Written by Veronica Strang
How can we facilitate creative interdisciplinary conversations, and what happens when we do? It was this question that sparked an IAS experiment in 2014-15, when our annual research theme was Light. I proposed an informal event on the topic of ‘Lighthouses’ to provide a focus for a discussion involving Durham researchers, our international Fellows, and a public audience. We posed the following questions. What does a lighthouse do, and how does it do it? What does it mean symbolically, and how does it mean it? What happens when we think about these questions from different disciplinary perspectives? And how does sharing diverse perspectives ‘enlighten’ our thinking?
We invited our international Fellows and Durham academics with interests in this area to talk briefly about how they might examine a lighthouse analytically, and to consider how each viewpoint informed the others. Members of the audience were invited to contribute their own thinking on the topic. In addition to a rich array of disciplinary perspectives, this produced a marvellous – and as it turned out highly relevant – question from a magnificently bearded gentleman in the audience: ‘What about The Spooky Men?’
The overall goal was to construct an interdisciplinary account of what a lighthouse is, and how we might think differently about the topic through the collaborative exchange of ideas. The event was so illuminating (and such fun) that we decided to develop the experiment further, and see whether it was possible to replicate such an interdisciplinary conversation in a text-based account. I wrote a book proposal which quickly gained acceptance, and a team composed of myself, IAS Fellow and geographer Tim Edensor, and anthropologist Joanna Puckering persuaded all of the original discutants and an array of writers and artists to extend the conversation across the disciplinary spectrum.
There were, in the end, over 50 contributors, and weaving their contributions into a coherent narrative was indubitably a large task. However, as we so often find at the IAS, while disciplinary boundaries sometimes appear impermeable, ideas flow across them with impunity, and there are always connections and shared concepts to be found. The book provides a 360o interdisciplinary illumination of a fascinating topic and, more to the point, demonstrates that, yes, it is possible to have a creative interdisciplinary conversation. Does this succeed in transforming people’s thinking on the topic? That is something that only the readers can decide. But if you would like an answer to that question (and the one about The Spooky Men) the book (From the Lighthouse: interdisciplinary reflections on light, 2018) is available from Routledge or, we hope, in your University library.