For me, an interrogation of the “I” in Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of (In)Equality (IRISE) begins with disentangling the underlying assumptions around the term “interdisciplinary”. This term has become increasingly popular, particularly in the halls of the academy, but like many bandied-about terms is not often defined. My interdisciplinary commitment is constituted through the set of assumptions that I use as a guide. Let me say at the outset that many, perhaps even the majority, will not agree with these assumptions and dissent is welcome. What is more important than consensus is the recognition that these different definitions are subjective, filled with assumptions which reflect our understanding of the world.
The first assumption I utilize is what exactly an interdisciplinary approach seeks to counter. Though some would claim interdisciplinary is simply the diametric opposite of a singular or mono-disciplinary approach, to me interdisciplinary goes beyond to dismantle the firmly entrenched epistemic apartheid.
Dr. Reiland Rablaka (2010) coined the term epistemic apartheid to capture,
not only ‘the process of critical decay within a field or discipline’ but, even more, the process of institutional racism or, rather, academic racial colonization and conceptual quarantining of knowledge, anti-imperial thought, and/or radical political praxis produced by non-white-…‘especially black’-intellectual activists. It would seem to me that this is a major source for much of the ‘disciplinary decadence’ that has long intellectually asphyxiated the academy, although my conscience compels me to acknowledge that epistemic apartheid is not simply about institutional racism and racial colonization. It includes and seeks to raise critical consciousness about the ways in which knowledge is, in addition, conceptually quarantined along racially gendered, religious, sexual orientation, and economic class lines, which ultimately and truculently translates into the dim disciplinary borders and boundaries... (16)
Epistemic apartheid, therefore, is not simply an issue within the academy, it is an ideology that reifies and reinforces hegemonic norms that perpetuate inequity in society as well. Therefore to resist epistemic apartheid is more than an intellectual pursuit, it is a political commitment.
In order to reject epistemic apartheid, an interdisciplinary epistemology requires an explicit commitment to intersectionality. This second assumption resists the ways knowledge becomes conceptually quarantined by centering white, heterosexual, middle-class, abled males and placing all others in relationship to this normative group. Harris (1991) called for the “abandonment of the quest for the unitary self” (p. 610) and this abandonment was a central tenet of feminist and postcolonial scholars across (Johnson, 1998; Mihn-ha, 1989; Mohanty, 1988). Collins (1990) and Crenshaw (1993) built on these scholars and developed the tenet of intersectionality wherein they called attention to the fact that identity is made up of many salient parts and the intersections of those parts is important to view in their totality. Uni-dimensional approaches provide, “no discourse responsive to their specific position in the social landscape; instead they are constantly forced to divide loyalties as social conflict is presented as a choice between grounds of identity’ (Crenshaw et al. 1995, p. 354). In other words, belonging to more than one subordinate group locates an individual at the intersection of conflicting agendas (such as being a woman and a person of color) and singular dimension approaches to equity can never fully achieve such a thing because they miss the ways oppressions interact. Therefore, an intersectional approach should consider the full humanity of an individual.
The third assumption in my interdisciplinary approach is that historically oppressed people are not deficient or broken in any way. There is no “culture of poverty” or any other pathology, external or internal, that makes them “less than”. Victor Rios (2010) states of his work with males of color in Oakland, “I conducted this study with the assumption that the young people I studied were normal, everyday people persisting in risky environments, striving for dignity, and organizing their social world despite a dearth of resources” (p. 14). Like Rios, I do not work with historically marginalized young people beginning with the question, “What is wrong with them?” Instead, I begin with the belief that there is nothing wrong with the young people, their families, and their communities.
Sociologist Nikki Jones (2009) states:
…the ubiquitous use (or misuse) of the respective frameworks can sometimes leave the impression that a scholar’s most important objective is to ‘test’ the respective theoretical approaches – spotting gender or difference here, there, and everywhere – not, instead, to use these frameworks to illuminate the complicated and sometimes contradictory ways in which situated interaction is linked to structural circumstances. (91)
Like Jones, I seek to understand how these social settings shape behaviors, and how historically oppressed communities navigate those settings with savvy and ingenuity.
It is due to this set of assumptions that my work, both inside and outside the academy, draws from a variety of disciplines. My political commitments are explicit because there are always those who will hide their underlying assumptions claiming objectivity and neutrality, while perpetuating violence on oppressed communities by creating work that does not represent their full humanity. In his essay, Racial
Intelligence, Du Bois (1920) wrote,
For a century or more it had been the dream of those who do not believe Negroes are human that their wish should find some scientific basis. For years they depended on the weight of the human brain, trusting that the alleged underweight of less than a thousand Negro brains, measured without reference to age, stature, nutrition or cause of death, would convince the world that black men simply could not be educated. Today scientists acknowledge that there is no warrant for such a conclusion…
Throughout this essay, Du Bois illustrated the ways scientists worked to substantiate the inferior intelligence of people of color in order to justify slavery, segregation, unequal treatment, harassment, violence and even murder of black and brown bodies. These assumptions: (1) Countering of epistemic apartheid; (2) Committing to intersectional theoretical, methodological, and analytical perspectives; (3) Believing that the humanity of oppressed people and communities is never up for debate, all allow me to explicitly resist the ways violence has been perpetuated on these people and communities.
These assumptions guide my interdisciplinary approach and it is my hope that this approach provides a new way to understand how injustice is perpetuated and ways to resist. As we state in another paper, “This constant dialectic between larger, macro, societal discourses and beliefs about what is normal and what is deviant and smaller, micro, localised practices and actions provides fertile ground for us to critique, challenge and reconstruct” (Annamma, Boelé, Moore, & Klingner, 2013, p. 1289). Or as Dean Saitta states in the February IRISE blog, “Interdisciplinarity is the co-creation of something new”. This is the opportunity that an interdisciplinary approach affords me, a chance to co-create something new with the communities I come from and work with, as we work and grow together.