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Writing without Discipline: Reflections of an ‘interdisciplinary’ academic

By Swathi Shivanand

‘What is your mother discipline?’

This question, posed to me at a small socialising party in my early days in Calcutta, stunned me with its unbearable heaviness at that moment. I had no answer that satisfied the inquirer, for I have always been a ‘child’ of interdisciplinary studies: Graduation in Psychology, English Literature and Communicative English; a diploma in Journalism, a Masters in Development Studies; an MPhil in Social Sciences. The man who posed this question to me was happily oblivious to the gendered manner in which he framed his inquiry, but over the years of being in academia, I have returned often to this crass but fecund metaphor, especially in times of intellectual (and emotional) turbulence: Who birthed me, the academic? Who nurtured and socialised me into the academic environment? How do I explain to myself and others the ‘illegitimacy’ of my origins? ‘Mother discipline,’ I have murmured to myself often, as I deposited much of my difficulty with research and academic writing, perhaps unfairly and excessively, into this absence of a ‘disciplining mother’. It hasn’t helped that the strangeness of my academic career has often left several well-meaning friends in the academia without any coordinates to respond to my unusual location.

As an outsider (often an envious one), I have marvelled at the clarity that disciplines have offered its subjects. A recent conversation with a labour historian friend about her work brought home this point to me strikingly. As we chatted about the different directions her work on two key Dalit personalities could take, she said that her focus is the field of labour history and her interest is in provoking conversations with other peers in this field. The literature that she posited her work against or alongside and the questions that she framed were located in this particular desire to be a labour historian. Disciplines seem to offer a certain purpose to its subjects, one of which is to advance scholarship in the field through a sustained engagement with predecessors and contemporaries.

These conditions of production of writing that disciplines offer seem to be available even to an academic estranged from her discipline. Academic friends who have strayed away from their disciplines often have insightful critiques that come from their intimate contact with their disciplines. A historian may move away from the archives to do fieldwork, a political scientist may choose to work on the sensory rather than political economy, a sociologist may prefer to work on texts rather than communities. Even so, there is still a ‘mother discipline’ to move away from. This estrangement, I proffer, is still a relationship – perhaps not of acceptance but of antagonism – which allows the subject to define herself, enabling academic work to be undertaken.

This definition of an academic self is not so easily available to an interdisciplinary person, placed as she is at some distance from the regime of the Discipline. Interdisciplinary is the most approximate term we use to define ourselves but the vagueness of this category attaches itself to our self-definitions in discomforting ways.[1] To many in academia, being between (inter) disciplines may make sense if the individual has dabbled in established disciplines and her predilections can be traced to one or more of these disciplinary roots. But if one moves from commerce to women’s studies to social sciences, as a fellow colleague has, what disciplines is the individual in between of? How does this lack of a disciplinary self-definition shape such an individual’s research?

Four years ago, an interdisciplinary me strayed into a PhD in History wanting to work on Karnataka, a state that has poor presence in the anglophone academic world. My initial interest was in looking at the connected processes of migration and informalisation that framed the lives of labour migrants from the ‘backward’ Hyderabad-Karnataka region, residing in the city of Bangalore. As the project evolved into a far more historically grounded effort on tracing the discourses of underdevelopment through a large period of the twentieth century, this initial concern became one chapter in the PhD. While other chapters in the project interrogate the conjoined histories of communalism and development and how these histories inform and influence state discourses and interventions, this chapter had a rather different intent. It had to foreground the experience of living in a regime of development where certain spaces and peoples had been deemed backward and chart how these discursive processes affected lives of the poor from the region. This was a tall order for one chapter in a PhD – a fact I realised as I struggled to write this chapter, based on fieldwork in two migrant settlements, over the course of nearly six months.

One of my most serious problems in the course of the writing was one of limit or restraint. With all the initial motivations of the thesis condensed into this one chapter, it seemed often that the scope of the chapter was vast and my abilities to limit it to specific elements less than satisfactory.[2] Further, with no disciplinary desires or compulsions shaping the contours of the chapter, I floundered for a long while trying to delineate the different strands of this ‘experience of development’ that I had wanted to focus on here. The vagueness of this formulation did not lend itself easily to locating it within ‘existing literature’, a crucial hand-holding mechanism for academic writing. This scholarly apparatus provides disciplinary subjects with legacies of argumentation that can be worked off against to claim originality, to emphasise the contribution of the research at hand to this lineage. Writing out of disciplines then, to me, often seemed akin to not having a tried and tested compass to navigate the ethnographic field.[3]

