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Leeds-Hurwitz 2012: These fictions we call disciplines
Electronic Journal of Communication

Volume 22 Numbers 3 & 4, 2012

These fictions we call disciplines

Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz
Professor Emerita
University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Kenosha, WI, USA
and
Director
Center for Intercultural Dialogue
Washington, DC, USA

Abstract: Accepting that disciplines are social constructions implies expanding current practice in four directions: incorporating disciplinary history, cognate disciplines, international variations, and rival subdisciplines. Intercultural Communication serves as a concrete case study for how these implications play out. Consideration of the broader impact of these issues on the future of social construction research leads to concluding discussion of the characteristics required of more adequately prepared scholars.

Academic disciplines are made, not found. They are socially constructed, just like ideas, organizations, identities or relationships (Galanes & Leeds-Hurwitz, 2009; Leeds-Hurwitz, 2009; Shotter & Gergen, 1994). While not a new insight, the notion that disciplines can be categorized as social constructs is surprisingly rarely made explicit (exceptions include Edge, 1979; Gasper, 2001; Hukill & Lassner, 1989). Like other social constructs, disciplines have become reified, such that social actors forget their responsibility as creators, perceiving what they themselves have made as solid and unchanging (Messer-Davidow, Shumway & Sylvan, 1993). In particular, universities are responsible for the reification of disciplines, and surprisingly recently. In the United States, it was only in 1869 that Harvard President Charles William Eliot introduced the concept of majors for undergraduates (Frodeman & Mitcham, 2007), at which point departments were formed and disciplines developed the outline of their current shapes; in many other countries, something comparable happened around the same time (Wagner, 1989). University departments and disciplines have been closely allied ever since, with departments now well established “as the basic unit of academic organization” (Menard, 2001, p. 11). As is the case with other social constructs, once disciplines were built into the design of a university in the form of departments, they became solid in a new way, and consequently more difficult to question or modify. Housing different departments in separate buildings, as is typical, further discourages interdisciplinary contact (Cohen-Cole, 2007). Despite their assumed stability, if examined, disciplinary boundaries can be observed to change over time, and to vary across geographic locations. Østreng (2008) states the matter forcefully: “There is nothing absolute or sacred about disciplinary boundaries” (p. 11), yet most of us in the academy continue to act as if there is.

But how have disciplines come to be so thoroughly taken for granted that they seem impossibly strong, possessing impermeable boundaries, rather than as having been socially constructed and maintained as only one part of the larger social order? Part of the answer is that each discipline develops as a community of practice. A community of practice describes a set of people sharing assumptions and methods, theories and tools that differ from those adopted by others, in this case, by members of other disciplines (Wenger, 1998). Communities of practice develop and are maintained through interaction between members, whether by attending same conferences or reading the same journals. "Unfortunately for ease of interdisciplinary conversation, the linguistic system of a discipline is taken for granted by its practitioners, who fail even to recognize that they operate in such a system, let alone understand its characteristics or realize that those characteristics differ significantly from those of their colleagues' speech communities" (Strober, 2011, p. 43).

People shape disciplines, but then disciplines shape people in return as part of a cycle (such cyclical influence being typical for social constructions). Researchers, like people in all social roles, assume socially shared knowledge learned through concrete interactions. Once a new scholar has learned enough to successfully cope with the expectations of a single discipline, it does not seem reasonable, appropriate, or even possible to begin again with another, since “existing concentrations of resources, habits and identity” exert a “gravitational pull” difficult to escape (Gasper, 2001, p. 18). Another part of the answer to how disciplines have become reified is the explosion of knowledge: when disciplines fragment into subdisciplines, and few scholars control even all of the knowledge within a single discipline as practiced at one time, in a single country, how absurd to expect anyone to manage more!

Gaining fluency in the linguistic practices used by group members ranks among the most important means of identification with a discipline or subdiscipline, as for any cultural unit, part of the reason language has been recognized as central to the act of social construction since Berger and Luckmann (1966). Successfully learning the language of a single discipline at a particular moment in time and geographic place is a substantial accomplishment, and it is not unreasonable to then consider the task complete. Just as linguistic boundaries separate cultural groups, so do different disciplinary linguistic practices discourage interaction between members of distinct disciplines. This point is supported by Gal and Irvine (1995), who find “some of the same processes operating in the creation of linguistic boundaries are also evident in the construction of disciplinary boundaries” (p. 970). More specifically, they continue, “disciplinary boundaries are constituted in discipline-specific practices” (p. 993); these then create communities of practice, making researchers competent members in only one discipline rather than all of academia simultaneously. As with other communities, disciplines define themselves in part through contrast with what they are not; as a result, learning to be a Communication scholar is an identity matter, requiring simultaneously learning that you are not a Psychologist, and not a Linguist. Being socialized within a discipline thus implies not only mastery of specialized knowledge and vocabulary and practices, but “becoming a particular kind of person” (Evans & Martin, 2006, p. 1018), and specifically not another kind of person. For just as “language serves to bind a community together, it also serves to exclude those not part of that community” (Drew & Henne, 2006, p. 35). This is unfortunately equally true for subdisciplines: a particular theoretical approach, methodology, or topic of study often defines the scholar, narrowing the range of what publications will be read, what authors cited, what conferences or presentations attended to those previously determined to be relevant.

