Conference Paper: Cultural Sociology and Other Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity in the Cultural Sciences

28 10 2009

Diana Crane
(University of Pennsylvania)

To read this article and its associated commentaries for free just click on the PDF links below.

Crane PDF

Commentary 1 PDF - Gabriel Ignatow (University of North Texas)

Commentary 2 PDF - Mark Jacobs (George Mason University)

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The subject of this paper is the relationship between cultural sociology and approaches to culture in other social science disciplines. What are the characteristics of the theoretical environment in which cultural sociology is operating? The paper begins by reviewing the literature on interdisciplinarity. Many authors argue that interdisciplinarity is increasing or should be increasing, but the general consensus is that disciplinary isolation is the norm. From this perspective, the relationships between disciplines can be understood in terms of trading zones in which fields in different disciplines have little in common, theoretically or empirically.  Interdisciplinary communication in ‘trading zones’ requires that participants laboriously construct a set of terms that permits them to exchange ideas.

Alternatively, I propose that clusters of fields in different disciplines are linked by free-floating paradigms. Participants in disciplines that share ‘free-floating paradigms’ are able to communicate with one another more readily. The paper presents evidence for the second interpretation, drawn from survey articles in disciplinary handbooks.  Disciplines and fields in which the study of culture draws from the same pool of paradigms and models and shares a set of lines of inquiry with cultural sociology include traditional disciplines, such as anthropology, communication, geography, history and psychology and interdisciplinary fields, such as cultural studies, communication, feminist theory, material culture, science studies, and visual culture. Interdisciplinary fields, particularly cultural studies, perform an important role in diffusing paradigms across disciplinary boundaries.  Free-floating paradigms are associated with the work of major theorists, such as Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Foucault, Bourdieu, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Clifford Geertz, Bruno Latour, Adorno, Gramsci, and Habermas.

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2 responses

28 10 2009
Sharon Chong

Thank you Diana. I’m currently working on a paper which discusses the Counseling practice as a form of human culture – a converging of concepts from psychology, cultural studies, linguistics and communication – and thus I have also come to empathize with your suggestions about “free-floating paradigms” among the social sciences.

If I may express a difficulty that I’ve discovered with working from and around “free-floating paradigms” especially in qualitative methods: From what I understand in your writing, i agree that theories and models used in the “interdisciplinary fields” such as Communications studies implicitly carry concepts from several other disciplines.

What I’ve found difficult is that, whilst a researcher may see and fully appreciate illumination from multiple epistemologies and multiple points of departure, the problem comes when one reports her ideas. At the level of written words, concepts often function as metaphors. For example, if we think about the concept of “power” which has been widely studied in the social sciences, the concept itself carries different attributes, connotations, and references at different levels. “Power” can be spoken of in terms of structural relationship in an institution, or in terms of imperialism of thought and speech, or a certain metaphysical attribute of human intention…etc.

The question for interdisciplinary research then is “how can we communicate highly nuanced concepts across disciplines, without putting existing concepts, referred to by similar words, into jeopardy?” and even more important, “how can we put those concepts in productive relations with each other?”

What I’m experiencing is that, if I’m not careful in making distinctions about what I’m referring to, and how explanations are thus different, my attempts to approach a topic specific to a discipline, with perspectives from another discipline can be trivialised, or considered irrelevant – which makes the communication futile.

So, my own sentiment is that I believe researchers who wish to work inter-disciplinarily would benefit much from also working on the ways to reconcile grammatical, metaphorical and semantic landscapes.

29 10 2009
Diana Crane

Gabriel Ignatow states that only one of the theorists (Pierre Bourdieu) who are associated with the free-floating paradigms that I discuss in my paper are or were sociologists. This is not in fact the case since several of these theoritsts were sociologists but usually combined with another field. It is an interesting fact that most of the scholars on my list were associated with two or more disciplines, often philosophy combined with another field. Baudrillard was trained as a sociologist but became a professor of philosophy. Adorno was trained as a philosopher but later held a chair in philosophy and sociology. Gramsci was a philosopher and a political scientist. Lyotard and Barthes were philosophers and literary theorists. Foucautl was a philosopher and a historian. Habermas is a philosopher and a sociologist. Latour was trained in philosophy and anthropology but became a sociologist of science. Bourdieu was trained as an anthropologist but became a professor of sociology. Levy-Strauss and Geertz are exceptions in that they were trained as anthropologists and remained anthropologists.

This suggests that scholars who produce major paradigms in the social sciences are likely to have interdisciplinary backgrounds. They do not remain rooted in the disciplines in which they were trained. They move into other fields. To use Roger Griffin’s terminology in his keynote paper for this conference, these paradigm-producing scholars are interdisciplinary ‘lumpers’.

Gabriel Ignatow also suggests that sociologists would be unlikely to have encountered these scholars in sociology courses at the graduate or undergraduate level. I suspect that graduate courses in cultural sociology are now more likely to include readings taken from the works of these scholars. However, a sociologist’s education is rarely confined to what he or she picked up in graduate school. Instead, it is generally a lifelong process of encountering new ideas and new perspectives. Ignatow suggests that the outlook of cultural sociologists is very different from that of sociologists in other specialties, specifically because of their exposure to these paradigmatic scholars. This has led to conflicts and misunderstandings in the past, which are hopefully diminishing in the twenty-first century.

Mark Jacobs in his remarks on transdisciplinarity rightly reminds us of the difficulties inherent in any attempt to transfer ideas or research findings from one discipline to another. Methodological and epistemological differences may lead to misinterpretation, misunderstandings, and conflicts.

This is the issue that Sharon Chong discusses in her excellent response and for which she provides a specific example. As I discuss in my paper, multidisciplinarity in which there is a low level of integration between research in different disciplines is much easier to achieve than transdisciplinarity where theoretical models and methods merge. The latter probably requires some form of collaboration between researchers in different disciplines rather than an effort at interdisciplinarity by a researcher working alone.

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