Lost in interdisciplinarity? The many voices in spatial research

16. September 2019

The following discussion is an edited, abridged transcript of the concluding panel discussion of the 1st International Conference of the CRC 1265 „Re-Figuration of Spaces“ on the topic of interdisciplinarity in spatial research between researchers Martina Löw (Chair), Matthias Middell, Ilse Helbrecht, Séverine Marguin, Jörg Stollmann and Steffen Mau.

Plenary Discussion: Interdisciplinarity in Spatial Research
(1. International Conference of the CRC 1265: “Re-Figuration of Spaces: Mediatisation, Mobility, Globalization and Social Dislocation” Date: 22.02.2019, Technische Universität Berlin)

Chair: Martina Löw (sociologist, spokesperson of the CRC 1265, TU Berlin)

Matthias Middell (historian, spokesperson of the CRC 1199, Leipzig University)
Ilse Helbrecht (geographer, HU Berlin)
Séverine Marguin (sociologist, TU Berlin)
Jörg Stollmann (architect, TU Berlin)
Steffen Mau (sociologist, HU Berlin)

Martina Löw: Space is a fascinating topic because it is inherently interdisciplinary. Just think of all the different disciplines dealing with space: philosophy, mathematics, art, architecture, geography. They all bring in different perspectives to the field of spatial research. Take, for example, Kant’s idea of space as a frame of mind on the one hand, and the very materialistic ways architecture and planning deal with space on the other: How can these different approaches be linked? Geography, too, is very much on the side of materiality as opposed to Kant’s concept of space. Art often deals with breaking up the container model of space, which our everyday thinking is taking for granted. Different perspectives on space result in different ways of thinking about and working with space. We are all dealing with the same topic, but we do so in different ways. Yet despite all the variety, we have been witnessing converging conceptual developments within the last hundred years. The most striking parallel for me is that we all adapted a relational approach to space as a mode of analysis in some way or the other. Maybe this is a connecting point for our various disciplines?

We have invited five speakers for a conversation about space and interdisciplinarity. I would like to start with Matthias Middell. He is professor of cultural history in Leipzig and chair of the Collaborative Research Centre 1199 “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition”.

Matthias, both our projects deal with space and with globalisation. Your research focuses on area studies and the historical side of things, whereas the CRC 1265  is more focused on the special relationship between social sciences on the one hand, and planning and architecture on the other. We are curious to know: What is your experience with interdisciplinarity in Leipzig?

Matthias Middell: In my view, discussions about interdisciplinarity are very often of compensatory nature and tend to imply exactly the opposite of what they say they want to achieve. Most of the time we find the insistence on disciplinary perspectives and a critical assessment of disciplinary limitations is mere lip service. A major problem, when it comes to space and globalisation is, in fact, that most disciplines we are working in were introduced in response to the wave of globalisation in the late 19th century. They cannot easily be adjusted to what is happening now. Therefore, our very own disciplinary discourses often repeat views on how the world was perceived in the late 19th century! Methodological nationalism and Eurocentric approaches are a powerful legacy but they are no longer appropriate to cope with today’s global challenges. I would therefore argue in favour of post-disciplinarity in the sense that we have to rebuild or establish new fields of knowledge instead of connecting the old ones. Natural scientists have done just that, and more often than we did in the humanities and social sciences. Just think of the new fields of biochemistry or astrophysics and so on – interdisciplinarity was and is only one way among others to define new fields of research.

The specificity of the CRC 1199 in Leipzig is that a majority of our principal investigators (PI) come from fields and disciplines that define themselves in terms of space. Let’s take geographers and area studies researchers – either you want to deal with geography in general, or you focus on spatial entities or on particular world regions such as Africa or East Asia. Other PIs look at the problem through the lens of temporality to investigate the historical transformations of spatial formats and orders. Our challenge is to combine these two perspectives, and none of the established disciplines fits this purpose adequately. This led to new, in fact post-disciplinary disciplines being established such as, for instance, Global Studies. And this allows us to overcome the traditional opening line of so-called interdisciplinary talks when the speaker starts with “Me, as a political scientist, I would argue…“. The quintessential thing is to share perspectives on similar problems in order to profit from a diversity of methodological approaches, rather than initiating the next debate about interdisciplinarity that more often than not reproduces what it pretends to wish to overcome.

