- Building New Bridges: Sources, Methods and Interdisciplinarity / Bâtir de Nouveaux Ponts Sources, méthodes et interdisciplinarité
This is a collection of twenty-one papers first presented at a conference at the University of Ottawa in May 2004. As with all such collections, quality varies. But new bridges are indeed begun here, and older interdisciplinary relations clarified and strengthened. Moreover, it is good to have contributions in both official languages, a bridge Canadians dare not neglect and where the traffic should be heavier and less armoured than it currently seems. If one suspends narrow interests on the way into this volume, as all good interdisciplinarians perhaps ought to, then there is regular stimulation in store as the focus shifts between contexts and methods while disclosing new connections and an energizing sense of work still to be done, rapprochements worthy of further development.
There are plenty of interdisciplinary initiatives underway across Canada, and there is no lack of urging by granting councils and senior administrators for faculty and students to undertake collaborative projects that involve traditionally distinct or even conflicting skills and sensitivities, but concerns remain and are readily admitted to by the editors of this volume. In light of worries about students, standards, efficiency, and creativity, Keshen and Perrier hope that their collection will 'be used as something akin to a primer for courses in methodology. It seeks to introduce readers to the possibilities for interdisciplinary research, the potential application and effective utilization of sources, as well as to stimulate debate on the merits of melding approaches from different branches of scholarship.' To this end, they have selected work by emergent as well as senior scholars, yet all the pieces have single authors, suggesting that notions of dissemination and structures of reward in the humanities and social sciences are still skewed towards [End Page 137] solitary inquiry. However, such solitude can allow for freer range than when one is part of a multidisciplinary team where the labour is divided along disciplinary lines and one stays largely within one's own silo.
The selection is heavy on historians of various sorts, which suggests a greater emphasis on (or comfort with) sources than methods. There are lots of insightful comments about method along the way, but it might have helped to have at least one concerted reflection on the nature and connectivity of disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and anti-disciplinarity – perhaps even two contrasting ones by a philosopher of science and an aesthetician. But the recurrence of questions about what can or should constitute a source for historical work helps hold the collection together; and, of course, part of the importance of history derives from its straddling humanities and social sciences and its nourishing of great prose stylists as well as number-crunching cliometricians. The lure and authority of text as primary source and most desirable product of research will not dissipate easily, nor perhaps should it. As James Hull demonstrates, there is lots of writing, like engineering texts, that has yet to be read critically by non-engineers. But the importance of visual culture to historical reconstruction and analysis should be more readily granted than it currently is. Skeptics should go first to the accomplished and provocative essays by Jonathan Vance and Caroline-Isabelle Caron (on public monuments and television respectively). Oral culture is less well served here, despite being an indispensable 'bridge' to understanding and respecting Aboriginal and treaty rights in Canada. There are several effective engagements, too, with demographic and identitarian issues, but the most magisterial performance is left to the end. Chad Gaffield uses the theme of census data to identify currents in recent history, to convey the complexities of methodological sharing, borrowing, and theft, to challenge historians and non-historians alike to eschew stereotyping and cliché as inexcusable signs of intellectual laziness, and to regard history as more fluid than fixed by virtue of its expandable and hence porous borders within and beyond which rigour is essential but purity never an option.