Only someone with great determination (or stubbornness) learns to move easily within several disciplinary frameworks, coordinating the development and display of different identities in the process, since “navigating in more than one world is a non-trivial mapping exercise,” as Star and Griesemer (1989, p. 412) phrase it. If this additional work is never expected, why take it on? Yet understanding disciplines to have been socially constructed requires recognizing that the edges defined for any discipline are liquid, not solid: “knowledge and knowledge boundaries are contestable and always on the move" (Savin-Baden, 2008, p. 26). Bauman (2000) explains this use of the term “liquid” – the key characteristic being that liquids are prone to change rather than stability. Disciplinary boundaries are contestable because knowledge itself has no boundaries and no dividing lines: it is humans who choose to divide the world into fragments for ease of study, and who later sometimes neglect to put the puzzle back together again. Davis (1995) suggests "At their worst, disciplines can be reductionistic, seeing the whole world through their own lens; more likely, they simply ignore the phenomena that exist outside their purview, leaving them to other specialists. Missing is the integration of knowledge that leads to a more comprehensive description of reality” (p. 37). The concern here is just such integration of knowledge.

The juxtaposition of ideas or tools from different domains encourages new ideas and thus leads to the development of knowledge since people who know each other’s assumptions are more likely to confirm what is already known than to spark new insights (Cummings & Kiesler, 2005). Thus innovation more often occurs at the intersections than at the centers of a research paradigm (Dogon & Pahre, 1990; Peters, 2011). Being innovative requires being creative, requiring “a capacity to combine ideas together in novel ways in abstractions from any immediate environmental stimulation” (Carruthers, 2002, p. 227). In fact, Zerbavel (1995) finds “transgressing boundaries is a hallmark of being creative” (pp. 1097-1098). The question becomes how best to expand our disciplinary boundaries.

Conceptualizing boundaries as fluid rather than solid implies enlarging the context of the topic under investigation, most often either in terms of time or space. This expansion has implications for the need to incorporate at least some knowledge of the history of a discipline (what might be labeled grandparents), cognate disciplines (neighbors), and the same discipline as studied in other countries (cousins). Extending this metaphor suggests that scholars in subdisciplines are siblings, complete with all the rivalries typical of siblings. As with all use of metaphors, hopefully these will aid a shift in perspective: of course we should pay attention to our grandparents, neighbors, cousins and siblings, rather than ignore them. History provides depth to an analysis, while consideration of other subdisciplines, disciplines, and countries each add distinct forms of breadth. Any and every discipline is socially constructed, of course, but since my discipline and my central concern is Communication, that serves as the model for discussion here. Communication scholars contribute often to social construction theory, which implies we should stop periodically to consider the implications for our own work. Both social construction theory and Communication scholars have much to offer other disciplines, as described below.

Grandparents: How the past shapes the present

Disciplinary history asks: why do we study what we study (and not something else) in the ways we study it (and not other ways)? Since any researcher could have made a different choice of topic or method for any investigation, the first implication of disciplines as social constructions should be self-evident: put very simply, the story of our discipline that we tell ourselves and our students influences the research that we choose to conduct, and the research projects we encourage them to design. Our metaphorical parents, grandparents, and other ancestors in research are prior scholars who studied similar (or different) topics in similar (or different) ways; they have influenced our assumptions, so we must not only remember them, but study their choices carefully. The fact that my research bears an obvious resemblance to that of those who taught me is neither chance nor irrelevant, yet thinking about disciplines as socially constructed suggests we not only need to learn what we are taught, but also to consider what other topics we could be studying, and in what other ways. The first step is historical: why are we doing what we are doing? The second step is critical: what else could we be doing? That is, what questions have been left unasked, and therefore remain unanswered? This is in keeping with Burr’s (1995) comment that social construction implies taking a “critical stance towards taken-for-granted knowledge” (p. 3). Most of the time, we make our choices at least in part because of what others have chosen before us, not because we have carefully considered infinite possibilities and can be certain of having chosen the best possible option. The past influences the present, whether or not we realize it, so we would do well to study our own history.

