The entanglements of interdisciplinarity: An interview with Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard


Fitzgerald & Callard photoThe entanglements of interdisciplinarity: An interview with Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard

Des Fitzgerald, Felicity Callard & David Beer

This article discusses a number of the themes raised by Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard’s recent article ‘Social Science and neuroscience beyond interdisciplinarity: Experimental entanglements’. The interview focuses upon the questions and problems of interdisciplinarity, experimentation and the future of engagements between the social sciences and neuroscience.


DB Perhaps we can start the interview by reflecting on some of the broader aims and ambitions of your article, which are really far-reaching. It would seem that underpinning your article is the hope that the social sciences might enter into some more productive collaborations with other forms of knowledge and other disciplines. You use the term ‘entanglements’ as a way of avoiding some of the established terminology around interdisciplinarity. Would you see your article as being part of an attempt to open up disciplinary barriers in more productive ways? How might the notion of entanglements help with this?

DF I don’t think we can avoid the conclusion that opening up disciplinary boundaries is something that’s at stake for us in this article – or, at least, we’re invested in picking our way across those boundaries in a way that’s a bit more interesting, and a bit more transgressive, than most current ‘interdisciplinary’ efforts will actually allow. But, speaking only for myself for a moment, I’m also increasingly aware of how banal a desire that is – after all, who, today, defends rigid disciplinary divisions? Actually, in some ways, and maybe perversely, I am *not* especially interested in opening up disciplinary boundaries. Or at least I want to distance myself from the usual platitudinous gestures represented by such a claim. Because what people usually mean when they say we should ‘open up disciplinary boundaries’ is that different sets of expertise should come together to solve common questions, that we should pool our knowledge, share our methods, carve up different bits of a common issue, and so on. This is what Felicity and I call ‘the regime of the inter’ – which is a bureaucratic and intellectual space interested in maybe re-mapping ‘disciplinary boundaries,’ but which is not at all interested (indeed, is professionally uninterested) in questioning the topologies, relationalities and foreclosures that generate the space of the interdisciplinary as such. We have no truck with this – and actually our project starts from an entirely different place, and with a much more existential question, viz what are we to do now, as social scientists and humanists, if we accept that the kinds of things that grab our attention are – and this realization really is unavoidable – profoundly torqued by the biological, developmental and environmental constraints within which human beings, and other animals, make and live their lives? In one sense, all ‘entanglement’ does is foreground this recognition – which, for us, has to be the first step if any kind of meaningfully undisciplined intellectual practice is going to take shape in the contemporary academy.

FC I have always found ‘discipline’ harder to understand and to inhabit (intellectually, materially) than the so-called space of the ‘interdisciplinary’. Much of my previous writing has been animated by a desire to trace the movement, incorporation and transformation of concepts and theories across and within disciplinary domains – whether in relation to models of affect that have taken a fascinating journey through the neurosciences and the humanities, or as regards the changing shape of psychoanalysis as it crossed into geography or is pulled into the nascent domain of neuro-psychoanalysis. The history of the social sciences (and, indeed, of the humanities) is one of profound intertwinement with other epistemological domains – even if, at many points, those intimate liaisons have been pushed out of view by many who have wanted to imagine clean, territorial divides between the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences. Over the last few years, ‘entanglements’ emerged for us as a shorthand through which we could register our commitment to keeping those strange histories and presents in view, as well as describe the situation in which we both found ourselves: namely one in which we were thinking, working – and playing – with neuroscientists in ways that could not be adequately captured through the pinioning force of the term ‘critique’ or the desiccated language of ‘interaction’.

DB Your article talks of the spectre of the brain and neuroscience hovering over the social sciences – you say that these can no longer be ignored if social scientists are to appreciate human life. Are there some unique contributions that you think the social sciences can make if it begins to deal with such material matters? You talk in the article of the need to develop an awareness of the political and economic standpoints in neuroscience, is this the most crucial intervention that the social sciences might make?

