Reach out and cuddle up to another discipline

January 2, 2004

Why stay faithful to one subject when you can hop into bed with another? Nick Saunders advocates a bit of collaboration

Collaboration is a strange word, and means different things to different generations. For many academics today it's a buzzword, often paired with "interdisciplinary". In a complex world, where politics and economics seem to colonise everything, disciplinary boundaries are increasingly being breached and old certainties called into question.

One way of taking advantage of these developments is to be explicitly interdisciplinary in designing research projects that rely on collaboration between apparently discrete disciplines. In my own disciplines of anthropology and archaeology, there has never been a time when the latter was unaffected by the former - even pre-19th century, before these two disciplines had been named and conceptualised.

The idea of interdisciplinary collaboration is inherently attractive to many researchers and institutions as well as to funding bodies, although it requires hard thinking, difficult choices and doesn't always work. Problems include how to get scholars from different backgrounds to agree an integrated methodology and to satisfy their own discipline's demands for accountability and publication. Advantages include larger budget proposals that may incorporate international partners, a wider choice of funding sources, the unpredictable payoffs of bringing together a diversity of personalities and intellectual traditions, and new possibilities for publication.

Some disciplines make natural bedfellows, such as archaeology, anthropology, history, museum studies, geography and cultural heritage management. Several examples from my own experience illustrate the wider possibilities of interdisciplinary research. The first is the perhaps unlikely marriage between astronomy and archaeology, which has given rise to archaeoastronomy or cultural astronomy. During the 1960s and 1970s, a small number of astronomers started measuring the alignments of ancient buildings, from Egyptian pyramids to Maya temples. Initially this was a mathematical and technical undertaking whose interpretive framework was, in the spirit of the times, unashamedly positivist. Investigators quickly realised they needed a context for interpretation. Interdisciplinary collaboration rapidly followed and has proved immensely productive.

The dividends have been intellectual and institutional. We now have a far better grasp of the complexity and holistic nature of world views in prehistory and among indigenous peoples, and Leicester University has recently appointed Clive Ruggles as the world's first professor of archaeoastronomy.

Such approaches can work in different but equally influential and enduring ways. The publication in September of a set of eight interdisciplinary books titled Encounters with Ancient Egypt breached the suffocating walls surrounding Egyptology. In these volumes, accounts of Egypt in travel writing, film, novels and opera rub shoulders with analyses of medieval Arabic writings, Egypt's relationships with Africa and the enduring effects of Egyptomania in 19th and 20th-century art and architecture.

Archaeology is, of course, an inherently collaborative endeavour. Large departments of archaeology can appear almost as microcosms of academia, and embodiments of the interdisciplinary collaborative spirit. One consequence of this during the past 30 years has been a plethora of new subdisciplines.

Today we have historical archaeology, forensic archaeology, underwater archaeology and the archaeologies of landscape, gender and nationalism. The most recent example is a still-emerging archaeology of 20th-century conflict investigating everything from the first world war to Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq. The challenge here is to develop methodologies as sensitive to ethnic and ethical considerations as they are to unexploded munitions. As financial pressures mount on academia, and politically driven reorganisation looms at every level, the potential of interdisciplinary approaches and collaboration becomes more attractive.

It won't suit everyone, but for those it does the future itself is probably boundless.

Nicholas Saunders is lecturer in material culture in the department of anthropology, University College London.

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