The amount of disciplinary history any one researcher knows is typically quite limited, so serious consideration of the past requires more than just reliance on individual memory. Shuy (1990) credits Konrad Koerner for the insight that “a scientific field reaches some level of maturity when it begins to be aware of its history” (p. 183). Both recent publications and changes in organizational structures provide evidence that Communication is coming of age in considering its own past. The increasing stream of relevant publications includes: Benson (1985), Cohen (1994), Dennis and Wartella (1996), Kreps, Bonaguro and Query (1998), Leeds-Hurwitz (2010a), Redding (1985), Rogers (1994), and Schramm (1997). Organizationally, a Communication History Interest Group was recently established within the International Communication Association (http://www.icahdq.org/sections/secdetinfo.asp?SecCode=DIV23). The National Communication Association has taken a different path, using preparations for its 100th anniversary in 2014 as an excuse to promote history of the discipline (http://www.natcom.org/Default.aspx?id=108). Of course, the recent past also reveals plenty of soul-searching about whether any center holds the disparate parts of the discipline together, exemplified by the “Ferment in the Field” issues of Journal of Communication in 1983 and 1993 (Sjøvaag & Moe, 2009). Learning the history of a discipline increases understanding of why we study what we study today, in the ways we study it, and helps shape choices of research projects to pursue. It is worth the effort to learn the history of our own assumptions, if only to consider when it is time to change them.

Neighbors: Interdisciplinary considerations

Why does the socially constructed nature of disciplines matter? After history is taken into account, the second implication is that no single discipline is guaranteed to contain the knowledge necessary to even begin to answer a specific question, or resolve a particular problem. Popper put it best in 1963: “We are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline” (p. 88). As a result, problem solving is what most often brings researchers to interdisciplinary collaborations (National Academy of Sciences, 2005; Strober, 2011). As Haliburton (1981) suggests, "because [a discipline] is something made up – an invented set of assumptions and practices – it selects reality; and selecting means leaving things out – perhaps a lot of things. Thus, while the discipline reflects reality it also deflects reality. This is why no single discipline can be equal to all tasks" (p. 454). Simply acting as if one discipline is adequate to all tasks does not make it so.

Disciplines thus serve best as temporary constructions, useful for socializing a new generation of researchers, rather than as limits placed upon mature scholars. For if disciplines are socially constructed, then the boundaries between them also must be recognized as constructs. That is, like disciplines themselves, the boundaries between disciplines are not natural, but made. Since they are made, they could have been made differently, and may yet be revised in the future. Holding too rigidly to the territory within the boundaries of a single discipline is unreasonable since it is unsustainable. People typically identify something both by what it is like, and what it is unlike. Technically this has been called “opposition self-definition” and has been glossed as “locating ourselves as someone that we are 'not'" (Savin-Baven, 2008, p. 38; other terms for this idea also exist, of course). If, instead of spending energy drawing distinctions between Communication and cognate disciplines, we were to devote a little time to sorting out the multiple and various historical connections between our discipline and others, the result would be an enriched sense of what is shared and what is unique. In addition, we would gain an improved ability to hold interdisciplinary conversations in order to learn what others know that might be valuable to our own research. Eisner (1991) suggests: "The conceptual framework we employ directs our attention in particular ways and, therefore, what we experience is shaped by that framework. Thus, the questions we ask, the categories we employ, the theories we use, guide our inquiry; indeed, what we come to know about the world is influenced by the tools we have available" (pp. 27-28). One part of any research investigation should involve considering the implications of the disciplinary conventions we follow, and comparing these to the implications alternative disciplinary conventions would have suggested.

It has not been that long since Communication was established as an academic discipline in the U.S. through the combination of elements drawn from prior disciplines; the exact list of sources varies: Robinson (1989) cites Sociology, Psychology, Philosophy, Anthropology, Linguistics, and Speech; others add other influences. Since Communication as a formal discipline is relatively young, some practitioners still remember the process of constructing boundaries around the discipline, what Gieryn (1983) terms “boundary work” (p. 782). Communication scholars have spent much time over the past few decades arguing that ours should be considered a free-standing and legitimate discipline, certainly important, but it is perhaps time now to notice what being interdisciplinary grants us.

