Somewhere between eclecticism and inter-disciplinarity….

In researching my latest working theoretical (co-authored) paper on the network paradigm, I recently reread Gernot Grabher‘s paper entitled “Trading routes, bypasses, and risky intersections: mapping the travels of  ‘networks’ between economic sociology and economic geography“. The paper was in a Geography journal (Progress in Human Geography) and describes the way in which the network paradigm has been constructed within economic sociology and how this has been used in a limited, structured way in economic geography. The paper, published in 2006, is an indispensable source of information on networks and poses some fascinating questions.

The disciplines of economic geography and economic sociology are, Grabher suggests, close relatives, and uses metaphors of travel to suggest how the paradigm has shifted from one discipline to the other and back again (in its various forms). Why all the fuss over one paper though? Why did I feel compelled to blog about this? Well, other than the fact I had precious little to do on a rainy afternoon, it struck me that in the short time since Grabher penned that article the disciplines that , we, as academics, latch onto seem to be have been changing, or (to a more dystopic extreme), dissipating. This transmogrification of disciplines becomes even more apparent if you begin to look at the specialities of staff within departments and their associated research centres. More and more I find people doing similar things in departments far removed from geography. Also, individuals I once knew as geographers are now scattered across multifarious departments ranging from Management to Cultural Studies. This is not meant as a deferential schmooze on the inter-(or is it multi-?)disciplinarity of geography and more a commentary on the porosity of traditional disciplines.

Southampton University today announced a change to its faculty structure, and I have no doubt others will follow. Citing financial pressures and a need to focus on key production (and of course profitable) parts of research, many UK universities are finding that the structures of their faculties and schools changing, and many disciplines will find themselves coupled with others to form larger schools, or having to split to join separate faculties. But yet, academics, as individuals will still study what they study. An academic discipline says a lot about you as an academic, or at least, tradition dictates it does. However, in our quest for publication, funding money and recognition, academics across the world and across the science spectrum are venturing out of their comfort zones, and moving osmotically across the ever-changing departmental landscape, discovering that there are indeed people who have complimentary interests in our areas other than our own fields of study.

So, what does all this have to do with Grabher’s paper? Well, I suspect that if he were to be writing it now, I would fathom that the edifices of economic sociology and economic geography, or indeed management, cultural studies, transport studies, sociology, business and economics, or any other social scientific tag, may not be as ossified as we once thought they were. In a true (actor-) network theoretical stance, we will continue to work on what we work on regardless of what labelling goes on above our heads or on the signage outside the building. Whether this is derided as eclecticism or applauded as inter-disciplinary collaborative networking, there is little choice in the modern social scientific landscape but to be of that persuasion.

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