Disciplinary training: More trained, less able

Recently I spent 13 months doing field work near Pondicherry in India. Apart from meeting a lot of people on a daily basis, I continued to read and listen to podcasts of programmes in universities in the West. In this period, I was constantly amazed at the sophisticated social thinking of large numbers of people I met in villages. When I got back home into the world of books and academic podcasts, I found that the debates I encountered there were often less impressive in terms of their sophistication – and sometimes outright childish. The lingo of the speakers and the discussants made me feel that lack of sophistication was mainly due to their sophisticated academic training in disciplinary programmes.

One of the functions of disciplinary teaching is to restrict thinking. The school kid who would have thought about human behaviour in a much wider framework is brainwashed into thinking of it in much narrower terms. Most economic thinking, for example, is about atomised selfish individuals facing scarcity of resources and trying to make the best of the situation. If this were considered just an aspect of human behaviour, it’s fine. But when we make it the exclusive basis of understanding, it is liable to make our understanding of the world highly distorted. What is particularly unfortunate in the social sciences is that we have developed rituals (called “research methods”) that substantiate these narrow understandings and exalt childish ideas into unassailable truths.

Some of this could have been avoided if the academic community were not divided. It’s incredible to see one building that houses social science departments in Universities where students and teachers divided by disciplines without meaningful interactions with each other. This practice enables insular intellectual growth wherein a scholar knows a priori that only a certain aspect of his or her work will be challenged. This is what is refreshingly different in the social world. Local politicians and other scholars I met during field work had engaging discussions. In these it was impossible to hide behind narrow ideologies and sweeping assumptions. Tamil Nadu also has a great culture of political discussions and social thinking that seems to permeate the landscape. Thanks to this, many of my bus rides ended up in stimulating conversations with completely random individuals.
University life cuts off from social life elsewhere and disciplines insulate us from the need to think of the world in sophisticated terms. We have created a world of books, journals and conferences that restricts our community, and reduces the intellectual challenges we face. The demanding disciplinary rituals take most of our energies and discourage us from thinking beyond restricted norms. The world is complex and simplistic theories will not enable us to understand it. Unfortunately as we go up the disciplinary ladder, we grow in comfort of our narrow worlds and narrow understandings with the paradoxical result that better training makes us less able to understand the social world.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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