Beyond the general advantage of interdisciplinary work as a tool useful to any discipline, there is a specific advantage to Communication scholars in accepting interdisciplinarity. Paradoxical though it seems, once academic disciplines became reified (the precise date differs by discipline and country, but around 1900), calls for interdisciplinary research began. This has been especially true in calls from grants agencies interested in the resolution to real-world problems (Cohen-Cole, 2007). Today some authors at least have thoroughly accepted the fact of interdisciplinarity, making comments such as: "it is widely understood that division of intellectual labor represented by discipline-bound academic departments is not the most illuminating way to gain knowledge of a complex world, which is why interdisciplinary studies are the growing edge of the evolution of learning" (Palmer, Zajonc, & Scribner, 2010, p. 24). Yet many discussions of interdisciplinary research incorporate a “black box” (that is, a concept used without its actual function being understood; see Connor’s 2009 report on Michel Serres’ elaboration of the concept). A surprising number of the recent calls for interdisciplinary work, including some investigations of interdisciplinary projects, describe the need for “communication,” which is treated as black box because these authors typically do not define what they mean by the term. To give only one example, Daily & Ehrlich (1992) conclude: “The biggest job at the beginning of any transdisciplinary enterprise is establishing communication” (p. 278), but they leave unclear just what they assume to be inside this black box. Dailey and Ehrlich should not be expected to become Communication scholars: their fields of study are Ecology and Biology. The few scholars who do provide explanation typically integrate older models of communication as if they were current (i.e., Coeling & Cukr, 2000). Clearly Communication researchers should join the conversation, if only in our own defense.

Cousins: International concerns

Just as understanding the discipline of Communication to have been socially constructed holds implications for consideration of our history and for conversations with those identifying as members of other disciplines, so it holds implications for taking into account what occurs in the same disciplines as studied in other countries. Just as we learn new and potentially relevant ideas from other disciplines, so we may learn from colleagues who are geographically, rather than ideologically, distant. Perkins (2006) discusses the difficulties caused by various forms of “troublesome knowledge,” including one relevant here, “foreign or alien knowledge.” There can be no more literal form of alien knowledge than that produced by foreign scholars. Their research agendas have different histories, so they have developed different traditions of investigation, whether methods, theories, or topics. One result is that foreign research can be difficult to understand, requiring time and effort spent developing familiarity with the vocabulary used and assumptions made. Yet the result repays the time and effort: just as looking at the past reveals paths not taken, so does looking at research conducted in other countries.

Problems do not respect national boundaries any more than they respect disciplinary boundaries, national boundaries being another social construction (Anderson, 1983). “That science is international by nature can be taken for granted” (Wesseling, 2003, p. 16). Workshops and conferences are increasingly international to take advantage of what has been learned by scholars in a range of countries, and internationalization has already been directly linked to interdisciplinarity (Bennett, 1997). One reason to internationalize research (and teaching) is to keep up with the rest of the world, where scholars are surprisingly often aware of U.S.-based research, even when we do not return the favor. The new global knowledge economy (Gürüz, 2011), should make U.S. scholars want to stand in the center, not at the periphery. Even those who have no concern for their own research agendas should be concerned for their students. As Mestenhauser (1998) so clearly puts it: “failing to internationalize the curriculum now and later finding that it was necessary may waste an entire generation of students, who will be denied the choices that would give them some control over their lives and careers" (p. 35).

The major difficulty to encouraging awareness of international research and collaboration with international scholars is the language barrier – the literal one this time – because only a small proportion of U.S. researchers cite research published in any language other than English. Our library database tools (such as EBSCOhost or JSTOR) include few citations in other languages, or journals based in other countries, so even those who wish to consider these sources may have trouble locating them. “Language across the curriculum” efforts provide one partial solution: clusters of students read publications in foreign languages related to the content of a course under the direction of a native speaker, and then bring their new knowledge to the group (Fichera & Straight, 1997). In current form, this movement targets undergraduates, but a variation could be devised for graduate students and faculty members, especially if supplemented by other initiatives to ensure multiple perspectives are taken into account, and to help international scholars locate one another. The Center for Intercultural Dialogue, established in 2010 by the Council of Communication Associations, is one such effort specific to our discipline (http://centerforinterculturaldialogue.org); the World Journalism Education Council (http://wjec.ou.edu) is another.

Siblings: Rival subdisciplines

When disciplines are new, most or even all of the practitioners in an area can find each other at conferences, and understand one another’s publications, maintaining a clear sense of the whole and how the parts interact. As disciplines grow, they expand, developing subdisciplines, also called specializations, research domains, or paradigms. Klein (1993) uses the term “superdiscipline” to describe a set of subdisciplines with so little in common they really should no longer be considered whole units. New journals, associations, and conferences are created to accommodate the various subdisciplines, and most researchers name one, or perhaps a few, subdisciplines as their intellectual home. Disciplines and subdisciplines provide depth to research, serving as the starting point, even when not the end point. Thus disciplines provide interdisciplinarity with “its foundation and its point of departure” (Salter & Hearn, 1996, p. 33). On the way to his critique of disciplines, Blackwell reminds us of their strengths:

It is fundamental to academic disciplines that they must address well-formulated problems, that they must agree on what kind of a problem they are addressing (i.e., which discipline it belongs to), that there are agreed methods for addressing the problem, and agreed criteria for what constitutes an answer. All of these attributes are at the centre of academic rigour, and of the intellectual ‘discipline’ that constitutes an academic discipline. (2008, p. 6)

It is not uncommon now to call for subdisciplinary groups to attend to one another’s research (Meyrowitz, 2008), even using the term interdisciplinary as a descriptor for such attention. As Calhoun (2011) puts it: “Every field is heterogeneous; the issue is how well its parts are connected” (p. 1482) and argues for establishing intellectual connections across subdisciplines. Both Calhoun and Capella (2011) propose problem-based research as the most effective technique to bring about such connections.

