Finding the ‘Courage to Abandon’: On Interdisciplinary and Socially Engaged Research

By Sara Breikeutz

Transdisciplinary striving … is a process of dialogue where truth and synthesis emerge out of dialogue, rather than begin with it.

Ananta Kumar Giri1

Giri, an anthropologist by training, proposes that in order to transcend interdisciplinary work as the negotiation of accepted boundaries between academic disciplines, transdisciplinary practice entails an abandonment, or at least a momentary suspension, of disciplinary identities and the adoption of the attitude of a pilgrim or seeker. If we can find the “courage to abandon our disciplines as part of our journey of life”2, he argues, we might be able to harness the transformative potential of academia and move beyond discourses of professionalization that keep disciplines neatly bounded, even in many interdisciplinary endeavours where work is done across disciplines rather than beyond them.

The proposition to abandon one’s discipline might seem a bit scandalous, especially for undergraduate and graduate students whose professionalization is still actively under way. But I think this past semester’s experiment in multidisciplinarity—the Right to the City project which brought art history, theatre, and oral history students and professors together in a community space in Point Saint Charles—has been guided by an aspiration to transcend disciplinary boundaries, whether this was explicit in the curriculum planning or not. While in many respects the disciplinary boundaries at play remained fairly intact due to the structure of the courses, there were certainly moments of transcendence, and ultimately I think the focus on community-based practice and engaged social research provided us with a unique chance to transcend the boundary between the academy and the ‘community’.

As an anthropologist-in-training (currently in my first year of a PhD program in Social & Cultural Analysis after having completed an MA in Anthropology), part of my professionalization has had to do with becoming familiar with boundary-crossing. It could be said that anthropologists are trained boundary-crossers, negotiating the tricky space between ‘us’ and ‘them’, self and other, academic and ‘local’ communities, as well as traversing institutional, political, and national boundaries for our research, which is conventionally based on intensive fieldwork and participant observation, and is becoming increasingly ‘engaged’ and collaborative. It may be no surprise, then, that I was drawn to the interdisciplinary and community-based approach of the Right to the City courses, as disciplinary boundary-crossing is, perhaps to Giri and at least to me, a natural extension of the anthropological project. I was also interested in acquiring skills and experience related to the digital humanities, and place-based digitally-mediated interventions in particular, so the opportunity to work on an audio tour of Point Saint Charles was exciting.

My participation in the oral history course was very productive of reflections on the similarities and differences between oral history and cultural anthropology. According to Alessandro Portelli, a well-known oral historian and proponent of the approach, oral history serves “to bring into the vision of history aspects of experience that have been ignored or left out”3, particularly those aspects that comprise personal, subjective, and orally recounted versions of historical events. I don’t pretend to have become an oral historian in the course of the last three months, and there is certainly a great deal about the approach and its relationship to ‘history proper’ of which I remain ignorant, but if I were to hazard a guess (in the spirit of dialogue), I would say that oral history and anthropology are both generally concerned with what might be considered subjective truths, at the very least holding them alongside more ‘objective’ facts and ‘concrete’ realities, and at most privileging them as local forms of knowledge and calling into question the very legitimacy of claims to objectivity and concreteness. Both are concerned with voices, in the metaphorical sense of diverse perspectives as well as the more literal sense of embodied utterances or speech acts, and often take the latter to be the foundation of their original research, whether in the form of recorded interviews or notes on conversations from the field.

Where they may differ, I would suggest, is that anthropology is interested in what it means to be human from the perspective of the contemporary diversity of material practices and ways of knowing (what we might tentatively gloss as ‘culture’), whereas oral history’s locus of attention is more firmly rooted in understanding the past, or histories as constructions of the past. Anthropologists do not disregard history, but use it to inform and situate discussions of the present; historians, while cognizant of the connections between past, present and future, focus on describing and interpreting pasts in order to shed some light on what it means to be human4. The goal of our audio tour of Point Saint Charles, at least as I understood it, was to interrogate the present and future of the neighbourhood through the lens of its past. An anthropological thesis, on the other hand, might have included an obligatory chapter on ‘the history of Point Saint Charles’ as a supplement to the main body of work, which may have dealt with current social formations and practices—that which is observable through the discipline’s traditional methodology of participant observation.

Still, anthropology and oral history have fairly similar goals and approaches, both being of a similar order of social science disciplines, especially when compared with the other courses in art history and neighbourhood theatre. Taking a much more explicitly interpretive approach grounded in arts-based interventions in the physical space of the neighbourhood, these classes generated such diverse works as a multimedia movement piece, a sound installation inspired by churchbells, a stop-motion animated short, and a full-on Broadway-style musical number. I have to admit, despite my own background in socially-engaged theatre, I felt a fair amount of squeamishness about these unabashedly interpretive approaches to understanding Point Saint Charles: what about the ethics of representation? What about the power differential between academic researchers (often read as middle-class and privileged, whether they are or not) and supposedly working-class local community members? Who were we, as students and outsiders, to interpret and represent Point Saint Charles?

