Finding Common Ground? On the (Im)possibility of Practicing Interdisciplinarity in a Critical Heritage Studies Project - Deborah Sielert

The following reflections are based on my talk in the Panel “Traversing Disciplinary Borders -- Theories, Methods and Ethics for Interdisciplinary Critical Heritage Research” at the ACHS Conference 2018. I would like to thank the Early Career Researchers Network for giving me the opportunity to write for the blog. The positive feedback, especially, from fellow early career researchers (“You’re putting into work and theorize experiences which we all share”) motivated me to publish the transcript of the talk.

As a member of the interdisciplinary research project titled “Cultural heritage as a resource? Competing constructions, strategic usages and multiple adoptions during the 21st century (CHER), I offer my thoughts on the challenges, tension fields and possible ways to successfully practice interdisciplinary research within the field of heritage studies and, more specifically in the research project I am working in since about 2 years. Importantly, I do not take the interdisciplinary nature of research on heritage for granted. Instead, I, critically take into account what one could call the politics of interdisciplinarity in order to study how it is being practiced and constructed “on the ground”, in the interactions and everyday work being done by researchers.  The reflections I will bring to the fore are based on my own process of navigating my work; another researcher in the project might tell a different story.

The terrain of CHER

Since at least the 1990s interdisciplinarity serves as a much debated buzzword in the global neoliberal restructuring of universities, a label for excellence and prestige in research. In contrast, it has also been claimed by fields of study, such as Womens’ Studies and lately Critical Heritage Studies, which understand themselves to be transgressive and transformative of the structure of modern sciences. Sociologist Sabine Hark, therefore, names interdisciplinarity an empty signifier which could mean, whatever users want it to mean. This forms a an intricate terrain of a politics of interdisciplinarity, in which the concept is a field of powerful negotiations and boundary work (Hark 2007).

 For the purpose of this blogpost, interdisciplinarity describes either the collaboration of researchers who have been trained in different disciplines or as the integration of different theories, methods or empirical data from more than one discipline (Arnold, Gaube, and Wieser 2014). My approach is based on the experiences of my own and my co-researchers. For us, researching interdisciplinary is but one scholarly form of work.

 Our research project CHER brings together scholars of history, sociology, political sciences, cultural studies and education in six work packages or sub-projects. All of them study - on a theoretical and empirical basis - the multifaceted mechanisms of constructions and adoptions of cultural heritage in selected social fields in Germany. The social fields being studied are understood as three arenas of negotiations, organized in clusters:

  1. Constructions of history, wherein cultural heritage serves as a driver for the development of rural and urban spaces

  2. Identity constructions in relations of social proximity, wherein cultural heritage serves as a resource for group membership and affiliations

  3. Educational processes, wherein cultural heritage can possibly serve as an instrument for reflexive and inclusive education.

All work packages claim a common epistemological starting point: A critical, deconstructive and anti-positivist perspective on heritage, which departs from categories as set out by international agents like UNESCO. We are doing fundamental research rather than applied research in close proximity to a field of praxis.  

Interdisciplinarity was a central claim in the project’s funding application. However, I soon discovered that the way from such a claim to a real practice of interdisciplinarity is long. The project shifts between being multi- and interdisciplinary, as the six work packages are monodisciplinary and have a relative autonomy in pursuing their research. However, there is a structure set in place in the form of regular meetings of different kinds, which give us the space to further develop the projects common research questions and goals, namely to theorize. These are the spaces in which interdisciplinarity is practiced.

 With Sociologist Jan Kalenda one can distinguish three groups of barriers to interdisciplinary research (Kalenda 2016):

  • Institutional barriers are based in the social and organizational structures of different disciplines, which condition academics education and careers.

  • External interdisciplinary relations which hint to hostile and hierarchical power relations between disciplines.

  • Intellectual barriers are produced by the different cognitive schemes used in particular disciplines. They can include different ontological assumptions, epistemological foci and, consequently, different theoretical and methodological frameworks.

Although, I could point out instances relating to all these type of barriers, the focus of this contribution is on tearing down what Kalenda calls intellectual barriers.

Collaborative Conceptual work and Linking Interdisciplinarity to Reflexivity

In the beginning of the project differences in approaches and assumptions where much more visible to us, than any kind of similarities or common ground. This can be exemplified by different ways of approaching the notion of cultural heritage:

In the research field of Cluster 1 narratives departing from the tradition of “Denkmalschutz”/monument preservation dominate. Cluster 2 researches heritage-making as but one form of the production of historicity in everyday lifeworlds and Cluster 3 approaches heritage as national narratives and researches their representation and effects in educational contexts. Three consequences of these different research foci need to be pointed out:

  • The ontology of heritage as a phenomenon, or said differently, what we research, when we claim we are researching heritage is not clearly defined.