The worthwhile intent to subdivide an overwhelming amount of material into small, more readily consumed sections is to regain some measure of control, whether for the purposes of teaching new scholars, or organizing national conventions. Thus such topics as Organizational Communication, Intercultural Communication, and Health Communication have become distinct divisions within many of our associations, each generating journals, book series, and key figures. These three examples only cover topics; theoretical and methodological divisions have led to comparable clusters. Subdisciplines can be described as metaphorical siblings, especially given the explanatory value of sibling rivalry to describe heated debates about the significance and ultimate worth of one approach over another. The fault lines between qualitative versus quantitative methods, or critical versus empirical theories, to name only a few among many, result in caustic comments both in print and in person, without significantly advancing our understanding of the world we study. Just as siblings grow up, it is time for the discipline to move beyond petty disputes, recognize piecemeal knowledge as incomplete, and accept different approaches as potentially relevant at separate times to meet the needs of distinct research investigations. A well-stocked toolbox includes many tools, even if unequally used by any given practitioner.

Case study

A concrete example demonstrating the benefits resulting from expanding the boundaries of a study to include a sense of its history, as well as inclusion of cognate disciplines and knowing how the topic is studied in other countries, should clarify what has been a rather abstract discussion to this point. Given space limitations, a single example having connections to these three forms of expanded context will be briefly presented (further details are available in Leeds-Hurwitz, 2010b). The fourth issue, expanding beyond a single subdiscipline, will be taken for granted as obvious.

Intercultural Communication scholars in the U.S. have often made two assumptions that, upon careful reflection, seem unreasonable today:

  1. Assuming that all members of a particular nation-state are homogeneous; and
  2. Using media products and native speakers to teach about what occurs in other cultures as resources equal in value to physically participating in those cultures.

It is rare for scholars in other countries to make either of these assumptions (as evidenced by their publications) and, considered logically, they have taken the more reasonable position in assuming heterogeneity and the need for actual experience in other cultures prior to drawing conclusions about them. It therefore makes sense to look for a particular historical explanation to account for the discrepancy.

Nothing in the history of Communication as a solitary discipline adequately explains these choices, but expanding the boundaries to include Anthropology provides much of the explanation. In the 1930s, in preparation for entry into World War II, it was imperative that the U.S. learn what to expect from its war-time enemies. Washington called upon anthropologists, including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson, Rhoda Metraux, and Geoffrey Gorer for help. Then as now, anthropologists traditionally assumed the need for a lengthy stay in the culture they study in order to achieve any sort of reasonable understanding of a people, but the impending war prohibited this. Therefore the members of this group invented “culture at a distance” studies based upon the earlier “national character” studies conducted in the 1920s by these same and other scholars. As explained later by Mead: “The term ‘national character’ was traditionally applied rather loosely to the body of writing that sought to interpret the people of a nation as distinguished from their history, literature, arts, or philosophy” (1961, p. 15). National character studies were a critical and especially useful concept during war. If all members of a particular country held similar beliefs and values, they could be expected to display similar behaviors in comparable situations, which would greatly simplify the effort to understand what to expect of enemy soldiers or politicians (influencing the training of U.S. soldiers and politicians).

“Culture at a distance” then refers to the effort to learn about members of particular cultures (again, viewed in the early 20th century as synonymous with countries) without actually traveling to them, something patently impossible during war. Instead, former members of a culture were questioned, and exported media products examined, for what they revealed about the assumptions of a culture. Resources included recent immigrants, refugees, war prisoners, literature, films, newspapers, travelers’ accounts, and government propaganda (Mead & Metraux, 1953). In short, resources included any person or any material that had left a country prior to the start of, or even during, a war (as with refugees and prisoners of war), and who (or which) therefore became accessible to the anthropologists attempting to write good descriptions of what might be expected from those remaining inside the nation-state.

