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At a Crossroad Standing Still and Moving Forward

At a Crossroad Standing Still and Moving Forward

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Am J Community Psychol (2006) 38:23\u201325
DOI 10.1007/s10464-006-9058-z
At a Crossroad: Standing Still and Moving Forward
Janet L. Smith
Published online: 11 July 2006
\ue000Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006
AbstractReading the article, \u201cCommunity psychology

at the crossroads: Prospects for interdisciplinary research\u201d (Maton, Perkins & Saegert, this issue), there is a sense that community psychology is at a crossroad with regard to be- ing an interdisciplinary \ufb01eld. This paper aims to offer insight and guidance to proponents of interdisciplinary research in the community psychology \ufb01eld by drawing on experiences in urban studies, which shares similar origins and interdisci- plinary claims.

KeywordsInterdisciplinary research. Urban studies.

In reading the article, I asked: who is the intended audience? Is it academics and researchers already committed to inter- disciplinary community psychology but in need of further support, to provide a more \ufb01rm foundation for their cur- rent work and a vision of what is needed to advance the \ufb01eld? Is it the more traditional researchers in the community psychology \ufb01eld that may not be doing interdisciplinary re- search but are open-minded and therefore likely to join the interdisciplinary ranks? Or, is it \u201cpurest\u201d researchers who oppose\u2014or at least doubt the bene\ufb01ts and legitimacy of\u2014 interdisciplinary approaches to research? I sense the authors\u2019 aim is all three.

J. L. Smith (\ue000)
Urban Planning and Policy Program,
412 S. Peoria Street (MC348), Chicago, Illinois 60607
e-mail: janets@uic.edu

J. L. Smith
Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community
Improvement, College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs,
University of Illinois at Chicago

As someone outside the \ufb01eld of community psychology, I am not sure how any of these readers will react, but I can offer my own reaction based on my interdisciplinary aca- demic training. Urban studies is a \ufb01eld that has no single disciplinary home in the academy to either struggle to be free of or to cling to in times of uncertainty. Of course, this has both bene\ufb01ts and costs. I want to share some of these, as a heuristic of sorts, to frame some questions that I hope will help those working to advance an interdisciplinary ap- proach to community psychology. In particular, this includes better articulating the bene\ufb01ts of multiple frameworks for understanding problems and solutions grounded in interdis- ciplinary research; seeing the challenges of using different research methods concurrently; and perhaps most impor- tantly, thinking about what \u201ccommunity\u201d means in the con- text of research, who this includes and how these people are included in shaping the research and then putting it to use.

First some background. As with community psychology, urban studies\u2019 traces its origins to the 1960s. Simply stated, it is a \ufb01eld born out of necessity to \u201csolve urban problems.\u201d1Today, urban studies can be described as a \ufb01eld that examines all aspects of urban space and urbaniza- tion by weaving together traditional disciplines including economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, archi- tecture, engineering, and education, and newer or emerging interdisciplinary \ufb01elds including women\u2019s studies, African American studies, Latino studies, and even community psychology. A bene\ufb01t of drawing on so many disciplines is the seemingly lack of boundaries that can restrict inquiry, though, as will be discussed here, this does not preclude

1Phillips, E. Barbara.City Lights: Urban-Suburban Life in the Global
Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996 (second edition),
p. 33.
Am J Community Psychol (2006) 38:23\u201325
epistemological challenges rooted in the many disciplines
from which urbanists draw.

A clear bene\ufb01t of being so interdisciplinary is the ability to understand urban problems by not only drawing on differ- ent disciplines\u2014each with its own particular lens\u2014but also by using different scales (individual, community, state, na- tion, etc.) to investigate cause and effect. I personally think that scale is an important aspect of interdisciplinary research that is under-appreciated (or at least under-recognized). The ability to see a problem using multiple scales of reference as well as through multiple disciplinary lenses adds dimension and depth that is needed to understand complex problems like \u201cpoverty\u201d and \u201chomelessness.\u201d Not only can we see how the individual experiences and contributes to the prob- lem but also we can see environmental, economic, social and political factors too, operating at all levels of government, in different types of institutions and across different types of urban space. Of course, this creates the challenge of isolating and identifying cause and effect, which can make interdisci- plinary research complicated. At times, it can feel like you are trying to solve many simultaneous equations where a variable for one comes from another and so on.