Martina Löw: I would like to continue with our next speaker, Ilse Helbrecht. She is professor of cultural and social geography at the Humboldt University Berlin and director of the Georg Simmel Centre for Metropolitan Studies. Ilse, the dictionary definition of geography is: it is a science devoted to the study of space. What happens when sociologists, ethnologist, and historians come together in the field? What are the advantages or disadvantages of this ‘spreading out’ of spatial research in your opinion?

Ilse Helbrecht: Looking at my team of researchers at Humboldt University, I have a post doc with a background in political sciences, another post doc with a background in public policy, and I have a PhD student, who is a trained ethnographer. And of course, also geographers are on my team. I appreciate the diversity in the cultural and social geography lab at Humboldt-University for two reasons. First, I am learning a lot! For example, right now there seems to be a real trend to do ethnographic work in the field of human geography. Yet I am often left with the feeling that this might not be “the real” ethnography, since human geographers do all the interviews and field observations. Hence, I am so lucky to have a trained ethnographer in my research team now to learn more about “real” ethnographic work. The diversity of disciplines brings a diversity of approaches, of questions, methods and theories to the table, and this enriches every debate.

Secondly, the diversity creates a splendid irritation when other disciplines do urban research. Let me give you an example: Each year a student conference takes place at the Georg-Simmel Centre for Metropolitan Research at Humboldt University, to which we invite bachelor and master students to present theses on urban research from all fields. When you look at the conference programme, you’ll have students presenting topics, rather than a strict reproduction of orders of disciplines! The written titles of their talks won’t tell you which background they have. And while you sit in the sessions to listen to the speakers, you often realise that you are familiar with the subject, but not with the way it is approached. Because the speaker has a different disciplinary background from you. This is what I call “splendid irritation”.

We all have internalised our disciplinary training and transformed it into certain research routines. It is like a discipline’s habitus, a habitus of thinking, of asking questions, of doing research, which we are not necessarily aware of. It’s only when I discuss spatial and urban issues with people from different professional backgrounds that I have a chance to become aware of my unconscious geographical habitual condition. This irritation promotes critical self-reflection and progress in learning.

Martina Löw: Séverine Marguin is a postdoctoral researcher here at CRC 1265 and director of our Method Lab. Her habilitation project evolves around interdisciplinary spatial research. She focuses on the link between the work and what architects and planners do compared to what social scientists, especially sociologists, work on and do. Séverine, how would you characterise this special relationship your thesis is about? Is it complicated, and for whom is it more complicated? For the architects or rather for the sociologists?

Séverine Marguin: I think that in our CRC we are dealing with a very specific form of interdisciplinarity. We are embedded in what some authors call the Design Turn in scientific production, meaning the integration of design disciplines such as architecture, art or design in the humanities. Such a kind of interdisciplinary collaboration raises fundamental questions and leads to what I would call a re-figuration of scientific understanding. And for this reason, resistances from both sides are huge. Such an integration affects the disciplines’ fundamental epistemic cultures. My ethnographic investigations at the CRC so far focus on convergences between disciplines, but there are also fundamental divergences regarding the definition, the implementation and the purpose of research between sociology and architecture or urban design. In other words: The question is through what, how and for which purpose are the concrete practices of the researcher motivated and enacted?

Interdisciplinary collaboration may also be difficult, for example in light of the relational asymmetry between disciplines. It’s a general problem and not specific to our CRC. I observe the same phenomenon in other big interdisciplinary research projects including design disciplines. Within the CRC, we observe a certain scientification of architecture or urban design, which is seen as imperative for the alignment with sociological criteria of scientific validity. But what does such an alignment imply for the development of architecture and urban design? And where does it come from? Does it result from some structural logic? And what effect does it have on the particular entwinement of research and design? What does the ‘scientificness’ of architecture and design consist in? What would it mean for sociology if we tried to think both fields in more symmetrical terms and opened up to certain design practices? My definition of interdisciplinarity includes questions like these.

