The promise of interdisciplinarity

Professor Bob Hodge

When I was a PhD student, I read two books in Discourse Analysis, which were to become fundamental to my understanding of the field, namely Social Semiotics and Language as Ideology, both co-authored by Bob Hodge and Gunther Kress. Bob Hodge is Professor in the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney and despite the fact that we are both based in Sydney, we’d never met until a few days ago. Bob had contacted me a few weeks ago to say how much he enjoys Language on the Move and so we finally got to meet up for a lunch conversation.

Meeting someone whose work you have admired since being a PhD student is quite special and I prepared by catching up on Bob’s amazingly diverse work, which, in addition to discourse analysis, includes research in Australian multiculturalism, Chinese Studies and the application of Chaos Theory to areas such as Language Teaching and Management Studies, to name a few.

On his website, Bob describes himself as “a radical transdisciplinarian” and, as someone who also feels that linguistics is never quite enough to understand the research problems I am interested in, one of the first questions I asked Bob was about his trajectory into and out of Linguistics (and, currently, back in, as I’ve learnt).

His way into linguistics was relatively easy to explain, particularly to someone who shares the same obsession: a deep and abiding fascination with human language and the ways in which it shapes who we are while we use it to shape the world. We also discovered that, in both cases, this fascination had been fostered at a young age by a Classical Education.

Bob’s way out of linguistics surprisingly also resonated with me – I say ‘surprisingly’ because Bob’s trajectory out of linguistics has to do with the nature of the discipline and one could expect that our experiences would have been quite different seeing that we entered the discipline about a generation apart. However, at different times and in different countries, Bob and myself entered Linguistics precisely to be repelled by its disciplinarity.

Linguistics, as a discipline, has been fundamentally shaped by the so-called “linguistics wars,” which since the 1960s have pitted generativists against functionalists. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education offers this view of the discipline:

Linguistics is populated by a deeply factionalized group of scholars who can’t agree on what they’re arguing about and who tend to dismiss their opponents as morons or frauds or both. Such divisions exist, to varying degrees, in all disciplines, but linguists seem uncommonly hostile. The word “brutal” comes up again and again, as do “spiteful,” “ridiculous,” and “childish.”

While “actually existing” Linguistics is not that bad 😉 Linguistics is obviously not a great home for free spirits. “It’s the problem that is central to my work,” Bob explained, “and you have to be capable to take on board whatever concepts, frameworks and bodies of knowledge are pertinent to solve the problem.”

“How do you do that in practice?” I asked. “How do you actually manage to stay on top of all the areas in which you’ve been engaged in?” This question must be understood against the background of Bob’s broad area of research expertise as described on his website:

Professor Bob Hodge has many active research interests: in analytic and conceptual toolkits for social and cultural research (critical linguistics, discourse analysis, social semiotics); in major theoretical traditions in humanities and social sciences (Marxism, psychoanalysis, post-colonialism, post-modernism, critical management studies, chaos theory); in radical transdisciplinarity (including science in the mix) and engaged research; and in specific areas of study (globalisation, cyberculture, Australian Studies, Indigenous Studies, Mexico and Latin America, Chinese language and culture, education, popular culture, literature (classical, early modern, contemporary). He has published in all these areas, and has supervised doctoral studies on all of them and more.

As someone who is constantly struggling with the fact that my interests and commitments are much more wide-ranging than I can squeeze into my time, maybe I partly expected a response that would be some sort of ‘how-to’ fix, an instruction on how to practice interdisciplinarity more efficiently. Bob’s response was much more basic and, hence, inspiring:

You have to understand that interdisciplinarity is always a promise. It’s a commitment you make to go where your research problem takes you. You don’t start with interdisciplinarity because you can never know enough. If that’s what you did, you’d never start your research because you never know enough.

I love the idea of interdisciplinarity as promise. It’s the pledge that undergirds all our inquiry.

Bob is currently writing a book that is partly a fresh intervention into the linguistics wars from an insider-outsider perspective. He will talk about this most recent development in his interdisciplinary project himself in the Applied Linguistics @MQ series on August 14. So, mark your diaries and, of course, we’ll also broadcast the seminar on our Ustream Channel to the global Language on the Move community.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • I think research on language can be of limited use if it is not interdisciplinary. For example, Josué Ndamba, a linguist from Congo-Brazzaville, described in an interview how the imposition of French in his country leads to linguistic alienation, which in turn leads to economic alienation. Women there, for instance, spend a lot of money on cosmetic products so that their hair would look like Caucasian women.

    This is just one of numerous examples that show that the study of language has to be, to a large extent, interdisciplinary. To me linguistics as a field should almost always be about the study of language in society, which certainly should go beyond sociolinguistics as subfield of linguistics. Linguists should not only do this because their research has to be of benefit to the society, but also because language is a social phenomenon and to study it, many cultural, sociological, economic, political, historical and other factors have to be taken into consideration before linguists can understand what language is.

  • “As someone who is constantly struggling with the fact that my interests and commitments are much more wide-ranging than I can squeeze into my time.”

    I can really relate to this statement in so many different ways 🙂

  • khan

    Dear Ingrid,

    Grateful to you for introducing Professor Bob Hodge. I would like to share my views on interdisciplinarity which I agree is a promise. I think it is a promise for those who have the broadmindedness and lack of fear in giving intellectual space to other disciplines and perspectives. While reading Bourdieu (1991) work, I came across Ruquia Hasan piece ‘ The disempoweing game’ and the rejoinder to her piece by other scholars. It was a polite battle to safeguard systemic functionalist linguistic as if it was targeted. In my surface level reading of Bourdieu, I come to realise that he had no such intention. All he was pointing at the inward looking seemingly scientific looks/ attitudes of linguistis. I think which was a very valid observation, not a disempowering game at all. I guess it is more to do with professional insecurities and ignorance/ dogmatism of our friends.

  • I appreciate you sharing this article by Professor Hodge. I am currently working on an Interdisciplinary graduate degree with an emphasis in French and Linguistics. This degree has allowed me to pull my interests together and intensively study the things that challenge and interest me. Part of my thesis research in applied linguistics will be conducted in Paris this fall for a semester at the Sorbonne. This was made possible by the creativity of this unique degree!