic disciplinary context that rewards specialisation rather than interdisciplinarity and which penalises unorthodoxy and heresy. And that, dear unreaders, is a tragedy of immense dimensions and that is why I am no longer sure academia really works or functions as much more than an bureaucracy for the accumulation of social capital, cultural capital, and economic capital by some.

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