Martina Löw: I am curious to hear Jörg Stollmann’s response. He is an architect and professor for urban design and urbanisation at the Institute for Architecture here at TU Berlin. What do you think about this sociological view regarding our disciplines’ relationship?

Jörg Stollmann: What Séverine identifies as “Design Turn” opens up new perspectives for all of us. Speaking from the point of view of the design profession, one should think that any urban planner, designer or architect is perfectly apt to think and work in interdisciplinary ways. Hardly any architect ever really builds a house by him- or herself alone, although, funny enough, there is a tendency to perceive and talk about it as if he or she did. Yet we are always part of a group of experts involved in the process of building a house. But maybe we are dealing here with interprofessionality rather than interdisciplinarity. We are used to working with different types of knowledge and combining them.

But in contrast to our practical work, academic basic research is different, and hardly any architect, urban planner or designer does that. In my training, I was not taught to be part of a basic research team, let alone an interdisciplinary one. Instead, we were trained to work according to norms. If we are to do research as architects, we only do so in order to prove how things should be from a normative point of view. For example, no one would want to know from us what really happens in a Smart City when people live there. We are merely asked to plan and build it. We are expected to act normatively.

A project, for us, is usually something that we bring into the world in quite physical ways. This purpose sets us apart from other disciplines, which are more used to working under conditions of interdisciplinary research. To take a step back and reflect (critically) as part of a research project that doesn’t directly or necessarily lead to a particular physical design and planning output is something we are only learning in the process of doing it.

As exciting as it is to suspend normativity, I think that Séverine’s comment on the relationship and dominance of one particular discourse is nevertheless true. Interdisciplinarity in research must make sure that our special knowledge is not overwritten in the process of adapting to another discipline’s schemes, ideas and ways of thinking. We designers are able to bring in visual and physical knowledge about space to spatial research – but we must learn to be more aware of this often implicit knowledge that we have, which, however, might not (yet) have been methodised according to the standards of our dear colleagues in the CRC. It’s a huge challenge, but it’s also a great chance.

Sometimes I really feel like asking my colleagues: Ok, now that we have gathered valuable assumptions and facts about what is going on, how would you deal with all this knowledge as a designer yourself – what would be your conclusion in practice and application? How would your project look like now?

Martina Löw: I’d like to invite Steffen Mau to our conversation. He is professor of macro sociology at the HU Berlin. Steffen, do we need less interdisciplinarity, more of it, or even another sort of interdisciplinarity? What’s your view on the matter?

Steffen Mau: Interdisciplinarity is, of course, still a fashionable term, but it also comes with a price if understood too broadly and uncritically. The whole idea of ‘discipline’, as in coping with a narrow, well-defined, well-organised field of knowledge, means that methodologies and theories are established addressing very specific kinds of questions. Sometimes the field may seem extremely narrow, yet still offers valid and well-organised questions to be asked. There is a natural disciplinary division of labour in which various disciplines are expected to answer different questions, and in a perfect world, we’d have different types of cross-fertilisation. However, interdisciplinarity goes beyond mere knowledge exchange, it usually produces a new type of knowledge altogether. Perhaps less so in the social sciences and humanities, but very much so in the natural sciences. I think that interdisciplinarity works best when you pick the right research question from the start. Then the wicked problems and big challenges are the main drivers.

In sociology, we have a tendency to search for empirical evidence that fits our theory. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. But I think it’s important to have a real interest in a real problem that drives you. Then researchers from different backgrounds will interact more easily and fruitfully. True interdisciplinarity is very demanding and difficult to achieve. It can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be quite disappointing. After all, one should be aware of the real costs and potential benefits. I’m a little skeptical about wanting to define everything in interdisciplinary terms. Interdisciplinarity should not be an end in itself; research must be justified on hard scientific grounds. So no, I’m afraid I do not have the ultimate answer to your question as to whether we should have more or less interdisciplinarity. My opinion is: Whenever and wherever interdisciplinary approaches are an adequate response to the problem we want to solve, we should go for it. And if not, we should stay away from it.