DF Certainly the most potent work on the political and economic standpoints in neuroscience has come from Critical Neuroscience – and especially from the work of people like Jan Slaby and Suparna Choudhury, with which we are very much in (albeit critical) exchange. There’s hugely important work that needs to be done there. But we also don’t think that that work exhausts the ways in which social and cultural theory can or should encounter the neurosciences – and we think (we hope!) that the ‘contribution’ the social sciences make will go a bit further, and be a bit more riskily experimental, than that. So really we look to the neurosciences (but of course one may look to other places too) to see if allying ourselves to the surprisingly edgy, uncertain, marginal and playful experimental endeavours that people pursue in neuroscientific spaces, can help us to register the vital and biological stakes of the questions that interest us. Having said that: I also want to gently resist this kind of pragmatic question: ‘what can the social sciences contribute?’ or ‘how can the social sciences help?’ – which we get a lot. In some ways (and here I’ll speak only for myself again), right now I’m not massively interested in delineating what our ‘contribution’ will turn out to be – or even, whether, in 30 years, there will be such things as ‘contributing’ disciplines at all. The critical point is: the social science of the twenty-first century will be a science of life, or it will be nothing (here, in addition to the work that Felicity and I have done together, I’m mirroring, or maybe over-stating, an argument that I’ve been co-constructing elsewhere with Nikolas Rose and Ilina Singh). For me, that’s the ground we need to start on. The rest is detail, more or less. The ‘spectre’ thing, I should also say, is kind of a joke; I don’t think that neuroscience really forms a ‘spectre’ on the horizon of the social sciences – although obviously some people see it like that. I really wanted to start the article with a social-science pastiche of Eve Kosofsky’s Sedgwick’s and Adam Frank’s famous challenge to literary theory, invoking Silvan Tompkins – ‘Here are a few things literary theory knows today’ – but it turns out that Constantina Papoulias and Felicity had already done that. So we’re stuck with Marx.

FC While in some way Des and I clearly speak through the mouthpiece of ‘the social sciences’, neither of us is wedded to defending, or prescribing, appropriate roles and duties of the social scientist in relation to particular objects of inquiry. What fascinates me is how the adjective ‘social’ will signify (when placed in front of the noun ‘sciences’), in an era in which the brain sciences are helping limn a very different model of the ‘social’ from that brought into visibility by sociology, economics, geography and anthropology in the early twentieth century. How is the relation between the social sciences and the (do we really want to imply ‘not-social’?) sciences recalibrated through brain research that increasingly puts pressure on those very ways of carving up and categorizing the work both of scientists and of the ‘matter’ of the mind and brain? Vis-à-vis our invocation of the spectre of the brain, I’m not quite sure how much of a joke it is. The brain is, I think, acknowledged by all social scientific powers to be itself a power (apologies for more warping of Marx’s manifesto) – though it is far from settled how the social sciences might best respond to this fact. Our wager is that there is far more to be done epistemologically and ontologically by self-ascribed social scientists than to map out a sociology (or geography, or anthropology, or political economy) of neuroscience. The place from which we start is a place of profound curiosity: we choose to approach that strange entity ‘the brain’ by working alongside other researchers who are just as interested as we are in it, rather than critique the work of those researchers (i.e. neuroscientists) from a position (whether shocked, or tentative) on the sidelines.

DB You draw some interesting observations about method in your piece. You argue that the neurobiological age will have potential consequences for methodology and practice in social science. What might these consequences be? What is particularly notable is your interest in the experiment and the experimental, is this where we will find the significance of the methodological questions that you articulate?

FC I’ve been working alongside and with neuroscientists for a number of years, now, and have been struck again and again by the intense creativity and expansiveness that frequently characterizes the work that they do. Indeed, those collaborations commenced shortly after I had returned to academia after some time away from it, and was in need of being convinced that play was still possible within the academy. You might say that I learned how to play, again, through experimenting with neuroscience and neuroscientists. The creativity of the neurosciences is often, I think, rendered invisible in the angry critiques of many researchers from the humanities and social sciences, who lament what they see as the deadness of a science that they often caricature – admittedly, with some reason, given much media reporting – as one obsessed with ‘particular parts of the brain lighting up’.

