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At a Crossroad: Standing Still and Moving Forward
Janet L. Smith
Published online: 11 July 2006 C Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006
Abstract Reading the article, “Community psychology at the crossroads: Prospects for interdisciplinary research” (Maton, Perkins & Saegert, this issue), there is a sense that community psychology is at a crossroad with regard to being an interdisciplinary ﬁeld. This paper aims to offer insight and guidance to proponents of interdisciplinary research in the community psychology ﬁeld by drawing on experiences in urban studies, which shares similar origins and interdisciplinary claims. Keywords Interdisciplinary research . Urban studies . Multi-method In reading the article, I asked: who is the intended audience? Is it academics and researchers already committed to interdisciplinary community psychology but in need of further support, to provide a more ﬁrm foundation for their current work and a vision of what is needed to advance the ﬁeld? Is it the more traditional researchers in the community psychology ﬁeld that may not be doing interdisciplinary research but are open-minded and therefore likely to join the interdisciplinary ranks? Or, is it “purest” researchers who oppose—or at least doubt the beneﬁts and legitimacy of— interdisciplinary approaches to research? I sense the authors’ aim is all three.
J. L. Smith ( ) Urban Planning and Policy Program, 412 S. Peoria Street (MC348), Chicago, Illinois 60607 e-mail: email@example.com 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 ﬁeld 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 academic training. Urban studies is a ﬁeld 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 beneﬁts 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 approach to community psychology. In particular, this includes better articulating the beneﬁts of multiple frameworks for understanding problems and solutions grounded in interdisciplinary research; seeing the challenges of using different research methods concurrently; and perhaps most importantly, thinking about what “community” means in the context 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’ traces its origins to the 1960s. Simply stated, it is a ﬁeld born out of necessity to “solve urban problems.”1 Today, urban studies can be described as a ﬁeld that examines all aspects of urban space and urbanization by weaving together traditional disciplines including economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, architecture, engineering, and education, and newer or emerging interdisciplinary ﬁelds including women’s studies, African American studies, Latino studies, and even community psychology. A beneﬁt 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
Phillips, E. Barbara. City Lights: Urban-Suburban Life in the Global Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996 (second edition), p. 33.
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epistemological challenges rooted in the many disciplines from which urbanists draw. A clear beneﬁt of being so interdisciplinary is the ability to understand urban problems by not only drawing on different disciplines—each with its own particular lens—but also by using different scales (individual, community, state, nation, 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 “poverty” and “homelessness.” Not only can we see how the individual experiences and contributes to the problem 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 interdisciplinary 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 signiﬁcant challenge for interdisciplinary research is the issue of method. A particular challenge is the lingering if not continued dominance of the enlightenment period.2 Regardless 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 ﬁnd 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—whether scientiﬁc or not—can often be the Achilles heal of interdisciplinary research. Particular tensions arise when discussing what makes the research “rigorous” (e.g., how large a sample size, is it repA good overview of this issue in the ﬁeld of urban planning can be found in Leoni Sandercock’s Towards Cosmopolis (Wiley, 1998), which outlines the “epistemological politics” underpinning the interdisciplinary ﬁeld of urban planning. She illustrates how despite the inclusion of more voices and the addition of “post-modern” theory and critiques, the scientiﬁc method continues to be privileged. Her concern is that this affects what voices are heard and who is qualiﬁed to listen and overall what is considered valid in the production of knowledge. She then offers guidance toward “an epistemology of multiplicity” that does not discard “these scientiﬁc and technical ways of knowing” 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 evidence, 5) learning through contemplative or appreciative knowledge, and 6) learning by doing, or action planning.