Locating it within migration studies seemed to make eminent sense as the domain had broadly defined development as exacerbating migration or promoting migration (depending on ideological standpoints), often from the rural to the urban. Trends such as of circular migration where migrants regularly move between the rural and the urban were evident among my interlocutors who conducted lives both in the village and the city. Yet so much of their everyday upturned the central questions of migration studies: Were migrants being ‘pushed’ out of the rural or ‘pulled’ into the urban? Were the benefits of migration accruing or dissipating across generations? Were migrants staying on in the city for its utopian promises of freedom and material prospects of better education? My interlocutors’ responses spoke both of rural distress (push factors) and ample wages in the construction industry (pull factors) as reasons for migration; interviews with married women revealed differences within the family unit on the experience of migration since often the wife was a first-generation migrant who married her way into the city while the husband may have been a second-generation migrant; the promises of the city seemed far removed from their concerns as their narratives were tinged with nostalgia for the village as home even as they fought to secure land rights in their settlements in the city. What seemed at first glance as incommensurate facts, I realised, were because of the manner in which research interests had been constructed within particular domains.

One way out of this conundrum was, for me, to draw lessons from the emphases and accents in several knowledge domains. From migration studies, I learnt of the circularity, temporality and spatiality of migration; women’s studies gave me conceptual tools that allowed both the structural analyses of patriarchy as well as framing the chapter around experiential categories of desha, belonging, ambivalence; urban and labour studies helped with understanding the precarity of being labouring poor in the informal economy of a divided city. Traversing these domains, picking up pieces of tools and concepts that are central to them and weaving them into the stories that my interlocutors shared with me was the journey I had to undertake to write this chapter.[4] Much of this ‘mix and match’ process was instinctive (all coherence here is post-facto), perhaps a result of interdisciplinary training that allows borrowing without great restraint but with some imagination. However, this process was sometimes cumbersome and often so frustrating that I felt academic writing must come with a statutory health warning!

The question of writing remained: what was to be the form of writing for a theme such as ‘experience of development’ which exceeded neat disciplinary formulations and demanded that ethnographic material not be reduced to ‘contradictions’? A friend who read the chapter perhaps offered me the best comment, albeit unintentionally when she said: ‘Why do you make a strong argument and then go onto qualify that argument and undercut its strength?’ It seemed to me then that I had succeeded somewhat in not reducing ethnographic complexities to arguments (disciplinary or otherwise) by shearing off uncomfortable details for the sake of argumentative clarity. Doubts creeped back in though when another reader asked: ‘What is this chapter about? What are the key takeaways from each section?’ A senior academic suggested I rewrite the chapter to address some of the traditional questions raised by migration and urban studies scholarship.

These responses have left me with some elementary questions about writing interdisciplinarily: If writing is an act of representation, who is the imagined reader of such representation? What are the coordinates of her academic thinking that our writing should seek to reference and/or challenge? If interdisciplinarity unsettles the certainty of what we write, can it also allow us to rethink how we write? Would interdisciplinary scholarship be the possible site on which we can conduct experiments on forms of writing, for instance, borrowing narrative styles that weave in dialogue and facts as in long-form journalism, thick descriptions that give us a flavour of the field as in anthropological work, or weave in encounters with the archives into historical material if they provide insights into the larger work at hand. Could these forms of writing be seen as essential to the critical rigour of interdisciplinary work?

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Madhura Lohokare for her generous and kind responses to this essay, to Geeta Thatra, my fellow interdisciplinary person, for her comments on this essay and to Rakesh Mehar for helping me think through the writing of the essay.

[1] Roberta Frank has a delightful essay on the origins of the term ‘interdisciplinary’ in the American context here:

[2] Geeta and I have often commiserated with each other of how each of our chapters, with their varied methodologies and large intents, seem to be vast enough to merit a full thesis each.

[3] Methodologically, ‘development’ has often been studied in specific spatial contexts and projects, say of the construction of a dam, displacement of slum residents among others and then placed within a larger analysis of the nature of development. My chapter had no such state-led project to ground itself in but was attempting to study development through the phenomenon of increased migration from the ‘backward’ Hyderabad-Karnataka region to the state’s primary urban centre of Bangalore.

[4] As it stands now, in the chapter, I explore the idea of the desha as an affective and imagined spatial entity within which migrants hope to restrict their travels, belonging and alienation in the time of circular migration, i.e. when life has to be conducted across different spatial contexts, and how this precarity of life is sought to be alleviated through nostalgia for the village as well as claiming spatial rights over the city . How this burden of unsettled living comes to bear down on women is a strand that I have tried weaving into all these thematic concerns.

Swathi Shivanand
is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her interests lie in the fields of urban and regional studies, women’s studies and increasingly in the public uses of history. In the course of writing her doctoral thesis and listening to other colleagues about their writing difficulties, she has been mulling on the intellectual, emotional, structural and practical aspects of writing. She has worked previously as a journalist with The Hindu in Bangalore and as an urban researcher with two Delhi-based organisations.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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