Another signi\ufb01cant challenge for interdisciplinary re- search is the issue of method. A particular challenge is the lingering if not continued dominance of the enlighten- ment period.2Regardless of where you stand, most if not all contemporary social science disciplines continue to teach methods that rely on human reason, science and hypothesis testing to \ufb01nd universal laws about how our world works. While there has been reaction to and outright rejection of enlightenment traditions in some disciplines, we have not seen the elimination of (nor the necessity to eliminate) this way of thinking about the world and what we know about it. And while this is not the place to advance the debate, it is important to point out that adherence to method\u2014whether scienti\ufb01c or not\u2014can often be the Achilles heal of interdis- ciplinary research.

Particular tensions arise when discussing what makes the
research \u201crigorous\u201d (e.g., how large a sample size, is it rep-
2A good overview of this issue in the \ufb01eld of urban planning can

be found in Leoni Sandercock\u2019sTowards Cosmopolis (Wiley, 1998), which outlines the \u201cepistemological politics\u201d underpinning the inter- disciplinary \ufb01eld of urban planning. She illustrates how despite the inclusion of more voices and the addition of \u201cpost-modern\u201d theory and critiques, the scienti\ufb01c method continues to be privileged. Her concern is that this affects what voices are heard and who is quali\ufb01ed to listen and overall what is considered valid in the production of knowledge. She then offers guidance toward \u201can epistemology of multiplicity\u201d that does not discard \u201cthese scienti\ufb01c and technical ways of knowing\u201d but rather adds to it by offering at least six other ways of knowing: 1) knowing through dialogue, 2) knowing from experience, 3) learning from local knowledge, 4) learning to read symbolic and non-verbal ev- idence, 5) learning through contemplative or appreciative knowledge, and 6) learning by doing, or action planning.

resentative, etc.) and if the \ufb01ndings are \u201cgeneralizable.\u201d This is particularly sticky when looking at research in and about communities, which often is in the form of case studies that offer a deep understanding of a particular place or group but cannot necessarily be assumed generalizable. Whether this is true or not will depend on how you judge the knowledge produced by a case study method. The point here is not to dismiss the importance of rigor and producing generalizable data, but rather to remind us that as with all good research, we should judge the method on how well it \ufb01ts the research question and interpret the results with the limits of method in mind.

One way to address this problem is to move from sim-
ply having an interdisciplinary collaboration to one that is
transdisciplinary. As discussed by the authors, the idea is to

\u201cwork jointly to develop and use a shared conceptual frame- work that draws together discipline-speci\ufb01c theories, con- cepts, and methods to address a common problem (p.xxx).\u201d There clearly is a conceptual difference between the different levels/types of collaborations outlined in the article (multi, inter, trans). I think what is important for the \ufb01eld now is ap- preciating the differences between each and why one might be preferred over another depending on circumstances.

However, these levels also suggest a hierarchy and that the aim is to have all research be transdisciplinary. Assum- ing the goal is to open up the possibilities for all modes of \u201cinterdisciplinary\u201d research, then, it seems important to give each an equal position along the continuum so as to not privilege any one approach. Still, if the goal is to move toward the transdisciplinary mode of collaboration, then I would caution against \u201cgenerically\u201d classifying any collab- oration as simply interdisciplinary (p.xxx), since this has the potential to over or under state how the \ufb01eld is progressing along the continuum. In either case, there clearly needs more discussion about what the goal is when pushing community psychology to be (even) more interdisciplinary.

Standing at a crossroad is usually a symbolic way of say- ing we have to choose which path to follow, and implicitly it says there is only one path that you can choose when moving forward. I want to suggest that more than one path exists so why not consider bene\ufb01ts of following several paths concur- rently. Push research to be more interdisciplinary but also focus your energy on improving the quality and experiences of collaboration so that there is truly a synergistic effect, which is the promise and intent of interdisciplinary research. Here I want to offer some cautions and thoughts about what it means to be interdisciplinary as it pertains to research and action.

The beauty of the collaborative transdisciplinary route is the common conceptual framework. However, this can also miss seeing the multiple dimensions and scales of problems that can only come with looking at the world through dif- ferent frameworks simultaneously. For example, I have my


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