For me, one of the most intriguing constraints and openings vis-à-vis ‘experiment’ lies in the discipline of psychology. I find psychology one of the most frustrating and one of the most fascinating of the human sciences in its ability to register, but mostly to disavow, the complex movements of affect and of identification that course through the bodies and minds of both experimenters and experimental subjects. Now that psychology has been superimposed onto the brain, we see some of those old problems of psychology being intensified, as the architecture of experimentation comes to include the neural and the massively technological (the strange, cavernous space of the scanner) alongside the domain of the ‘psychological’. I think Des and I came to be fascinated with experiment and the experimental through somewhat different routes. I was profoundly influenced by the year or so I spent at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the site of production of some of the most thrilling and nuanced interrogations of the generativity as well as the rigour of experiment (I’m thinking, of course, of the work of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger and Lorraine Daston, amongst others). I became increasingly convinced that I needed better to understand and to trace the labours of my neuroscientific collaborators as they devoted themselves to heterogeneous practices of experimentation. Des and I are certainly not advocating for lots of social scientists to change their practice by starting to run scientific experiments; rather, we argue that the ethos and aesthetics of experimentation have not been nearly well enough understood by most interpretive social scientists.

DF I first started to think seriously about experiment a few years ago, when, sort of against my will, I was part of a team (led by Melissa Littlefield) that ‘won’ a competition organised by the European Neuroscience and Society Network – the prize for which was to actually design, run, and analyze a neuroscientific experiment in Andreas Roepstorff’s lab in Aarhus, Denmark. I was really struck by two things during that experience (which I’ve written about elsewhere) – and it significantly altered my view on how we should think about and with the neurosciences. The first thing that struck me was how (in the best sense) deeply weird, and contingent, and open, and frustrating, and playful, the actual process of putting together an experiment turned out to be. I had previously learned to understand experiments as more-or-less ways of reducing things. And of course in part they are that. But it also became clear to me that, in functional brain-imaging at least, they can also be vehicles for radically pushing against boundaries that are entirely taken for granted by (what imagines itself as) the critical avant-garde of social theory – boundaries, for example, between the body and its environment, between the organic and the cultural, and especially between the (everyone agrees) very strange and unpredictable and unquantifiable way that social life often unfolds, and the nonetheless material-organic forms within which at least some of that life, subjectively takes shape. So this opened me up to the idea that there were things going on under the sign of ‘experiment’ that were not reductions of anything – that, in fact, very much pursued the opposite strategy. (And I was lucky enough to be able to keep thinking these questions when I spent the best part of a year back at the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus, post-PhD). The second thing that struck me was that, with this allowed, there could be no solid methodological foundation for excluding ‘experiment’ from the suite of methods that make up (in my case) sociology as it is practised in the UK – as indeed, it is still by-and-large excluded. So I do think that, beyond the kinds of provocations that people like me and Felicity want to make, there are big – and probably rather dull – questions to be answered about how we organize methodology, and methods training, in the contemporary social sciences. (And these go quite beyond the current concern with social scientists’ statistical competence – although that’s not misplaced either, and I include myself in the roll-call of people who really need to know more stats).

DB You point towards a conceptual space between the social and neuro sciences. So, this is not an article that stops with social scientific investigations of the neurosciences. Instead, you seem to be suggesting that we can develop a space of intellectual flow in which the social sciences and neurosciences come to reshape each other – rather than one being the object of study of the other. How might this space work, will new disciplines or sub-disciplines emerge from this?