National character studies influenced later research within Intercultural Communication, which for decades took for granted that documenting standard behavior and assumptions for members of a single, homogeneous culture at a time was the first (sometimes the only) goal. National character research is not specifically identified as a resource in early Intercultural Communication writings, but it had substantial impact on the assumptions of Edward Hall, who then influenced the assumptions of later scholars (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1990). When Intercultural Communication scholars take for granted that each country has a typical set of patterns of communication, this is a direct application of the concept of national character, even when the term is not used. The fact that Condon’s (1984) description of the Japanese has just been reissued (Condon & Masumoto, 2011) indicates the continuing influence of this concept, and this is hardly the only recent book to assume national homogeneity. Increased familiarity with a culture typically leads to recognizing the discrete and multiple populations of which it is comprised, with the result that more subtle analysis of communication behaviors becomes possible. Lum (1996) provides an example of a work assuming heterogeneity when documenting how three Chinese immigrant groups use a single media form (karaoke) in disparate ways, demonstrating not only how they are distinct from U.S. Americans but also from one another. This is not to suggest that books such as those by Condon are not valuable or do not have their place, but they must be recognized as only providing a preliminary overview to their topic, one needing supplementation by more complex and subtle studies of the heterogeneous populations comprising most countries.

Culture at a distance studies have had comparable influence, in this case encouraging study of other cultures without need for researchers to spend adequate time personally experiencing and studying them. As with national character studies, culture at a distance studies are not explicitly named as a precursor to Intercultural Communication research, but the feasibility of understanding a culture without actually traveling to the group responsible for its development and maintenance has remained unquestioned and unquestionable for a surprisingly long time, accepted by a significant minority of scholars even today. The anthropologists working in Washington during World War II created a specific set of research methods, including: informant interviews and extended life histories, supplemented by the study of fiction, films and shorter oral narratives (Mead & Metraux, 1953). Just as the anthropologists of the 1930s used recent immigrants and travelers as a resource, so Intercultural Communication scholars (starting in the 1960s and 1970s) assumed the use of foreign students and expatriates as adequate and sufficient resources in their efforts to understand other cultures. These have become easy and accepted methods of gathering data, still taken for granted as appropriate, their use remaining an unquestioned part of the repertoire. However, once travel was not constrained due to war, such second-hand sources became less often justifiable, and certainly today their sole use should be seriously questioned. It is my argument here that one reason for the continued unquestioning acceptance has been the research in culture at a distance preceding and grounding the study of Intercultural Communication.

It is through knowing our own past history that we learn to question the assumptions we take for granted, and to discover their origin. It is through expanding beyond the boundaries of our own discipline that we learn what Anthropology contributed to Communication, and why. Taking the assumptions of scholars in other countries into account could have convinced U.S. scholars that, once we were past war time constraints, we needed to revise our methods and assumptions (just as anthropologists revised theirs after World War II, assuming heterogeneity rather than national homogeneity, and returning to long-term ethnography conducted on site as quickly as that became feasible). That it has taken so long for researchers investigating Intercultural Communication to come to these same realizations is one result of the fact that disciplines are social constructions. To keep such flimsy structures strong, we rarely question them. But if we never question them, we get caught in the traps set by past needs.

Broader implications

To this point, it should be evident that social construction scholars have a critical role to play in helping their colleagues ask questions about what we all take for granted as received notions, as well as seriously considering the implications of expanding research across subdisciplinary, disciplinary, and international boundaries. Those engaging in interdisciplinary and international research may require some help in learning to make assumptions explicit; social construction researchers are especially good guides in that task. Recognizing disciplines as the social constructions they undoubtedly are means that we must all stop and become more reflective about what we do. Reflexivity takes time, and effort, but anyone conducting research has already committed to both.

But what are the potential broader implications of understanding disciplines to be fictions for the future of social construction research? Several quite different implications will be explored in this section, including the role of metacommunication in interdisciplinary or international research, and the characteristics of a scholar adequately prepared to facilitate such research.

It is possible to tease out at least three quite different ways in which interdisciplinary or international research involve communication:

  1. The process of communication between participants in collaboration (for example, a meeting where group members interact face-to-face);
  2. The forms of communication used to facilitate such collaboration (for example, creation of a wiki to permit the ready exchange of data among members of a research team, or the invention of a new online journal or conference); and
  3. The organizational structures housing collaborations that permit or encourage different forms of interaction (including the invention of new forms such as a collaboratory in the U.S. or a project host in France).

The concept of metacommunication, usually glossed as “communication about communication,” underlies all three, and so a brief summary may prove useful before considering each separately. As initially proposed by Bateson (1955), every act of communication has two parts: the message, and instructions about how to understand that message; the latter are the metacommunicative component. Ruesch and Bateson (1951) argued that the metacommunicative message “we are communicating,” sent concurrently with all interaction, is often the single most important message. Despite this, metacommunication has been given surprisingly little attention even in the Communication literature (Adelman & Frey, 1996; Leeds-Hurwitz, 1989; Leighter & Castor, 2009; Simons, 1994 are among the exceptions), and far less than it might have gotten in other disciplines. Metacommunication always serves as a qualifier to behavior, rather than simply being more behavior, both illuminating the patterns underlying daily interaction and displaying the complexity of what happens when people interact with one another. Metacommunication can be a resource (as when Simons, 1994, looks at “going meta” as a rhetorical strategy in political communication), and is a key element underlying all research, and all publication activity, in our discipline. Everyone uses metacommunication, although only Communication scholars have a word for what they do.

