There are two key elements for every testimonial or eyewitness account as far as the law is concerned. The first is the event they witnessed and the second is the identification of the person(s) committing the crime (Tredoux et al. 2004). In this case, the observed event is the undertaking of interdisciplinary migration research, while the second is the interaction with diverse academic and non-academic cultures and environments in which the scholarship of interdisciplinary migration research is formed. The event consists of a series of acts like in a theatre play, which are going to be discussed in chronological order. In each scene, I will present the various actors at play and highlight the impact of the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary exchange on the scientific formation of the individual researcher, i.e. me. This means that this chapter is shaped by two overlapping narratives: while the first focuses on the chronological description of the career itself, the second relates to the environment, circumstances and elements impacting interdisciplinary learning and research. In his ‘theatre in the scientific age’, Brecht demanded that ‘der Mensch ist Gegenstand der Untersuchung’, i.e. that ‘the human becomes the object of investigation’, and that ‘the spectator stands opposite him and studies him’ – with the aim to awaken the spectator’s abilities and to drive his/her sensations to knowledge (Müller 2007). In this sense, the following paragraphs will present major instances of my own interdisciplinary formation in migration studies in order to stimulate the reader’s activity and enable him/her to decide on the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinary work.
The first step of becoming an interdisciplinary researcher consisted of a move from the conceptual to the empirical. While being a student of Italian literary studies, I decided to write my diploma thesis on immigration in Italy and its perception in politics and public. It seemed like a natural move to select two supervising professors, one from romanistics and one from sociology. Both of them had a huge interest in the topic, but expressed doubts with regard to the supervision of the other. The sociology professor raised concerns about the appropriateness of an ‘aesthetic education’ for the study of the social and questioned the methodological guidance I would receive. The romanistics professor, in a humorous way, warned me against changing one professional ivory tower for another – just to keep the view. As a consequence of their gentlemen dispute, content-related instructions were rare, and both the conceptual frame for the study of perceptions on migrations in Italy and a suitable research strategy were developed autonomously. Without binding disciplinary standards, I opted for an integrated quantitative and qualitative media analysis combined with an in-depth literature review through which many Italian(-language) books were translated and introduced into the German academic discourse. In the course of the research, Italian migration concepts became known to German academia, while social science methods were introduced into literary studies in the broadest sense. Interestingly, the question of disciplinary belonging and the choice of methods for research and analysis that emerged on this occasion turned out to be a recurring theme for future interdisciplinary encounters.
The second step of my interdisciplinary formation went hand in hand with the move from a paradigmatic choice of methods induced by the German ‘Methodenstreit’, i.e. the dispute over methods that marks German sociology until today, to empirical pragmatism. After deciding to switch disciplines and pursue a doctorate degree in sociology, I took the opportunity to leave German academia for an extended fellowship in an Italian sociology department. This experience proved to be highly beneficial to both my intercultural and interdisciplinary training as well as the unfolding of my dissertation project. This project was inspired and nourished by the stark contrast between the wording of Italian migration policies on paper and their actual layout in reality. As I soon noticed, most political sciences studies on migration policies at that time concentrated on the written word and on researching policy papers, while the ways policies are carried out and implemented at different levels of society were largely disregarded. Sociology, in contrast, conceptualized policies as (a condition) impacting on individuals rather than an actor itself. Nevertheless, it offered a great deal of research tradition on how the definition of a situation impacts the actual behaviour of people. Hence, it seemed to be most appropriate to combine the strengths of both disciplines. In an attempt to integrate seemingly opposed models of thought, I designed and conducted an actor-oriented analysis of the implementation of Italian migration policies as an exploration of the field inspired by grounded theory. To this end, the thesis combined qualitative and quantitative methods before mixed methods became established and recognised as a third methodological movement in Germany (Tashakkori and Creswell 2007; Teddlie and Tashakkori 2008).