DF There’s actually been a lot of superb social science of the neurosciences, from people like Anne Beaulieu, Andreas Roepstorff, Simon Cohn, Joe Dumit, Nikolas Rose, Paul Martin, Martyn Pickersgill, Allan Young and many others who won’t come to me right now. For me, it’s actually been – and continues to be – one of the more interesting and potent sites of interaction between the social and natural sciences, even within the ‘objects of study for one another’ paradigm. But yes, the claim we want to make (and we should acknowledge that we’re hardly the first here: Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached say this in their Neuro monograph; Andreas Roepstorff has been actually living it for quite a while now) is that the space has opened up now for some other kind of relationship – one in which neuroscientific practice can’t be reduced to an effect of culture, history, power, or whatever (I’m caricaturing here, of course), but needs to be encountered as an incredibly rich and potent registrant of human vitality, and of the material, biological, embodied capacities with which social and cultural lives are deeply enmeshed. How will this space work? I have no idea. In the short term, I think, as we put it in the article, it’s at least going to be contingent, marginal, serendipitous, unstable, awkward, temporary, and so on. But I also think that’s kind of okay: our call for an attention to experiment is also a call for an ethic of experimental practice, with all the temporalities, instabilities, and accidents etc that go into that. In some ways, I think that that might be a condition of really interesting and transgressive work across these spaces – at least right now.

FC As might already be clear from my previous comments, I’m not personally invested in bringing a new discipline or sub-discipline into the world. I’m more preoccupied with when, why and how particular corners of the research world become more habitable for the pursuit of certain conceptual and empirical questions that I think are interesting and important. As Des and I emphasize in our article, we certainly have no fantasy of an equitable two-way flow ‘between’ domains of knowledge. Indeed, we’re often fascinated, when we present our ‘experimental entanglements’ approach, that so many people seem to operate with a governing fantasy of parity of epistemological power. As we recently emphasized at the 4S/ESOCITE (science and technology studies) conference in Buenos Aires, both of us are much more interested in the seductions and openings of subjection – whether epistemological or social – as we envisage the future capture of ‘the social scientist’ in neuroscientific entanglements.

DB Given this space between the social sciences and neuroscience, do you see this as being a project that falls within the scope of science and technology studies? I was also wondering if given the inclusion of the material and biological if you see your project as speaking to those with interests in materiality or perhaps affect.

DF Maybe I’ll do STS, and Felicity can do affect. I’m not sure that this is a project that falls within the scope of STS – or at least it lies very much outside the kind of straitened imaginaries that much contemporary STS wraps itself in. For us, obviously, it’s no longer at all adequate to take the natural – or at least the biological – sciences as objects of scholarly attention for the social sciences and humanities. There’s just too much of the sociocultural at stake *in* those sciences, and being produced, understood, and expanded within the experimental practices that undergird them. I actually have a kind of quasi-scholarly interest in how this piece gets read in STS – if it gets read at all. In many ways (and I say this as someone who continues to learn huge amounts form the STS literature, still goes to STS conferences, desperately tries to publish in the STS journals etc.) I’m kind of distressed at how slow the mainstream of STS has been to take these kinds of questions seriously. I think, if I’m being totally honest, and probably slightly jeopardizing my own career here, that STS has become way too intellectually and materially comfortable in the niche it’s carved out for itself, sort of at the edges of bureaucracy and the natural sciences – ethicising, critiquing, commentating, communicating, responsibilizing, and so on. It’s a bit weird, because they are so central and visible in the STS literatures, but I don’t know if STS has really taken on board, or properly understood, the far-reaching challenges that people like Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Bruno Latour in his more interesting phases, have launched at this paradigm (Barad’s reception in STS, in particular, is worth a whole research-project of its own). But I would definitely position what we’re calling ‘Experimental Entanglement’ as a challenge in that tradition. Optimistically, I would say that many of the more interesting engagements at the margins of the social and natural sciences *are* still to be found in the STS literature, and at STS conferences – but I really do think the discipline is overdue some kind of major reformation in terms of its guiding concerns.

FC I’m not sure that I can ‘do affect’! It’s certainly worth noting that both of us have thought a lot about how an ethos and practice of experimentation and entanglement come to be embedded in, and indeed enabled by, particular affective dispositions. Indeed, over the last few years, we’ve been pursuing an informal ethnography of different kinds of interdisciplinarity – and the affective affordances and rigidities that constitute and emerge out of them.

