Mind the Trap and Cross the Threshold: An Invitation to ‘Liminology’

Image: Vincenzo Di Giorgi

Monday 11th September, 2017

Lambros Fatsis

In an era where allusions to “inter-”, “multi-”, “cross-”, and “trans-” disciplinary research have become the buzzwords we lead our scholarly lives by, our position within as well as between academic disciplines is frequently shaken-up; not just as a matter of expediency for demonstrating impact, through joined-up thinking, but also as a matter of ontological affiliation and belonging. And while calls for assimilation are often instrumental in substance and intent, they also raise intriguing questions about our willingness to step out of ‘single-discipline silos’ to rethink the social world around us with, as well as through, insights from other disciplines in the social sciences. For those of us who think, write, and live between disciplines to sharpen our understanding of “the social”, this syncretic moment in contemporary scholarship sounds like a good opportunity to seek allies with whom to ‘co-mingle’ in a ‘space that transcends the categorisations of modernity’ in pursuit of knowledge that is not simply impactful, but meaningful beyond the boundaries of just one discipline.

Amid such a climate of epistemic “net-widening” and “mesh-thinning”, to paraphrase Cohen, the future of any branch of social science seems to depend on a pluri-disciplinary outlook, not only as a calculated move to secure research funds, increase public visibility, and gain academic capital via “communications and impact strategies”, but also as a valiant effort to unhobble our imagination from the perils of one-dimensional thinking. This seems like a noble enough goal, yet the question that accompanies it is whether there are sufficient in-between spaces where we can pursue questions of sociological importance, by involving multiple disciplines, without feeling rootless or unmoored.

This might seem like a rather lofty concern, a luxury even, yet it speaks volumes for the distance we need to travel if plurality in social science is to be achieved without being stalled at the crossroads. While it is fair to suggest that those spaces will eventually emerge the more we rub and polish our brains through contact with each other, there is also a sense that standing between disciplines is often perceived as muddling about in a wasteland which ostensibly lacks a canon around which conceptual approaches, argumentative strategies, and discursive tropes can develop. Canons are indeed necessary, but only insofar as we understand both ontology and epistemology as little more than forms of membership in an exclusive club with prohibitive requirements for entry, instead of an opportunity for an encounter where knowledge is no longer the property of our worldview, but rather depends on the outcome of our exchanges with disciplinary interlopers.

In our admirable effort to remain faithful to our intradisciplinary commitments, we may be accused of sacrificing colour to detail by ‘specialising […] in a particular region’ which we ‘come to regard as [our] parish’; treating it as ‘completely unique, rather than as a unique combination of elements each one of which has parallels elsewhere’. Such a 'parish mentality', or ontological, rather than methodological, nationalism which views ‘disciplines as distinct professions and even subcultures with their own languages, values and mentalities or styles of thought’, inevitably socialises us into thinking in a brittle, invariable and inflexible manner which doesn’t just ‘cut[s]’ but undercuts knowledge by parcelling it out into separate provinces and consequently restricting the creativity and breadth of our thinking about “the social”. Caught in a tug of war between the desire to reach out far and wide while simultaneously committing to a single discipline, we may rightly fear that our sense of identity and belonging will be compromised if we sacrifice one for the other, when we could remind ourselves instead that the two need not be mutually exclusive; provided that in the process of ‘dethroning our absolutes, we […] take care not to exile our imperatives’.

Drawing on such a distinction between absolutes and imperatives, to think within disciplines could be likened to feeding on absolutes, while thinking between disciplines resembles an imperative call to collide, collude, and coexist as “liminologists” who strive to ‘think differently, rather than legitimating what is already known’, with a view to ‘unlock the disciplines and get them to function in a diffused, multiple, polyvalent way’. Becoming liminologists however, requires us to cross the threshold of our disciplinary home, avoid the trap which hides within it, and mobilise a new definition of what can be known and how by resisting the fortification of our thinking behind a fretwork of disciplinary walls.  

Dr Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton. He tweets at @LFatsis.

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