I felt this squeamishness—which, upon reflection, could be understood as a direct result of my professionalization as an anthropologist5—most acutely when a group of theatre students invited students from our oral history class to participate in recording some videos based on a previous ‘speed-dating’ exercise. The history students, reprising what had been done while speed-dating, would introduce themselves first as students, and then adopt the persona of the interviewee whose interview they had coded in the oral history database. My finely-tuned ethics-of-representation senses screamed an alarm: wasn’t this a quite literal example of ‘speaking for others’, a deadly sin (to some) since anthropology’s reflexive turn? Needless to say, I did not participate, feeling quite comfortable on my moral high ground as an engaged and sensitive community researcher, sitting at my laptop and listening to pre-recorded, ethically approved, interviews from the database6.

However, by the end of the term, the audio team (in charge of preparing the narration, route, and audio clips for the beta version of the walking tour) of which I was a part had also wrestled with the burden of authorship and interpretation7, and encountered again the question of ‘speaking for’ others. Our approach was reflexive: we included our own voices in the narrative text, making clear the conditions under which the audio tour was produced and our partiality as students and outside observers. The three classes had worked hard to produce something that could be viewed or experienced at the end-of-term presentation day on November 29, so after walking through the beta version of the tour with our friends, family, and some of the interviewees, the history class students converged at Share the Warmth on Wellington Street to see the presentations of the other classes. I was struck not only by the creativity and sensitivity with which their interventions had been produced, but also by the level of engagement they had obviously had in the community; several students appeared to have conducted in-depth interviews with community members, provided workshops, classes and performances with various local social organizations, and generally spent a good deal of time in Point Saint Charles. While this last was true for us, too—we had spent many hours visiting sites of interest and planning and testing our audiowalk route, as well as meeting at Share the Warmth for class discussions—I had to admit that by my own standards of ethically engaged and reflexive research, the art and theatre interventions surpassed my expectations.

With newfound admiration and humility, I finally watched the ‘speed-dating’ videos8. My questions about the ethics of ‘speaking for’ have not disappeared completely, but I now suspect that this is precisely an example of transcending disciplinary boundaries and finding Giri’s ‘courage to abandon’, an instance of true transdisciplinary exchange. Rather than rejecting certain approaches and methodologies on principle, successful inter- and transdisciplinary work might require of its participants to suspend such judgments in favour of questions: what are the goals of transformative arts-based interventions? How do they tackle the problems of representation and ethics? How might our own disciplinary approaches be challenged and augmented by those of others?

My one regret is that I did not engage more directly with students from the other classes in order to explore these questions. While in theory we had the opportunity for interaction using our online group account on Basecamp, I wonder whether more structured interactions—specifically with a view to encouraging cross-disciplinary dialogue—might have enriched our experience. In fact, I am left with the impression that the whole project could have afforded to be more interdisciplinary, that is, explored the boundaries between disciplines explicitly, but that in many ways it was quite sufficiently transdisciplinary in its effort to embed students in community spaces and get them out of the ‘ivory tower’ of academic research.

I want to conclude by reflecting on some of the things, despite my hesitations and hangups, I have learned from this inter/transdisciplinary encounter. I think I’ve developed a more complex understanding of the past, that rather than some kind of inert container for ‘context’, or a topic to be engaged with in a cursory or routine way, or an obligatory chapter in a thesis, it is in fact just as dynamic as the present. How we conceptualize the past, and how it is felt and remembered and understood by the people with whom we work, is pivotally important for our understandings of the present, and can function as claims to a certain version of community and identity which are of great interest to anthropologists. Also, as an anthropologist interested in the ‘digital humanities’, specifically digital media and interactive media (a kind of art), I must be prepared, at least from time to time, to abandon my disciplinary attachments and go on a pilgrimage into strange representational territory. Finally, I think that truly engaged collaborative research—which is probably always aspirational and rarely realized, but towards which I think we took some important steps with the Right to the City project—requires the ‘courage to abandon’ one’s view of the world, inclusive of one’s disciplinary training, and a commitment to the socially transformative potential of academia beyond the university.

References Cited

Giri, Ananta Kumar. 1998. Transcending Disciplinary Boundaries: Creative experiments and the critiques of modernity. Critique of Anthropology 18: 379–404.

Portelli, Alessandro.2009. What Makes Oral History Different. In Oral History, Oral Culture, and Italian Americans, Luisa del Guidice (ed.). Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 21–30.

1 (1998:400).

2 (395).

3 (2009:30).

4 Or maybe not! Please, historians, comment on this post to correct or inform me (anthropologists, too, for that matter).

5 Anthropology underwent a reflexive turn in the in the last decades of the 20th century that inspired a great deal of theorizing and anguish about the politics of representation, the exoticization of the ‘other’, and the responsibilities of anthropology as a discipline which emerged during the colonial expansion of Europe.

6 I certainly hope this admission doesn’t ruffle too many feathers. As you’ll see, I had a change of heart; but even this criticism isn’t meant to target individuals, but to highlight differences in disciplinary approaches which slide so easily into moralizing discourses.

7 See my other blog post on this site, ‘Voices and silence’.

8 See