Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Power in Voluntourism

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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.[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. We have isolated two conventionally contrasting disciplines, history and engineering, to illustrate how power continues to shape the academy and its attitudes when addressing problems in voluntourism.

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 colonisation has affected West-South relationships in the long-term. Historically, academia has failed to exhibit complexities in the power within the relationship between the “coloniser and colonised.[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 western ideas 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. Power inequalities are sustained through modern media coverage of the Global South: Kolkata is reduced by the media to “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 West-South power hierarchy through the power of Western media, subsequently legitimising the need to help which attracts Western volunteers.

Postcolonial theory aims to give voice to the subaltern[11]. 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 hierarchy 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 [12]. Power is an issue within the discipline due to conflicting cultural attitudes towards building infrastructures for communities, which can be demonstrated through voluntourism.

The engagement of untrained volunteers in construction projects raises concerns over the quality of project outcomes. 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[13].” The majority of volunteers have no prior construction training when enrolling on international building projects, but pay large amounts of money to charities to partake as an experience[14], despite data showing that employing local workers would be more efficient[15]. Voluntourist engagement exhibits issues of power by assuming Western engineering is superior to locally trained knowledge.

Voluntourism demonstrates the influence of money on engineering. As a discipline, there is a growing desire to expand western bodies of knowledge through immersing engineers to better understand the intended consumer communities[12]. To adopt new ways of thinking, engineers must practice new ways of learning, such as listening to and working with the locals themselves[16], to avoid condoning projects which grant responsibility to untrained volunteers.

Power issues between disciplines[edit]

Each discipline holds its own epistemology when evaluating voluntourism. History bridges relationships with the past and engineering explores infrastructures of the present and future, though there are many viewpoints to be considered from other disciplines. Any mono-disciplinary interpretation of a problem lacks holistic understanding, demonstrating the necessity for an interdisciplinarity approach. As Foucault proposed, “power and knowledge directly imply one another[17]”, therefore communication chasms between disciplines can inhibit resolution of complex problems[18].

Absence of communication occurs when one discipline fails to recognise the value of another's contributions. This friction stems from the hierarchy of academic disciplines. Hard, applied sciences are viewed as more reliable than the humanities: engineering is valued higher 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, 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 with altruistic intentions, may be perpetuating colonial notions of agency by exerting their ideals of construction. Similarly, historical standpoints should be more empathetic towards efforts of sustainable, international development where there is a cross-fertilisation of methods and techniques within intercultural projects.

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 operating at a theoretical level and therefore seldom concerns itself with vocational subjects such as modern engineering. Voluntourism as a case study illustrates this power clash when addressing real-world problems through academic frameworks because the issues remain unresolved. The aim of interdisciplinary research is to solve a problem in real-life, but academic research remains relatively intangible. Therefore like the unregulated voluntourists, a lack of interdisciplinarity engagement leaves each discipline unsupervised when developing bodies of knowledge and their application.

Interdisciplinarity overcoming 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 the academy. Progress is being made: academics have realised that "engineering functions inseparably from the society of which it is part of, and engineers need to be trained accordingly[12]. Likewise, community projects such as East African Playgrounds are confronting the historical power held by untrained volunteers whilst accommodating the desire to help, by inviting volunteers to assist skilled local labourers[22]. VSO predominantly works with "experienced professionals" to listen to communities and share expertise collaboratively[23].

Interdisciplinarity approaches lead towards "creative solutions" and can create a new form of power[21]: the power to act and progress towards a solution of a complex real-life issue.


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