As scholars in interdisciplinary studies have repeatedly pointed out, many problems of our times are too complex to be understood, let alone solved, on the basis of any single discipline. The seminar “Making Democracies Resilient to Modern Threats,” organized by the Fulbright Finland Foundation on March 14, 2018 at the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, paved the way for understanding the causes and consequences of misinformation, network-based intrusions, and other challenges of our times in a multifaceted manner by integrating ideas of diverse disciplines including political science, media studies, and psychology. What is more, the event revealed the potential of cross-national collaboration and comparative research, introducing insights from the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom vis-à-vis the Finnish experience. Overall, the event was an exemplary effort to defend democracy around the world.
Of course, there is nothing really surprising about a Fulbright seminar excelling in interdisciplinary endeavors and international understanding. As Professor Richard J. Harknett from the University of Cincinnati emphasized during the Pre-seminar, “The original vision of J. William Fulbright was figuring out how to solve problems together, regardless of the disciplinary background.” In previous posts of this blog, I have already discussed the implementation of Senator Fulbright’s important goal in the dozens of events I attended during my Fulbright year (2013-14) in New York City, organized by One To World and the Institute of International Education. Since then, I have eagerly participated in American and Finnish Fulbright events as an alumna. While the topics discussed and people involved in these events have varied, something has never changed, and that “something” was also present in the Fulbright Finland Seminar on March 14: an open atmosphere, inviting debate and dialogue between people representing a range of disciplines from different countries. Professor Harknett’s observation also reminded me of my inspiring encounter with Harriet Mayor Fulbright at the One To World Fulbright Awards Dinner in May 2014. At 80 years of age, she was (and still continues to be) whole-heartedly committed to her late husband’s mission of widening the views on the world; excited to meet with all of us foreign scholars and to learn from our experiences while eagerly sharing her own.
Since Senator Fulbright’s times, interdisciplinarity has become an increasingly popular term, constantly cultivated in research projects ranging from arts and humanities to environment and engineering. Yet leading scholars in interdisciplinary studies, including Julie Thompson Klein (1996) have noted how “interdisciplinary claims are common but for the most part exaggerated.” In the Fulbright community, again, I find that interdisciplinarity is almost always there, even if not explicitly pronounced – in fact, most events I have attended barely even mention the term. It almost seems as if interdisciplinarity were an internalized idea which we absorb during our Fulbright experience; a principle or world view that shapes our action and thinking in a way that we barely even notice, as we get so used to it. In other words, when it comes to the Fulbright community, I find explicit claims about interdisciplinarity to be less common than moments when integration of ideas and innovation are actually accomplished.
This said, it is important to also explicitly discuss and compare the practices of interdisciplinarity across countries and disciplines, so that academics with different backgrounds can learn from each other and about ways in that knowledge can be produced and shared in society. During his talk, Professor Harknett also emphasized the difference between multi- and interdisciplinarity. In my own research, I have created a connection between academic disciplines and news frames, perceiving both as limited views on the world. What is more, I have explored and discussed differences between “multiperspectival” and “interperspectival” forms of news, connecting these with multi- and interdisciplinary knowledge: the former indicates the development of different viewpoints in separated fashion, the big picture only being formed across larger segments combined in the end, whereas the latter designates that the perspectives become integrated already during the process of knowledge production, creating greater frameworks early on. In my study of American and Finnish foreign news, I found Finnish news to be mostly “multiperspectival” and the American news to be largely “interperspectival.” Rather than one form being superior to the other, my work has built on Rodney Benson’s (2013) thought that different forms of news and pluralist traditions can help promote different forms of democracy.
The problem, inherent in both systems, is that when one frame becomes too dominant – either in the news, or in people’s minds, or both –, it can and does prevent people from seeing other possible frames or accepting any interpretations that differ from what they perceive as “truth.” This phenomenon was also aptly illustrated in the Fulbright Finland seminar. As for solid solutions, the Fulbright Finland seminar did not necessarily arrive at any. Yet I completely concur with Dr. Jonathan Albright, director of research at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, on that it is important to truly understand problems before trying to solve them. Such understanding also implies constant elaboration of J. William Fulbright’s original vision. Just as the challenges have developed from Senator Fulbright’s time, now involving cyberspace and so forth, so have the disciplines. New frameworks establish themselves, creating their theories, methods and models, only to fall short of responding to some new current challenges and having to merge and connect with other inter-disciplines. At the same time, traditional disciplines are still needed, too – scholars with very particular specialties working side by side with experts with more ample interests. Even if the threats on democracy persist, along with many unsolved problems originating in the past, this seminar – like all Fulbright events – filled me with hope, seeing scholars from different countries so seriously committed to fulfilling Senator Fulbright’s mission while further widening his vision. Interdisciplinary and international dialogues like these, if anything, can ultimately lead to innovative solutions to the complex problems of past, present and current challenges.
I want to thank the organizers of this magnificent seminar: The Fulbright Finland Foundation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office in Finland; the US Department of State, and the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, for the insights and inspiration, which also helped me craft my ideas for the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS) 2018 Annual Conference, entitled “Inter/diversities”, a task I was working on right before arriving at the Fulbright seminar. A direct quote from the AIS Call for Proposals:
“This emergent concept, ‘Inter/diversities,’ ranges from going beyond an ‘either/or’ approach to an awareness of multiple definitions of ‘diversity’ at work coinciding simultaneously. This developing term signifies interest in integrating diverse disciplinary insights – a significant feature of interdisciplinary work – while at the same time being aware of and embracing the diversity among people and/or cultures with unique world views.”
It is not the first time I note a connection between the goals of AIS and the goals of J. William Fulbright. As a recently elected president of the Finnish Fulbright Alumni, it is my honor to try to further elaborate on such connections, while humbly and eagerly learning from the brilliant open minds around me.
“Making Democracies Resilient to Modern Threats” seminar website: http://www.fulbright.fi/en/making-democracies-resilient
Association for Interdisciplinary Studies website: https://oakland.edu/ais/
References cited in this post:
Benson, Rodney 2013: Shaping Immigration News: A French-American Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Klein, Julie Thompson 1996: Crossing Boundaries: Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisciplinarities. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia.