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2nd International Congress »History under Debate«, Santiago de Compostella, 14-18 July 1999

Christoph CONRAD

Shared Puules for Trans-disciplinary Research

Abstract for Round Table IV.M


In the last two decades, the hierarchies of importance in the humanities have been undermined

and transformed by two tendencies: the so-called "cultural turn" and the opening toward the

post-colonial world. Epistemological certainties, the value to topics, and geographical

relevance have been shaken by what can be termed in short-hand: postmodernism. From the

point of view of a German speaking historian of the 19'" and 20'" century, these two

challenges came later than on the Anglo-American and French scene and they carne basically

at the same time, that is during the 1980s and early 1990s.

No matter whether one greets these trends as liberating or sees them as symptoms of

fragmentation and relativism they are clearly changing the terms of trade among the

humanities and social sciences. The relationships between the classical disciplines on the one

hand and area studies, cultural, gender, and ethnic studies on the other hand are changing

under this double impact. Inter- or trans-disciplinary research is thus in a difficult position: it

seems rnore necessary than ever, but it is also more difficult than ever.There is a curious

tension between the stability of the disciplinary landscape created in the 19'" century on the

one hand and the fact that innovation largely happens in the inbetween of these disciplinary

boundaries on the other hand.

In my contribution to this round-table, I propose to argue that trans-disciplinary cooperation

between different fields and approaches cannot work without the self-interest of all the

partners involved. Researchers from different disciplines need shared puzzles that they cannot

solve alone. In the early 1970s, Roland Barthes proposed the text as such a common problem.

He was one of the first in the humanities to point to the emergence of »a-disciplinary« objects

which do not belong to any of the traditional academic disciplines. More recently, colleagues

from literary criticism, cultural history or social psychology put forward memory as an object

of such trans-disciplinary effort. From my own experience in comparative history and in the

history of trans-national transfers and relations, I would underline the interest for mental

maps, the construction of borders and spaces, as a meeting ground for studies from widely

diAering disciplinary (and also national) backgrounds.