The Proposal Process

(a short presentation to the PhD Seminar, School of Public Administration, University of Victoria)

May you have an interesting, interdisciplinary research topic. – Kai Lung

I’ve been asked to speak to the group about the dissertation proposal process, perhaps because I’ve been at it for such a long time and thus have accumulated significant experience points (using gamers’ parlance) and must be approaching the level of Guild Master. I was tempted to title this “The Never-Ending Story” but have decided against that because I think that may have been taken already, and it does sound a tad defeatist or cynical or less-than-inspiring.

But the fact that it has taken me a long time already and I have not yet successfully presented a proposal to my committee (let alone the fact that I do not have a committee – though that is another, albeit not-unrelated, issue) should probably disqualify me from being able to offer any advice to this group that’s worth taking. Or perhaps the best I can do is offer an anti-model, as in: “see what I’ve done? Don’t do that.”

But if there is a more precise – hopefully helpful – message I would like to convey, it relates to the particular challenge of developing a proposal in an interdisciplinary context which, if you find yourself in this position (and, more likely than not, a phd in public admin will entail navigating through interdisciplinary space to some degree), will call upon you skills as a translator and mediator and will require you to develop the skill of what I’ll call active non-listening.

Some Thoughts on Interdisciplinarity: Balancing the “Problem Orientation” and the “Research Perspective”

Interdisciplinarity is a response to the perceived limitations of disciplinary-specific inquiry to address “real life” problems. Such problems, by their nature, lie in the spaces between the disciplines and as such require an interdisciplinary approach in order to be addressed effectively. I won’t attempt a more specific definition of interdisciplinarity but will simply posit that an interdisciplinary approach is oriented towards problems that are complex, system-wide, and not soluble by any single scientific discipline. It is not only the multifaceted nature of problems that require an interdisciplinary approach; if a problem seems so intractable so as to have created an impasse, an interdisciplinary approach offers the hope of a breakthrough that would be beyond the grasp of a disciplinary specific mode. These twin problems – real world complexity and problem intractability – and the perceived inability of traditional disciplines to address them effectively seem to lie at the root of the modern disenchantment with rigid disciplinarity.

There are two important arguments against interdisciplinary research: that it operates as a “free-rider” in the scientific community, and that “extra-disciplinary” insights can only originate serendipitously from within a discipline. The “free-rider” problem focuses on the nature of interdisciplinarity as a process of drawing together insights from disciplinary-specific inquiries. Since all advances in interdisciplinarity rely on the results of disciplinary research, the process is akin to “drawing on the common resource without contributing” with all the sustainability implications that go along with that. A second normative argument is that one can only begin to conceptualise problems differently after one has come to understand the fundamental nature of the problem from a particular discipline. New disciplinary insights emerge from within the discipline, so this argument goes, not from amateur misinterpretations of the core theory. And even if we accept that new insights require a fundamental grounding in the theory, this perspective argues that those insights cannot be extracted through an interdisciplinary research project; they are instead that chance flashes of insight that emerge at random points in time. (See: Hansson, Bengt. 1999. “Interdisciplinarity: For What Purpose?” Policy Sciences 32: 339 – 343; and Karlqvist, Anders. 1999. “Going Beyond Disciplines: The Meanings of Interdisciplinarity” Policy Sciences 32: 379 – 383).

But for me, there is an even more pressing problem.

Shutting Out the Voices in Your Head

The central challenge in operating in a interdisciplinary setting is that most of the reactions, responses and advice you will get will come from disciplinary perspectives – faculty who will have been trained in a particular discipline, with particular world-views and methods specific to those disciplines. On the one hand, this get manifest in that worst of academic habits: the “that’s interesting, but have you looked at (insert name of article, book, journal, etc.)? The subtext of this is: “I’m not really clear on what you’re saying, and don’t want to spend the time trying to understand what you’re saying, so I’m going to adopt a position that I’m familiar with because I don’t want to look stupid and I never learned how to say ‘I don’t quite understand’. If you accept and adopt my position, then I’ll assume you understand. If you don’t I’ll assume you don’t get it because you aren’t that bright.”

So in the course of talking to several advisors, you may try to adopt each of these separate disciplinary perspectives, and try to gather and interpret these disciplinary specific perspective into some coherent interdisciplinary picture. This approach, however, seems unlikely to achieve interdisciplinarity; rather, it appears to be a multidisciplinary approach which is something else altogether. True interdisciplinarity seems to require that we understand how our disciplinary work fits into the whole picture; this, in turn, requires that we work to understand our colleagues’ language and methods, what Hansson calls “communication at the interfaces of the disciplines.”  This is where the skills of translation and mediation come in, balancing the interests and perspectives of various committee members and advisors.

This is hard work, and sometimes it can’t be achieved for a variety of reasons. The best strategy might be to focus on the composition of your committee, where members are willing to make the transition from their discipline or tradition into the interdisciplinary space (this is largely the reason why I am having trouble completing the composition of my committee – these people are hard to find). How many grad students have made the mistake of assembling a “really interesting committee” of the best and the brightest. That may be entertaining (in a astonished kind of “wow, I didn’t know professionals could behave like that” way), but I would prefer to assemble a group of normal people who did well in kindergarten. Even with the most supportive committee, you are still going to hear the many voices from faculty and colleagues who will let you describe your research and then proceed to tell you how you should approach it. It’s at this point that you need to decide if you are going to keep trying, or actively stop listening to all of these multiple perspectives and approach the problem as you understand it. (I use a mental image to achieve this: it involves Goldmember and Dr. Evil. Goldmember has suggested something bizarre to Dr. Evil, to which Dr. Evil responds: “How about NO! You crazy Dutch bastard.” Try it sometime when someone pulls that “You should read the work of Farsten Cubledorf” thing on you). Once you know what the problem is that you are addressing, decide for yourself how you are going to address it, what methodological approach you will take and which literature will inform your work. It’s your topic – claim it before someone else does it for you.

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