Now, to return to these three forms of communication. Metacommunication most often is utilized as a way to discuss the process of communication between participants in collaboration. Any time someone discusses interaction rather than content during research, that requires moving to a metacommunicative level. It is thus a critical concept for interdisciplinary and international scholars who often need to move up a level of abstraction in order to sort out misunderstandings (as when a technical term holds different meaning across disciplines, or countries). Metacommunication can also be used to discuss the second aspect, form of communication, as when group members consider how best to locate relevant research by potential future collaborators on a project, and use an existing database to check who has published relevant research. Finally, it requires metacommunication to discuss existing organizational structures housing interdisciplinary research, for example, in order to decide when a new design is required.

One happy result of recognizing the constructed nature of our own discipline is that we may be better prepared to notice and study the socially constructed nature of all disciplines. Certainly interdisciplinary collaborations could serve as an appropriate topic of study, though they rarely have to date. Communication scholars could provide a way of understanding and negotiating interdisciplinary practices vis-à-vis a social construction lens, modeling self-awareness of the nature of socially constructed disciplines. To date, although Communication scholars have engaged in interdisciplinary and international collaborative research, few have taken the topic itself as their subject of investigation (Palmeri, 2004, provides a rare example). It is my suggestion that, while we should not stop participating in such research projects, we could also study interdisciplinary and international research itself in terms of process, form, or structure. There is a need in all of these cases to move to the metacommunicative level, something Communication scholars are ideally positioned to do, the majority having been trained in the reflexivity needed to step outside the process and analyze what is occurring.

Returning to history as a critical element, social construction scholars who understand the ways in which disciplines and objects of knowledge have been socially constructed could examine the techniques used to create and maintain these mythical structures, and understand why they are so completely taken for granted (Latour, 1999). What researchers have already learned about the social construction of identity can readily be applied to the construction of academic identities, which will permit the next generation of students to move past seeing others as having unitary academic identities (this one is a sociologist, that one a biologist, so of course they cannot be expected to read the same articles or collaborate on joint research). The appropriation of concepts across disciplines or countries, or over time often involves substantial shifts in connotations (as when the term “boundary object” moved from science and technology studies to organization and management studies, documented in Zeiss & Groenewegen, 2009). Much research remains to be conducted on the topic of boundary work – the efforts made to construct walls around a particular discipline, but also what permits the destruction of those same walls (as when Journet, 1993, examines “boundary rhetoric” to learn how it is possible to address two audiences simultaneously). It is important to focus on boundary work “not because the boundaries are ‘real’ but rather because the people involved put a great deal of effort into the creation and maintenance of the boundary” (Fisher, 1993, p. 4). As with other topics, investigators would do well to study that which has great significance for participants.

Communication scholars could be far better prepared for participation in interdisciplinary and international collaborative research projects. What would this entail? To an extent, all good researchers share some of the same characteristics (organization, creativity, tenacity, attention to detail, etc.); even so, it may be possible to outline at least a few specific attributes. To meet the needs of the research outlined here, we need reflexive, liminal, flexible, technologically savvy bricoleurs. Each of these terms is briefly explained below.

Reflexive means being able to step back from a specific project and look at it, discussing the process of research explicitly (Romm, 1998; Steier, 1991). Reflexivity assumes metacommunication in order to discuss the research process and results abstractly, the ability “to anticipate misunderstandings and to express them in terms of a strange repertoire” (Duncker, 2001, p. 378), with researchers having different assumptions and training. It also requires metaknowledge, the ability to discuss what is known and what is not (Karlqvist, 1999). Without either metaknowledge or metacommunication, “Like express trains that pass in the night, scientists can talk past one another without even knowing they are doing so” (Terrell, 2000, p. 812). All three of these (reflexivity, metacommunication, metaknowledge) are deceptively simple notions, but surprisingly difficult to manage appropriately, so a little explicit training would be useful.