resentative, etc.) and if the ﬁndings are “generalizable.” 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 ﬁts the research question and interpret the results with the limits of method in mind. One way to address this problem is to move from simply having an interdisciplinary collaboration to one that is transdisciplinary. As discussed by the authors, the idea is to “work jointly to develop and use a shared conceptual framework that draws together discipline-speciﬁc theories, concepts, and methods to address a common problem (p.xxx).” 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 ﬁeld now is appreciating 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. Assuming the goal is to open up the possibilities for all modes of “interdisciplinary” 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 “generically” classifying any collaboration as simply interdisciplinary (p.xxx), since this has the potential to over or under state how the ﬁeld 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 saying 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 beneﬁts of following several paths concurrently. 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 different frameworks simultaneously. For example, I have my
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students do an exercise using three different conceptually based lenses—urban economics, human ecology and neoMarxism—to examine how and why communities change. The ﬁrst speaks in terms of transaction costs and utility. Human ecology looks to natural forces that trigger reactions to similarity and differences among people, while neoMarxists look at how structure via the state and owners of capital shape the circuits of capital that in turn produce or prevent change. It is in the juxtaposition of these frameworks that they begin to understand how each can help to explain community change when applied to a real place. They also see that these frameworks are neither mutually exclusive nor complimentary, and that when used together, can offer more information than might otherwise be found if they used just one framework. I offer this example because in urban planning (my teaching home) and urban studies (my theoretical home), we often forget our disciplinary roots sometimes because we are “adisciplinary.” While we may tip our hats to foundational pieces, we often do not revisit them. My point here is not so much nostalgia for the past but rather a reminder to keep in touch with your scholarly roots since they usually continue to shape contemporary thinking even after the scholar is gone. Another dimension to consider is how to bring practitioners into the fold. While I do not offer an answer for community psychology, I can offer what I have observed over the years in my own area. One reason often sighted for why academics and practitioners do not easily mix is that the former is too abstract and the latter is too concrete. Obviously, this is an overgeneralization. Nonetheless it is an important point to keep in mind, since the perception can stymie productive collaboration. I think that unfortunately, this is particularly true of how academics are seen by practitioners. If the goal is “action,” then this perception of academics—whether real or not—needs to be addressed. As many before me, I have come to understand that research that promotes action must be presented in ways that make it relevant to practitioners. This means it has to be accessible and relevant to them. A community activist, for example, is not likely to pick up this journal and read it, but they may ﬁnd the discussion interesting if they read or heard it elsewhere. The challenge then is to ﬁrst ﬁgure out what is relevant to this audience, then package and get the contents into the activists’ arena. This may be at conferences or in reports, journals or magazines, or it may be through other means such as websites, blogs, and newspaper columns and interviews on radio or television.
A related and important question to ask of all actionoriented research in the community-psychology ﬁeld is how will it beneﬁt community and the people in communities? This has a lot more to do with how research is put to use rather than simply its intended use. A challenge is to move research from having good intentions to research that intentionally tries to make a difference. This might require changing what drives the research agenda and who shapes the research questions, and deﬁnitely means the research should not just be interdisciplinary but also participatory. It deﬁnitely requires researchers to move from treating community as an object of study to being an active participant in its design, implementation and analysis. This also means re-examining just what we mean by community. Community is one of those terms that is as Wittgenstein said: “Something that we know when no one asks us, but no longer when we are supposed to give an account of it, is something that we need to remind ourselves of.” In teaching and working with people in communities, we need to grapple with the symbolic use and abuse of this word. In particular, I draw attention to the boundaries that using the term creates (e.g., us/them, this community/that community) creating distinctions that separate and compartmentalize people. From the perspective of a researcher, the community is a site for investigation, often identiﬁed by geographic boundaries, socioeconomic characteristics in common, or both. Obviously, researchers know that community is not that precisely deﬁned or contained, but when the boundaries become ﬁxed, we also ﬁx the contents and create an identity that is likely to over or under state the experiences of everyone involved. At this crossroad, I encourage you to think most about what community means to you and how it shapes what you research, develop theory about and act on. To be truly interdisciplinary—whether it is urban studies or community psychology—I think it is important use the different perspectives each discipline offers to beneﬁt the study of community and the communities you study. This includes looking critically in the mirror at your methods and assumptions, to see the limits but also the potential harm that certain disciplinary positions might have on the study of community. Most importantly, you need to keep vigilant in your search for methods and ways of collaborating that will produce good and reliable data and knowledge that will beneﬁt community. Reference
Maton, K. I., Perkins, D. D., & Saegert, S. (this issue). Community psychology at the crossroads: Prospects for interdisciplinary research. American Journal of Community Psychology.
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