On interdisciplinarity – reflections from history

As this blog aims at providing not just evidence-based but theoretical and methodological reflections as well, the following post brings forward some thoughts that I have formulated along the way and that I have largely included in my Ph.D. thesis. Since in my current research activities the question of interdisciplinarity is far from having become more easily accepted in the surrounding environment, it could be interesting to share these ideas here.



History as a discipline is the art of making sense of past events and presenting them in a meaningful narrative to the historian’s contemporaries. However, there are many ways in which historians fashion the past into a history, and the different directions depend on factors like the choice of sources; their interpretation into evidence; the historian’s narrative style; and even on his/her very understanding of the conditions of possible histories.

We can understand interdisciplinarity in the work of the historian as a specific configuration of the above elements: the distinct characteristic of this approach is that it attempts at filling gaps in research, without the commitment to the discipline’s own division of interests and methods. In other words, the research does not find its primarily intellectual starting point, and following drive, within the realm of already existing knowledge, but is instead “problem-oriented”, that is, the research puts stress on the actual problems identified in the society. In such intellectual process, a new set of analytical instruments or, rather, a new interaction of existing analytical instruments, will be thus deemed essential by the researcher in order to solve the problem formulation.

We may trace the principal point of departure of interdisciplinarity in the historical discipline back to the critique of Eurocentrism, namely the imposition of analytical categories particular to the continent on non-European experiences, with the assumption that they represent “a model of universal development” (Conrad 2016, 4).

Under this lens, whatever form of diversity is transformed into a deficiency in respect to the European/Western paradigmatic model, characterized by “thick” concepts like civilization, nation-state, civil society, development and so on— a whole “language with rules”, that is, a language projecting a specific and normative horizon of subsumed societal dynamics (Liakos 2013, 318). Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial groups criticized Eurocentrism in the 1980s, and their legacy has been incorporated also in more recent approaches, such as transnational history, global history and by the proponents of the “multiple modernities” theory (everyone interested in this topic shall necessarily read, among others, Chatterjee 1993; Chakrabarty 2000).

The increasing emphasis put on transnational social spaces, movements, languages, discourses and values requires, subsequently, the broadening of the methodological toolbox. In fact, the intrinsic idea behind the adoption of interdisciplinary approaches is often that of addressing different kinds of limitations that are recognized in the field, problematizing therefore also the knowledge that emanates from it.

How? Interdisciplinarity addresses concerns for “excessive specialization, the lack of societal relevance, and the loss of the sense of the larger purpose of things” (Frodeman 2010, xxxii).

Few notable examples in the development of historiography will clarify this point. Surely, other disciplines would have similar examples.

I. The UNESCO team of historians that in 1981 compiled the “Methodology and African Prehistory” volume of the General History of Africa series complemented the scarcity of available written sources through evidence from archaeology, linguistic, anthropology and oral history, among others. Radiocarbon dating, glottochronology, hearsays, memories are some of the methods and sources that allowed the team of historians to affirm, “Africa has a history” (Ki-Zerbo 1981, 1). An obvious and yet a revolutionary claim, since for centuries the possibility of doing history in the African continent has been neglected by many intellectuals and historians, precisely for the inadequacy of conventional sources (Atieno-Odhiambo 2002, 14). The use of evidence extrapolated from different disciplines has permitted to bring to light histories that mere ‘canonic’ sources could not grasp, while the revival of the complexity of the past through this method has eventually created a fruitful “interdisciplinary culture” among Africanist historians (Obenga 1981, 73; Vansina 1985).

II. Another paradigmatic case are the approaches known under the rubric of the “linguistic” and “cultural” turn, which swept a branch of historical studies in the 1970s and 1980s and led to the emergence of new interdisciplinary researches. The historians promoting the turn recognized the importance of language, discourses and cultural aspects in the constitution of societies. Going beyond the “constraints of a commonsensical, usually materialist notion of the social”, these historians have chosen to shed new light on previously neglected subjects of history (e.g. women) and processes, focusing on “symbols, rituals, discourse, and cultural practices rather than social structure or social class” (Bonnell and Hunt 1999, 8). Rumors; systems of representation; popular culture like theater and music, rather than histories distilled directly and only from official documents and economic data, were used to find new meanings and omissions in previous analyses of historical phenomena. As Joyce reflected, “if the social world is at bottom a human construct, it is only by looking at the principles of its construction that headway will be made” (Joyce 1997, 371).

III. Other area studies, like European studies, can also benefit from critical humanistic approaches that are not bound to a specific methodology or discipline, but that bring more of them together “in a concerted approach to the object of study” (Lindström 2002, 6). In fact, the notion of Europe is both “elusive” (i.e. it depends on the perspective of the observer) and “mutable” (the definition of the whole and its parts changes at any given point of time). To put it differently, histories have the capacity to produce new geographies of relations between and within spaces, rather than the other way round: think about the idea of Eurafrica, namely the study of the multifaceted entanglement of the two continents, and the new conceptual field it opens up for (Hansen and Jonsson 2015). Subsequently, the “openness of the epistemological field” represents a viable solution both to deal with the variety of definitions one can retrieve around the idea of Europe (or other areas, for that matters), and to create the conditions for boundary crossing, if not for their complete removal: the final aim is to “widen the expectation horizon”, as Lindström puts it (Lindström 2002, 7).

Although developed in different contexts, these three brief cases above all alluded to limitations in sources, evidence and objects of study in the historical discipline. How many of current global and European questions could benefit from such interdisciplinary perspectives?


List of references:

Atieno-Odhiambo, Eisha Stephen. 2002. “From African Historiographies to an African Philosophy of History.” In Africanizing Knowledge: African Studies across the Disciplines, edited by Toyin Falola, and Christian Jennings, 13–63. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Bonnell, Victoria E., and Lynn Hunt. eds. 1999. Beyond the Cultural Turn: new directions in the study of society and culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. The Nation and its Fragments. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Conrad, Sebastian. 2016. What is Global History? Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Frodeman, Robert. 2010. “Introduction.” In The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, edited by Robert Frodeman, Julie Thompson Klein, and Carl Mitcham, xxix–xxxix. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hansen, Peo, and Stefan Jonsson. 2015. Eurafrica: The Untold History of European Integration and Colonialism. London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Joyce, Patrick. 1997. “The end of Social History?” In The Postmodern History Reader, edited by Keith Jenkins, 341–365. London: Routledge.

Ki-Zerbo, Joseph. ed. 1981. General History of Africa, vol. 1: Methodology and African Prehistory. Paris: UNESCO.

Lindström, Fredrik. 2002. “European Studies as a Field of Knowledge – theoretical, methodological and practical reflections.” In Häften för Europastudier n. 5, edited by Hans-Åke Persson, 1–19. Lund: Studentlitteratur

Obenga, Théophile. “Sources and specific techniques used in African history: general outline.” In General History of Africa, volume 1: Methodology and African Prehistory, edited by Joseph Ki-Zerbo, 72–86. Paris: UNESCO

Vansina, Jan. 1985. Oral Tradition as History. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.


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