Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Power in Voluntourism

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Voluntourism, or VolunTourism, refers to international volunteers "seeking a tourist trip that is mutually beneficial, that will contribute not only to their personal development but also positively and directly to the social, natural and/or economic environment in which they participate."[1] Initially started by Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO) in 1958 and the US Peace Corps in 1961[2], voluntourism aimed to curb mass tourism. However, despite initial altruistic intentions of sustainable and alternative tourism[2], the industry has grown exponentially with 1.6 million voluntourists travelling per year[3].

Power can be defined as possession of control, authority, or influence over others[4]. Power arises as an intrinsically interdisciplinary issue when considering frictions between mono-disciplinary approaches and the interrelations between different disciplines. Through the case study of VolunTourism, this article aims to elucidate how power has shaped the disciplines of History and Engineering, and how this continues to inhibit progress towards resolving problems in this field.

Disciplinary viewpoints[edit]

History: VolunTourism bordering on Neo-Colonialism[edit]

History is intrinsically bias due to the power of the writer, in the case of colonialism: white Western men. Postcolonial theory claims that “discourse is socially constructed”[5]. Colonialism is justified as the 'Western' need to 'develop' the Global South. Postcolonial theory argues that colonization has affected West-South relationships in the long-term. Historical academia has failed to exhibit complexities in the power within the relationship between the “colonizer and colonized”[6]. This, highlights modern inequalities within VolunTourism, with even VSO condemning it as a “a new form of colonialism”[7]. The ‘white saviour’ concept encompasses the superiority of Western countries executing their idea of development. Despite shifts in vocabulary from 'civilising' a country, to ‘developing', to 'saving' the environment and the local population, the outcome is the same[8]: western countries retain control over resources and the population, acting without consulting communities. Power inequalities are sustained through modern media coverage of the Global South: Kolkata is reduced by the media as “a city on the verge of collapse”[9] despite it also being one of the richest cities in India[10]. Focusing on poverty induces a power heirachy between the west and south through the power of western media writing the narratives. Subsequently, this legitimises the need to help and intervene and attracts western volunteers.

Postcolonial theory aims to give voice to the subaltern. However, we still lack the viewpoint of hosts in academia: is postcolonial theory rewriting history from another viewpoint and stealing once more the voice of the subalterns? The power hierachy within the discipline of history remains as long as a biased elite are writing the history.

Engineering: Western vs Local approaches to construction[edit]

The role of engineers is to install systems to provide food, water and shelter as well as transport and waste disposal strategies in ever-changing environments [11]. Yet power remains an issue within the discipline due to conflicting cultural attitudes towards building infrastructures for communities, which can be demonstrated through the example of VolunTourism.

There are rising concerns about unregulated, untrained volunteers engaging in construction projects despite altruistic intentions. Manager Frederikke Lindholm of the Vietnamese NGO The Shelter Collection, shares “I know of school trips where local builders were working during the night to straighten the walls of a house built by foreign student volunteers the previous day.” [12] The majority of volunteers have no prior experience of construction when enrolling on international building projects, which raises the question of why did they come? when in truth the cost and time involved in transporting the volunteers to the site could have instead employed local workers and built more constructions[13].This notion hints at wider notions that construction projects like this serve as money magnets to the local communities, a power issue facing engineering as a discipline that's status is heavily shaped by research and funding.

So it follows that voluntourist engagement exhibits issues of power by cementing Western ideologies of engineering are superior to locally trained knowledge for they have received more financial backing. VSO prides themselves on sending only "experienced professional" individuals abroad to teach local workers and share their expertise[14]. Similarly, universities are placing thousands of professionals and students worldwide through for short/mid-term placements through initiatives such as Engineers Without Borders[15]. These groups aim to produce 'citizen engineers' which comes as a knee-jerk reaction to the reality that "engineering functions inseparably from the society of which it is part of, and engineers need to be trained accordingly" [11]. The case study illustrates a power issue within the discipline as too often one society is designing for another which it does not have sufficient understanding about due to their economic superirority. VolunTourism does provide life-changing international development and is beginning to see these power dynamics be addressed. Academic research bodies are daring professionals to listen to locals and learn from their cultural body of of construction knowledge which has been built up over generations of experience within their culture.[16]

VolunTourism demonstrates how engineering is heavily influenced by money. As a discipline, there is a growing desire to expand western bodies of knowledge through immersing professionals to better meet the demands for the communities they are designing for. In order to adopt new ways of thinking, they must practice new ways of learning which aren't economically charged such as listening to the locals themselves to avoid condoning projects which attract and grant responsibility to untrained, altruistic volunteers.

Power issues in interdisciplinarity[edit]

Each discipline holds its own epistemology when evaluating VolunTourism; history bridges relationships with the past and engineering explores infrastructures of the present and for the future. There are many viewpoints from other disciplines we could have considered, but any mono-disciplinary interpretation lacks holistic understanding of the problem at hand - demonstrating the necessity for an interdisciplinarity approach. As Foucault proposed, “power and knowledge directly imply one another”[17], therefore communication chasms between disciplines can be cataclysmic when combatting complex problems[18].

Absence of communication withstand because the disciplines do not recognise the value of the other's contributions within their own. This friction stems from the hierarchy of disciplines, the underbelly of academia. Hard, applied sciences are viewed as more reliable than the humanities: engineering is valued more highly than history due its objective methodologies in comparison to interpretivist methods. This is epitomised through financial distribution in academia whereby more funding is directed to engineering degrees than history degrees[19]. Engineering methodologies yield empirical change, whereas history has a tendency towards the qualitative. For these reasons, dangerous questions such as why should engineering concern itself with history? arise. However, our discussions have explicitly shown a need to consider alternate viewpoints. Engineering approaches should recognise that western interventions in the Global South, albeit well-being, may be perpetuating colonial notions of agency by exerting their ideals of construction onto another. Historical standpoints should be more empathetic towards sustainable, international development whereby there is cross-fertilisation of methods and techniques within intercultural projects and mutual respect for one another.

Another inhibiting power issue when working within interdisciplinarity is the cultural dominance of academia over vocational knowledge in the western world, severing the symbiotic relationship between theory and practice. History is often thought of as working at a theoretical level and therefore seldom concerns itself with a vocational subject such as modern engineering. The VolunTourism case study clearly illustrated this power clash when addressing real-world problems through academic frameworks because we continue to see incomprehensive results in efforts to resolve these issues. The aim of interdisciplinary research is to solve a problem in real-life, but academic research remains relatively intangible. Therefore like the altruistic, unregulated voluntourists, a lack of interdisciplinarity engagement leaves the field also unsupervised when managing the wider implications it is having in the world.

Interdisciplinarity can overcome issues with power[edit]

We need “more interdisciplinary, trans-disciplinary, transnational approaches drawing from psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, economics to examine volunteer tourism in a more systematic and logical way.”[20]

We have demonstrated that power is a key issue in Voluntourism on a monodisciplinary and interdisciplinary scale. In order to resolve these issues, disciplines and researchers should respect one another and create awareness of power dynamics and cultural differences[21] when working on problems that span disciplines. Interdisciplinarity approaches lead towards "creative solutions"[21] and can create a new form of power: the power to act and progress towards a solution of a complex real-life issue.


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