Beyond Interdisciplinary Research — A New Place for Altaic Studies and Area Studies (The Mongolian case)

Jacques Legrand
(Paris – IISNC, Ulaanbaatar)

Beyond Interdisciplinary Research
A New Place For Altaic Studies And Area Studies
(The Mongolian case)

(57th Annual Meeting of the PIAC Vladivostok, 2014)

Interrogations about the status and perspectives of Area Studies and of research in many fields of a large number of areas are a legitimate concern for many researchers. This contribution aims at sharing some observations and reflexions based upon the study of Mongolian Society and History and, in parallel, upon the author’s eight year experience of managing such research work, as head of this Institution, at INALCO, Paris, where 95 languages and related cultures are taught and studied.

For many decades, if not centuries, such an area difficult to define in unquestioned terms as appears the “Altaic World” remained with brilliant exceptions outside or on the outskirts of the general movement of scientific knowledge. This occurred in two contradictory manners at least: on the one side, many valuable observations and discoveries were made without concern, frequently without knowledge about the state of science at that time and without critical use of methods and results provided by other disciplines. On the other side, too many presentations and generalizations heavily relied on patterns provided by “Universal Science” and were mere its “applications” and “illustrations”, at a time still not so remote, when this universal science, especially in human and social sciences, was the other name of European ethnocentric conceptions for which everything “different” was by definition “peripheral”, “exotic” and, finally, irrelevant.

At the same time, fields of knowledge were delimited into disciplines, which were the result of considerable and frequently useful efforts, in the general framework of this European way of thinking, to clarify and rationalize modern scientific thinking during the whole of 19th Century up to 20th Century first decades. This resulted in a positivist classification, partly borrowed in its spirit from naturalist’s classifications. It must be underlined that the sealing of these disciplines to each other, their ossification, against which the interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and similar approaches are a meaningful reaction, was mainly due to the role of second-learned scientists, in contradiction with intentions of their prominent founders, who remained largely opened to the comprehension of many fold and complex nature of the phenomena they were studying. This has contributed to isolate Human Sciences from Life Sciences, Earth Sciences and Material Sciences. As a result, it could happen that hypothesis relying upon exceedingly unilateral or narrow selection of data or observations (considered as “evidences”) led to mere affirmations without convincing arguments. As an example, this may be the case with “explanations” of Mongolian History, and of Cinggis qan’s military expeditions, by climatic factors and changes. It is well known that such hypothesis have been formulated as direct and short term effects of alleged as well growing aridity as increasing humidification, but without considering the forms and constraints, time and cycle framework of Central Asian nomads’ society.

Developing and carrying on interdisciplinary research offers, undoubtedly, obvious improvement. Even when it seems that many “interdisciplinary” claims are more ideological than real, we may state that, as a rule, study on any large scale phenomenon – and pastoral nomadism may be stressed as such – cannot be any more conducted without taking into account potential contribution of a large set of knowledge and expertise allowing the deepest possible understanding of the fully developed phenomenon. In this way, some fertile transdisciplinary connections and objects may really acquire a new disciplinary status. This has been observed in the field of medical and health sciences or in economics. This may in no way remain exclusive exceptions.

In such a situation, it seems possible to consider that a new landscape for development of research work and for the involvement of any identified area of knowledge in disciplinary evolution is emerging under new conditions and with renewed opportunities to contribute to. Changes in scale, scope and rapidity of information exchange may certainly be evoked but do not offer a general explanation.

Much more important may be the role and weight belonging and recognizing for being such an actor, to each field and area studies, thus including Altaic. We have to be convinced that we are not more “consuming” ready-made concepts inside disciplines defined forever but have to take our part with a deeper consciousness of their conceptual change.