The third step of my interdisciplinary education consisted of a move from academic migration scholarship to applied migration research. Starting to work as a research officer in an international organisation focusing on migration policy development, the area I was suddenly working in was characterised by a very close relationship between professionals, i.e. policy makers and implementers, as well as academic experts (e.g. sociologists, ethnographers, Africanists, lawyers etc.). In this hybrid space, academic and non-academic knowledge, theory and practice, discipline and profession merged and impacted on knowledge production in a way that can be best described as transdisciplinary according to the definitions provided in Sect. 4.1. Having crossed national as well as disciplinary borders, I was used to processes of conceptual acculturation. This (new) hybrid mode of inquiry and knowledge production though challenged many of the dichotomies I had been educated in, like the schism between theory and practice or the adoption of an external viewpoint and a view from within (often disguised as a top-down vs. bottom-up approach). The double blurring of boundaries, between theory and practice, the insider and the outsider, was at times stressful and confusing, even if beneficial to the development of practice-based approaches in migration (policy) research and theory (many of which were not published due to political concerns). After studying German and Italian migration policymaking, this period was also rich in insights into the political, administrative and legal system of Austria and its close ties with public media. However, the decision to pursue an academic career led me to leave the microcosm of international organisations.
In my fourth step, I moved from applied migration research to the study of international development accepting an employment offer in the newly established Department of Development Studies at the University of Vienna. Born out of a student initiative, this Department combined a unique foundation history with an extraordinary claim – to challenge classical conventions and produce new transdisciplinary approaches and theoretical concepts of ‘development’ that transcend disciplinary boundaries. When it was founded in 2010, the department was composed of five professorships from sociology, economics, political science, history and gender studies. Four of these professorships were assigned to a ‘home faculty’, meaning that the professors were appointed by their respective scientific peer community who largely showed limited interest and/or knowledge for the study of development. This in-house architecture led to the bizarre situation in which potential professors with a passion for the interdisciplinary study of development issues had to prove themselves as worthy representatives of their respective field in order to be appointed. Consequently, the disciplinary impact on the department’s structure remained strong. Moreover, many of the department’s research projects and discourses were faced with not very flexible disciplinary structures. In applying the concept of human security (vastly applied to research in so-called development countries) to investigate the living situation of migrants in Europe, our interdisciplinary research project was confronted with substantial challenges in passing disciplinary peer community evaluations and acquire third-party funding. However, in an attempt to move away from the dominant deficit perspective that characterises most of the approaches on migration in German-speaking (and perhaps most European) countries, my fifth step was marked by putting an emphasis on the contributions that migrants make to their new countries of residence and hence on migrant entrepreneurship and innovation. In what has been called ‘the summer of migration 2015’, I left the University of Vienna to move to the Technical University of Berlin to start my new position at the School of Economics and Management. In what (surprisingly) appears to be an excellent breeding ground for scientific innovation, I was able to start not one but five interdisciplinary research projects that combine classical migration theories with business studies, sociology, network analysis, innovation research and computer science. Having experienced that the publication strategy is of key importance to the impact of scientific research and academic career progression, in my current (multidisciplinary) research team we discussed and agreed on a strategy of publication at an early stage of the project. Our main considerations included the relative prestige of a publication, as evidenced by impact factors weighed against rejection rates, turn-around and backlog times. This led us to consciously focus primarily on high ranking journals in business studies and only occasionally on journals with a cross-disciplinary appeal.
What does this itinerary of interdisciplinary formation, transdisciplinary experiences and intercultural training, spanning disciplines like sociology, romanistic studies, political science, international development and economics, tell us about the emerging area of interdisciplinary migration studies? Although it is based on an individual testimony, this narrative yields insights into the undeniable potentials and perils of interdisciplinary scholarship and career advancement. Interdisciplinarity makes moving out of the comfort zone a basic condition for scientific advancement and personal development. But how does one start to embrace the uncertainties of interdisciplinary endeavours? It is rooted in curiosity and the search for new knowledge? It is triggered by imagination or awareness? As this story exemplifies, interdisciplinary thinking results from combining curiosity, imagination and awareness with an ability to ponder on disciplinary assumptions, but also to communicate them to others and take on opinions or advice from other academic disciplines. Only then, according to my experience, genuine collaboration can begin to emerge. To call into question the fundamentals of mono-disciplinary thinking, there is no need to cross international borders. This can be seen, for instance, in the description of the first interdisciplinary collaboration attempt when writing the diploma thesis, which is a good example of trying to integrate knowledge stemming from two disciplines as an individual effort. Yet, crossing national and cultural boundaries and, associated with this, being called into question as a scientist, even if uncomfortable, proved to be beneficial to the scientific advancement of my dissertation project in migration studies, my positioning as a researcher and my personal-professional development.