  • The already mentioned epistemological starting point - a critical, deconstructive and anti-positivist perspective on heritage - was not necessarily a natural starting point and work needed to be done to integrate it into all the research packages.

  • Some of us researchers where reluctant to use the normative and politically charged notion of cultural heritage at all. We demanded a reflexive and careful reflection on our role as heritage makers, followed by discussions on ethical concerns.

Driven by the common research aim of the project, we soon started to compare and contest our approaches to the notion of heritage.  The first observation was on our similarity in methods: All of us use qualitative interviews of some kind. Secondly, we discovered, that common questions and aims where invisible at first, due to different disciplinary languages. For example, project six from the cluster on educational contexts described outcomes of processes of collectivization in terms of affiliation, while I used membership and another project the notion of identity. Of course, all these terms carry within them a specific theoretical baggage. Still, this example shows how collaborative conceptual work and finding commons ground is partly about building shared vocabularies and understandings. In regards to approaching heritage we worked for such common understandings and:

  • Rejected UNESCOs distinction between tangible and intangible heritage as analytically useless, as every manifestation of heritage we aimed to research is always already both.

  • Came to a common understanding of heritage production being placed on a continuum from unofficial to official heritage, which allows each work package to position themselves within the continuum.

  • Specified our analysis of “heritage-making” with an understanding of it as diverse processes of valuation of culture; valuation here is not limited to an economic dimension (commodification) alone.

  • Discussed and exchanged views about when and how to use the notion of cultural heritage in field research, when it is not used in the field itself.

Very importantly, we did not attempt iron out any positionings or differences. Conceptual work as a basis for interdisciplinarity is not about finding univocal definitions of heritage, but about conceptual work as a practice itself; about conceptual literacy regarding the ambiguities and paradoxes inherent in the use of any concept. As Cultural theorist Mieke Bal states in her book on “Travelling concepts”:

While groping to define, provisionally and partly, what a particular concept may mean, we gain insight into what it can do. It is in the groping that the valuable work lies. This is why I have come to value concepts. The groping is a collective endeavor
— Bal 2002, 11

The dialogue and collaborative theoretical work around the notion cultural heritage as both a concept and a phenomenon serves as a fulcrum through which a theoretical interdisciplinarity in our project has been practiced. This practice asks the researchers to navigate their own and alternative ways of seeing things in the interdisciplinary encounter. In order to do so, one needs a certain amount of reflexivity. It is in this sense that reflexivity is bound to the practice of interdisciplinary research (Romm 1998).

Methodologies for interdisciplinary collaboration: Situational analysis

In addition to a theoretical interdisciplinary practice through the integration of concepts, methodology can play the role of another useful tool on a more epistemological and empirical level of interdisciplinarity. Adopting situational analysis tremendously helpful in communicating empirical data with my colleagues in a comprehensible way.

In my work package, we research the strategic production of heritage practices, places, narratives or objects, which are interwoven and partly produced by the more or less ethnicized residents of different small cities in Germany: As Dutch, Portuguese or East-Frisian. The projects research interest lies in the overlap between processes of ethnoheterogenesis (formation of membership in migration society) and the fabrication of culture as cultural heritage. We thereby aim to open up the black box of notions of community/identity in relation to heritage within the field of critical heritage studies. Our focus is on the broader social and political context of heritage making. This is mirrored in the research design, which consists of a comparative situational analysis (Clarke 2012) of the fabrication of ethnically marked culture.

At the core of Adele Clarke’s methodology of situational analysis is the practice of producing three kinds of maps to systematize and analyze empirical data of all kinds and to keep up with the complexity and messiness of the research situation. In my experience in a workshop with colleagues where some of my maps served as a basis for discussion, this visual analytical method has the potential to be a very helpful ground for interdisciplinary analytical work.

The cooperative practice of mapping in Situational Analysis can provide an entry point into my data and is highly participatory as knowledge from all disciplinary backgrounds is supposed to be included. It can also be employed as a space of encounter between different research packages.


Arnold, Markus, Veronika Gaube, and Bernhard Wieser. 2014. “Interdisziplinär forschen.” In Interdisziplinär und transdiziplinär forschen. Praktiken und Methoden, 105–21. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

Bal, Mieke. 2002. Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide. Green College Lectures. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Clarke, Adele. 2012. Situationsanalyse: Grounded Theory Nach Dem Postmodern Turn. Edited by Reiner Keller. Interdisziplinäre Diskursforschung. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. //

Hark, Sabine. 2007. “Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity.” Graduate Journal of Social Sciences 4 (2): 11–33.

Kalenda, Jan. 2016. “Situational Analysis as a Framework for Interdisciplinary Research in the Social Sciences.” Human Affairs 26 (3).

Romm, Norma R A. 1998. “Interdisciplinary Practice as Reflexivity.” Systemic Practice and Action Research 11 (1): 63–77.