Graduate Program in Development fosters dialogue across disciplines

The Watson Institute's Graduate Program in Development (GPD) brings together Brown University scholars from a range of departments to think together around questions of development in ways that build on but move beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Sponsored by the Watson Institute, the Graduate Program in Development (GPD) strives to foster an environment where scholars with diverse expertise across a range of disciplines can think through issues related to development. But for Program Director Prerna Singh it's more than that, "it's a program, yes," she said, "but I think of it as a community, and the beating heart of that community is interdisciplinarity." "At its core, the GPD offers immersion in a generous, generative community of scholars committed to exploring development from different disciplinary traditions. Our belief and experience has been that such cross-disciplinary conversations can foster richer theorizing and more rigorous research within our own 'home' disciplines," she added.

The program grew out of a National Science Foundation training grant that ran from 2010 to 2016. "The grant incubated it, but when it ended, the Watson Institute took over the initiative," said Singh, "in both iterations, the goal has been to bring scholars  together under the umbrella of broad ideas about development."

At its core, the GPD offers immersion in a generous, generative community of scholars committed to exploring development from different disciplinary traditions. Our belief and experience has been that such cross-disciplinary conversations can foster richer theorizing and more rigorous research within our own 'home' disciplines.

Prerna Singh Program Director, Graduate Program in Development
Prerna Singh

A community of scholars

The GPD welcomes any Ph.D. student with a curiosity about questions of development to take its foundational course, Theory and Research in Development I (IAPA 2000), attend workshops and talks and participate in a range of specialized modules that provide training in different social science methods. Ph.D. candidates in the departments of Anthropology, Economics, History, Political Science and Sociology are eligible to become part of the community and apply for year-long and summer funding.

Fellows receive year-long funding while other community members can apply for summer research grants and have opportunities to participate in research projects sponsored by GPD faculty. They also receive advanced training in development and inequality through program-specific courses, including a foundational interdisciplinary course and short methodological training modules designed specifically for the GPD. 

Module topics have included text analysis, spatial analysis, demographic analysis and survey methods, interviewing and ethnographic methods, archival methods, and multi-method research. Singh said that the fellowship program is "quite competitive" and it provides funding for between six to eight fellows per year. 

Fellows and other community members can draw from the expertise of GPD faculty members from the departments of Political Science, Economics, Sociology, International and Public Affairs, Africana Studies, Anthropology, and History  

Singh notes that while, historically, the program has focused on development in the Global South, community members study development in other contexts as well. "For us, development can mean a whole host of things," she said. "It can mean development in terms of themes related to economic development or social and human development in terms of welfare, social services and public goods provision, including as they relate to migrants and ethnic and sexual minorities." "But," she added, "it can also mean development in a broader sense. For example, one of our graduate fellows, Jaemin Woo, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Economics, is working on the development of musical tastes and how they influence the way we think about our place in the world."

The GPD model provides Ph.D. students at Brown a unique opportunity to step outside their home departments. As Singh notes, typically, "you apply to your department and you tend to take most of your classes in your department. You have a dissertation committee that's usually from your department, and then you defend a dissertation that is very much within your discipline." Under these circumstances, chances to talk to people in other disciplines can be rare.

"The GPD allows students to find a home outside their department and their discipline," said Singh. The aim is to encourage dialog between disciplines. Singh said the GPD "creates an opportunity for researchers to talk to people who are working on similar questions, similar regions or similar periods" but from the framework of differing academic disciplines. She said it allows students "to come into conversation with people with similar interests that might otherwise be siloed by discipline."

GDP Fellow Yitong Liu, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology noted she appreciated not only the way program participants bring perspectives from their chosen fields of study to GPD seminars and events but also how "their opinions are informed by their lived experiences across the world." She said, "Learning which aspects of my work scholars in related disciplines find interesting and important," proved an "invaluable insight." 

Neha Lund, also a sociologist and GPD fellow, noted another benefit of sharing work and seeking feedback outside her field of study. "I am better able to make my research legible to different audiences, not just sociologists," she said.

Why interdisciplinarity?

Brown University, and especially the Watson Institute, is widely recognized for producing rigorous academic scholarship that crosses the boundaries that typically separate fields of study, a practice often referred to as "interdisciplinarity." Singh maintains that the widening of perspective that comes from engaging in discussions across traditional academic boundaries can keep researchers grounded in what makes their work important in the first place. 

"We are scholars and part of why we become scholars is because we're intellectually curious," said Singh. "We are okay with devoting years of our lives to the pursuit of specific research questions. But there is a little bit of tension: focusing on a very specific research question can take us away from that original, expansive intellectual curiosity to scholarly engagements that can be quite intellectually narrow," she said.

"By incubating and embedding scholars within an interdisciplinary community, the GPD seeks to allow scholars to return, within their specific and distinct intellectual queries, to that original intellectual curiosity that made them want to become a scholar or researcher in the first place," said Singh. 

Woo noted his experience with the GPD matched Singh's observation. "Being exposed to different perspectives has been really refreshing. It has reminded me why I decided to be a social scientist in the first place, which is to help people live better lives," he said.

What is 'good' interdisciplinary research?

Singh stressed that the GPD does not promote interdisciplinarity for its own sake. The broader motivation is the belief that engaging with diverse disciplinary vantage points and unfamiliar intellectual traditions and theories is an effective means by which to engage in more thoughtful, rigorous research within one's own field of study. 

"To be a 'good' interdisciplinary scholar," she said, "first and foremost you need to be a solid student of your own discipline." She stressed that interdisciplinarity should not come at the expense of learning the techniques and methods of one's chosen field of study. 

"Interdisciplinary collaborations between students and faculty do occur and are encouraged. The underlying understanding, however, is that being part of the GPD's intellectual community allows researchers to draw connections, develop theories and produce research within their home discipline that is richer and more nuanced," said Singh. 

Daniel Cabral, who is working on his Ph.D. in political science, said he has found that embracing this plurality has been a pivotal element of his research. Cabral explained, "There is no such thing as a bulletproof method in social science research. Although specialization is necessary, a competent researcher recognizes that sometimes the nature of the questions drives the choice of methods and each method has its own logic for collecting and analyzing data." 

Lund noted another reason that mastery matters: "Rigorous training in a discipline-specific methodology is important because it allows you to bring a specific perspective to the group that other scholars can benefit from just as you benefit from their knowledge and perspective. The whole point is to learn from others, so you should be offering something too," she said.

Moving forward

Singh said she enjoys engaging with graduate students from across the GPD community. "This is the future generation of scholars," she said, "it's always really great to hear what they're working on and what they're thinking about, and especially to hear the excitement when they really get talking to each other and realize something special is happening in this exchange." "We forget it sometimes," she said, "but this is why we do this." 

Singh said the GPD has many events planned for the spring semester. "We have speakers coming in from outside," she said, "but we will also have community-building events that seek to showcase the exciting research by students and faculty within the GPD community." 

"GPD fellowships are a great opportunity for scholars working in the area of development," said Singh. "A lot of people apply because it means they don't have to teach and it frees more time for research," she said. "But the true benefits — and this is what anyone who has gone through the program will tell you — come from being part of a thriving community of researchers that is thinking together, across different disciplinary vantage points, around the pressing developmental challenges of our time."