Additionally, for me, at least, the line of argument that we developed together over several years – and which we have issued in programmatic form in our TCS article – was to a significant extent motivated by my earlier interests in histories and theories of ‘affect’ that were circulating in and through the humanities, social sciences and life sciences. My collaborator Constantina Papoulias and I were preoccupied by the means through which concepts and epistemic objects travel through and between the humanities and the sciences: these fugitive and not-so-fugitive movements can often spark unpredictable changes in how we understand and investigate the objects and concerns of the human sciences. My interest in tracing these movements contributed to my fascination with the unpredictable terrain of the neuroscientific that we attempt to do justice to through the rhetoric of entanglement in our article for TCS.

My own disciplinary genealogy is one that has seen me resolutely situate myself in the interstices of several disciplines (geography, psychiatry, history of science, cultural theory & c. &c.), and so I would be loath to want to position our project within the purview of any one discipline or any one particular theoretical school. I’m fascinated by how writing can gain readers unpredictably: certain provocations or formulations can spark conversations in areas, or disciplines, that one had not anticipated. It remains to be seen how and to what extent ‘experimental entanglements’ will capture unexpected readers and practitioners.

DB Your article clearly has the objective of mapping out future work, but I wondered if perhaps you had begun to develop any of this work since the article was published or if you had anything to add to the research agenda that you have used it to outline?

DF & FC The thinking behind ‘Experimental Entanglements’ developed over a number of years – years that, as we intimate in the article, were characterized by a certain amount of ressentiment vis-à-vis what we saw as a stultifying formal framework that appears to govern most possibilities for interdisciplinary neuroscientific-social scientific collaboration. (The ressentiment might, of course, simply have been the result of several failed grant applications that we had hoped might open up other modalities of collaboration … but, hey). But 2014 heralds a change of course – and one that might well demand from us a change of affective disposition. The publication of our TCS article has come just before the start of a large empirical and creative project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, in which we will be able to set a number of experimental entanglements in motion. Hubbub at Wellcome Collection is a 22-month residency that starts 1 October 2014. It is an interdisciplinary investigation of rest and its opposites, involves approximately 40 collaborators, and has £1m to devote to experimentation across the arts, humanities, social sciences and neurosciences. Neuroscientists, humanists, psychologists, artists and social scientists will be working together to study the ‘resting’ brain, to trace the borders between signal, sound and noise, to track the activity of our bodies across the city, and to map the city’s noise and silences.


We are also in the midst of writing a short monograph for Palgrave about particular experimental entanglements that we have nurtured or in which we have been involved. This volume is intended to act as a guide – probably a strange one – for those who are potentially interested in collaboration across the sciences and social sciences/humanities, but who are not exactly set on fire by the current bureaucratic prescriptions governing interdisciplinary research. We’re really trying to make ‘experimental entanglement’ have a ‘moment’ in the next year or two. Not (or least not only) out of some narcissistic desire – but because we really do think we’re at a critical juncture in the history of the ‘social’ sciences vis-à-vis the life sciences, and we really do think our agenda something important to contribute to what the moment might end up looking like. So this is where we’re at right now.




Des Fitzgerald is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of SocialScience, Health and Medicine, King’s College London, where he workson an ESRC Transformative grant, ‘A New Sociology for a NewCentury’. His research interests are in the relationship between sociologyand biology, in neuroscience, in urbanicity and mental health, and inautism.


Felicity Callard is Reader in Social Science for Medical Humanities atDurham University and has wide-ranging research interests in 20th- and21st-century psychiatry, neuroscience and psychoanalysis. She is GroupLeader of the first residency of The Hub at Wellcome Collection, whichwill conduct interdisciplinary experiments (on ‘rest’ and its opposites)across the social sciences, humanities, arts and neurosciences.


David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, UK. He is one of the editors of the Theory, Culture & Society website. His most recent book is Punk Sociology (2014).


To watch the video-abstract for Fitzgerald & Callard’s TCS article, ‘Social Science and Neuroscience beyond Interdisciplinarity: Experimental Entanglements’ (Theory, Culture & Society, 0263276414537319, first published on June 30, 2014), go here:

To read the full article, go here:



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