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Interdisciplinarity in Higher Education: A Major Social Theory Problem

Published in Research Students by on February 12, 2013

Hello, my name is Dave Talbot. I am a 2nd year PhD student looking at the nature of interdisciplinarity in higher education, and practical undergraduate pedagogies around it. And I’m having a major social theory problem. The problem is: how much social theory understanding is enough for a thesis intended to present a pragmatic recommendation? At what point is it okay, in what is to be a well supported and critical piece of extended research, to say ‘I am content with the level of theoretical underpinning that my proposed model has.’

Nearly all interdisciplinary and pedagogic research in the past several decades is steeped in social theory, many different and conflicting ones. The prevailing models for disciplinarity and teaching are almost universally one type of socio-cultural matrix or another. The trouble comes that these often make only cursory nods, or none at all, to which social theory they are based on and how it has been justified, often citing a quote or two from a well known social theorist, while making broad claims about how best to change higher education. It seems an important thing to hang on so little critical evaluation to me, especially when it quickly becomes clear that many models for change are either incommensurable, even with other models using the same theories, or seem profoundly idealistic. Add to this the general expectation of an ontologies/epistemologies section in most theses, and it is clear that some more direct consideration of social theories is required.

As anyone who has ever looked at the literature on social theory knows, this is a very big can of worms to open. Much of the very recent theory is quite dense, being based on the intentionally cryptic works of philosophers like Butler, Foucault, Derrida, Latour, Pickering and Haraway. Making sense of this most recent wave in its primary source form would be a thesis unto itself. But these models are inexorably based on long debates and variant readings of the previous wave of social philosophers from the first three quarters of the 20th century, such figures as Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Ricouer, Rorty, Kuhn, Popper Russell, Quine and others. Not one of these authors was lightly published, nor spoke in simple clear terms. It is also at this point that it becomes clear that to talk about social theory in the 20th century, you are also, inexorably, talking about epistemology, ontology and phenomenology. That they are inseparable is probably the only universal theme of 20th century social theory.

In terms of disciplinarity and education, my focus needs to be on the nature of science and the humanities, can they be studied together? Fortunately, or unfortunately, this has been a very big area of discussion for each of the figures mentioned above in one way or another; the real or perceived distinction between the empirical and the interpretive, the objective and the subjective, the real and the constructed, the fixed and the performative. This takes the list of theorists to contend with even further back though, because the criticisms levelled by most post-modern or beyond philosophers are aimed at the Enlightenment Project and the scientific method. This now adds at least Kant, Nietzsche, Hume, Locke and Bacon to my growing list, and takes the date back to 1620.

This is all fascinating, and I really do enjoy it. But here is the rub, my thesis is due in a little over a year, and it needs data collected and considerable non-social theory related work done, and reading critically all of the original works of each of the philosopher’s above would take longer than that on its own. I realise that what I am doing is being reductionist about the theoretical base of my work, and that a great many recent models directly oppose or try to reconcile the need for reductionism, the trouble is they are simply unconvincing in this. I have read too many pragmatic solutions to pedagogic problems which were based on such a notion, which as a result seemed very far from pragmatic. I literally lose sleep over how I am going to provide a sufficiently justified and researched socio-empirical basis for my work, when I am certain that the second I write something about philosopher A or B, a dozen specialists on that philosopher will descend upon me like angry hornets for failing to have considered this or that other reading of their work. Or if that is too dramatic, that one or more of my examiners will be one such individual, and will see right through the fact that I didn’t read every original work by that philosopher.


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Dave Talbot


  1. Avatar
    Anne Pirrie

    Dave, I came across your post completely by accident. It resonated with me, as I shared your interest in interdisciplinarity in higher education, and I’m also interested in what it is to write a PhD. The short answer to your question is that YOU decide ‘how much social theory understanding is enough for a thesis intended to present a pragmatic recommendation’. Defining the scope of the work is a major challenge, but you simply cannot afford to let yourself be dragged around the page (literally and metaphorically). Keep in mind what I would call your moment of curiosity (and others your research question). I think this is ‘can the humanities and sciences be studied together, but I may be wrong. You are not being ‘reductionist’. (At this point I should guard against vilifying whatever sage might have given you that impression.) Forgive me this far-fetched analogy, but give it a try. Imagine you have been commissioned (or rather that you have set yourself the task) of constructing a glasshouse (framework) in order that you might grow some vegetables that need to be sown in April, say. You set work on an ambitious design, only to discover that you are running into all manner of problems. In the meantime the season is marching on and you need to sow the seeds. You need to be pragmatic and modify the design, and you may even have to resort to the (in)temperate use of polythene sheeting. The seeds grow (phew), the days lengthen and you realise that your original design, had you executed it according to plan, would have been flawed. Enough of this. What I am trying to say is that you need to proceed with both stages concurrently, and at this stage it sounds like you may need to foreground the empirical stuff.
    For god sake don’t lose any sleep over it. Try not to, at least. (I lose sleep over work too, when I’m churning something over, in my case usually a very short passage of something that I have read that is dazzling clear.) The following long and breathless sentence in your post caught my attention: ‘how [am I] going to provide a sufficiently justified and researched socio-empirical basis for my work, when I am certain that the second I write something about philosopher A or B, a dozen specialists on that philosopher will descend upon me like angry hornets for failing to have considered this or that other reading of their work[?] The fact that you feel that way seems to speak volumes about the barriers to interdisciplinarity in HE. This is your thesis. It does not belong to anyone else, however big an axe they have to swing. You have to provide a convincing narrative, you have to enter the water at a particular point, as only you can. Be brave. Find your voice. You need to stop looking over your shoulder at what other people are doing or you’ll lose your footing.
    I really hope this is helpful.
    Happy to chat more about it.

  2. Dave Talbot
    Dave Talbot

    Wow. I was about to breathe a sigh of relief due to the excellent encouraging response above, and then I saw this in a new article in Times Higher “How not to write a PhD thesis”(

    5. Use discourse, ideology, signifier, signified, interpellation, postmodernism, structuralism, post-structuralism or deconstruction without reading the complete works of Foucault, Althusser, Saussure, Baudrillard or Derrida

    How to upset an examiner in under 60 seconds: throw basic semiotic phrases into a sentence as if they are punctuation. Often this problem emerges in theses where “semiotics” is cited as a/the method. When a student uses words such as “discourse” and “ideology” as if they were neutral nouns, it is often a signal for the start of a pantomime of naivety throughout the script. Instead of an “analysis”, postgraduates describe their work as “deconstruction”. It is not deconstruction. They describe their approach as “structuralist”. It is not structuralist. Simply because they study structures does not mean it is structuralist. Conversely, simply because they do not study structures does not mean it is poststructuralist.

    The number of students who fling names around as if they are fashion labels (“Dior”, “Derrida”, “Givenchy”, “Gramsci”) is becoming a problem. I also feel sorry for the students who are attempting a deep engagement with these theorists.

    I am working with a postgraduate at the moment who has spent three months mapping Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge over media-policy theories of self-regulation. It has been frustrating and tough, creating – at this stage – only six pages of work from her efforts. Every week, I see the perspiration on the page and the strain in the footnotes. If a student is not prepared to undertake this scale of effort, they must edit the thesis and remove all these words. They leave themselves vulnerable to an examiner who knows their ideological state apparatuses from their repressive state apparatuses.

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