The Insecurities of Interdisciplinary Research

Roger Mac Ginty, Durham University

Published on: June 28, 2021

Photo: Black and white image of a man entangled in cables.

One of the fun and challenging aspects of writing a book on everyday peace has been balancing different literatures and perspectives. Multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinarity is great – until you sit down and try to see how it works on paper. Writing my new book, Everyday Peace: How So-called Ordinary People Can Disrupt Violent Conflict, has been something of an intellectual and personal journey. My degrees are in Political Science and International Relations. I have always worked in Politics and IR Departments. Yet, for many years I have been dissatisfied with the state-centric perspectives offered by my ‘home’ disciplines.

For a number of intellectual and personal reasons, I have been increasingly interested in how individuals and communities construct, consume, subvert, forge, and resist peace. Much of the focus of Politics and IR has been on top-down peace. This ‘big peace’ agreed upon by states and militant groups, and often overseen by international organizations, operates on a trickle-down assumption: if peace is made at the elite level, the benefits will trickle-down to communities. But, of course, things are never quite so simple, and my book project focused on conceptualizing and illustrating how everyday peace is given life at the level of society.

The study of peace and conflict has long-recognised the importance of the Sociological and Anthropological, and has benefited enormously from gendered approaches. Work by John Brewer, for example, has advocated how a Sociological lens can more accurately capture the processes at work in conflict-affected societies. A challenge lies, however, in juggling literature from different perspectives. Take, for example, the issue of power – an issue that runs through the book and is important in any consideration of peace and conflict. What was noticeable in my reading for the book was that the term power was approached in so many ways from so many different perspectives that it was difficult to think of the concept in a coherent way. I remember reading one anthropological journal article in which the word power was used with fourteen different pre-fixes: tribal power, royal power, traditional power, transient power …. the different types of power seemed endless.

Of course, it is probably accurate that power is phrased in multifarious ways: it is amorphous, dynamic and open to multiple interpretations. But it helps to be comprehensible, too. And always at the back of my mind was a feeling that I was not being faithful to how each discipline or set of authors used terms like ‘power’. It is healthy that concepts are contested and are capable of evolving, but when one is an interloper (or at least a new entrant) into another discipline, then it seems sensible to tread carefully. Borrowing concepts from multiple disciplines (Sociology, Anthropology, Nursing Studies, Socio-Linguistics etc.) means risking a conceptual soup that ends up speaking to no audience in particular. Yet, it seemed clear to me that no single discipline could hold all the answers to a complex problem like conflict. Complex, multi-scalar problems like conflicts require complex analysis that is likely to disappoint disciplinary nationalists.

The free-style borrowing from multiple disciplines and sets of debates was fun, but at the back of my mind is an insecurity that I have been shallow in my treatment of particular sets of literature or debates. After all, disciplinary specialists often spend decades reading themselves into literature and are aware of the evolution and nuances of debates. So putting the book together was an exercise in imposter-syndrome writ large. Knowing that you are merely skating over the surface of a number of disciplines is not a comfortable feeling. While different disciplines have ‘rules’ or accepted practices on using theories and concepts, everything is less clear when combining disciplinary insights. Yet I was sure that a single-discipline approach would be inadequate. Thus the book has ended up as a patchwork of concepts and theories from here and there. Hopefully, this will be read as an exercise of eager borrowing from a range of disciplines rather than a glib smash and grab raid. So, the book is published, with more than a little insecurity in the author’s mind.

Dr. Roger Mac Ginty is Professor at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. He is Director of the Durham Global Security Institute (DGSi). With Professor Pamina Firchow, he founded Everyday Peace Indicators.

Everyday Peace: How So-called Ordinary People can Disrupt Violent Conflict is published by Oxford University Press.