Liminal is a term used originally by anthropologists analyzing rituals to describe the state when one is no longer a member of one category, but not yet a member of the next: the critical moment when, as during a coming of age ceremony, the central participant is no longer a child but not yet an adult. In research the term can be adapted to describe the need to function in a context where the content shifts and meanings vary depending on which researcher of a team effort is talking or taking the primary role in collecting data or designing an experiment; it also appropriately describes a space lying between well-established disciplines rather than at the center of one. To be competent in this area requires the ability to manage polysemy (the fact that symbols, including words, can have multiple signifiers, that is, ideas they convey) and the resulting ambiguity and paradox that this can cause (Romm, 1998). A near synonym for liminal is marginal, and clearly interdisciplinary and international research make good use of the position of marginality, for the scholar who stands on the boundary of two disciplines, countries, or approaches can see the ways in which their results are complementary (Dogon & Pahre, 1990).

Flexible means capable of maintaining the great patience and light touch required to work with a variety of researchers who do not make the same assumptions (Balsiger, 2004). Flexibility implies the ability to code-switch, or move between language varieties as needed. Just as people can learn to move between languages or dialects, they can learn to move between disciplines or national research traditions. Graduate students often become particularly good mediators since their ideas of disciplinary boundaries are still flexible, and they can be sent for secondary training in a different discipline or country (more typical in Europe than the U.S. at present).

Technologically savvy means remaining open to the possibilities of new technologies, whether computer programs or tools used by other disciplines appropriate for borrowing, or those used to support collaborative research at various levels. Sharing information leads to the development of new ideas, but both require the support of a wide range of tools in order to permit the storing, retrieving, manipulating, and analyzing of a wide variety of data (National Academy of Sciences, 2004). The use of virtual modes of collaboration increases the possibilities for international collaboration because it shortens the distance between participants in a conversation and allows for the easy transfer of data across sites, although each virtual form brings its own strengths and weaknesses, each requiring new learning before attaining mastery.

A bricoleur is capable of combining old ideas, methods, and tools in new ways (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1993; Levi-Strauss, 1966; Weick, 2001). Tools (as well as theories and methods) developed by one discipline or national tradition may find a different use in a second. Wissoker (2000) suggests: “many scholars inclined to interdisciplinary work are happy bricoleurs, trawling other disciplines for useful theories, methods, and information” (p. 6; see also Sillitoe, 2004). Zerubavel describes bricolage as “intellectual cross-fertilization” (1995, p. 1102). Bricoleurs work best at the interfaces of social worlds, which accounts for the volume of research on boundaries in studies of interdisciplinary projects (including Dogan & Pahre, 1990; Gökalp, 1990; Klein, 1993, 1996; Star & Griesemer, 1989; Wissoker, 2000).

Taken together, these are the minimal attributes required of those who would serve as guides to interdisciplinary and international research. It is my proposal that at least some social construction theorists should accept this role, which implies that at least some should train the next generation of scholars to accept this as one valuable role they are uniquely qualified to fill.

Conclusions

Academic disciplines are not natural, like trees or mountains, but social constructs, invented by humans for their own use and convenience. Four immediate implications of this understanding have been explored. The first takes the past into account: since the choices made could have been made differently, we need to know our own history, as well as changes that have occurred over time. The second expands the borders of the subject: talking with scholars in other disciplines (including but not limited to cognate disciplines such as Linguistics or Psychology) will help Communication scholars learn what such others know and what implications their ideas have for our own. The third looks inward suggesting that, as disciplines divide into subdisciplines, relevant ideas are sometimes ignored inadvertently due to the separation between discrete topics, theories, or methods. The fourth expands across space: disciplines have a particular shape due to the national and regional context within which they developed, so learning what shapes these same disciplines developed in other countries prompts consideration of ideas that might otherwise be passed over.

A case study of Intercultural Communication provided a concrete example of what examining our own past, and that of a related discipline (Anthropology), as well as consideration of practices followed by scholars in other countries jointly reveal, providing as well suggestions for revising some current assumptions that have too long remained unquestioned. In the specific case described, one immediate implication is that Intercultural Communication scholars should spend considerable amounts of time outside their home countries, rather than continuing to study culture at a distance. The immediate implication of this case study makes expanded context essential (accomplished by considering the history of our own discipline, in addition to how other disciplines and scholars in other countries might offer new perspectives) if we are not to become caught by our past needs, accepting outgrown assumptions as requirements when they are, in fact, merely habits.

In order to consider the broader implications of this case study for social constructionists, a potential future role has been outlined. As we are particular skilled at metacommunication, we can play a significant role examining the process, forms, and structures of interdisciplinary and international research collaborations. We can also critically examine the history of particular subdisciplines or disciplinary traditions, to help practitioners understand more clearly why some choices have been made, and when they need to be revised. This role will require scholars who are reflexive, liminal, flexible, technologically savvy bricoleurs. There is clearly a need for scholars able to conduct, facilitate, and critically examine interdisciplinary and international research, and social construction scholars seem an obvious group to fill at least some of those roles.

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