ISRF Bulletin Issue 2: Conversation - Interdisciplinarity & Innovation

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b u l l e t i n

Issue II

Conversation Interdisciplinarity & Innovation

Edited by Fraser Joyce

The 2013 ISRF Workshop Interdisciplinarity & Innovation Dr. Louise Braddock ISRF Director of Research


he ISRF’s first Workshop in May 2013 was an event intended to bring together those whose work the foundation is supporting. Its title ‘Interdisciplinarity and Innovation’ came about when, writing material for the website, I found myself talking fluently about ‘interdisciplinarity’, ‘discovery’, and ‘innovative’ research, all without really being able to state exactly what I meant by these terms. Interdisciplinarity between the natural and social sciences seemed straightforward enough: social science would scrutinize how some segment of the natural sciences could be keyed into the social world and its reception improved or indeed manipulated, and the scientific knowledge itself interrogated and put to use more effectively. The well-known difference between the nature of social scientific knowledge and that of the natural sciences made the question of interdisciplinarity within the social sciences a more complex affair, and has raised two groups of pertinent questions. First, what is interdisciplinarity, ‘really’? Is it an interchange of methods and concepts between existing disciplines, or more modestly, an attempt to get the disciplines to listen to one another? It is often said to involve the breakdown of ‘artificial barriers’ between disciplines, but the result is supposedly… what? More, different, ‘better’ disciplines? Perhaps even one big discipline: could interdisciplinarity eventually produce a universal



Science of The Social, emulating the positivist goal of the Unity of Science (surely not!)? Second, does interdisciplinarity really drive innovation? How is this done? And how do we define ‘innovation’ anyway? Understood as the formation of new categories for investigation and new technologies for intervention, it suggests that we can discover new ways of seeing the world and new ways to interact with it. But can there be anything more to this than simply describing again what is ‘already there’ and putting it to better or different uses in pursuit of the same goals? In other words, are we limited to resurrecting existing ideas and dressing them in new guises? And – an old question – could we recognise the truly new if we had never encountered it before? At this point it seemed best to seek help from others and investigate how the concept of interdisciplinarity is understood by researchers themselves. The 2013 ISRF Workshop was conceived as an opportunity to conduct a piece of empirical philosophy of social science by calling on the foundation’s new Early- and Mid-Career Fellows, whose projects had been selected by an interdisciplinary panel of social scientists on criteria that emphasized innovativeness and interdisciplinarity. Fellows were asked to present their work to show how it exemplified these. Their subsequent reflections on the work of the day form the basis for this edition of the ISRF Bulletin, compiled and edited by Fraser Joyce. The Workshop was also the opportunity for cooperation in Cambridge. Professor Susan Smith, Mistress of Girton College, participated in the day along with some of the Fellows, while the College itself provided a stylish and efficient venue. The Workshop was publicised by CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) who included us on their calendar of events, and the ISRF is grateful to both Girton and CRASSH for their support.


conversation Interdisciplinarity & Innovation Edited by Fraser Joyce ISRF Editorial Assistant


ollowing our annual Workshop in May we at the ISRF discussed the benefits of drawing on the knowledge and experience of a group of interdisciplinary scholars, and realised that in addition to funding projects on very disparate topics, we had the opportunity to ask a series of interesting questions of this group and have them answered from a range of disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) perspectives. What could this reveal to us about the nature interdisciplinary research? To this end, this issue of the ISRF Bulletin has taken as its focus some of the key areas of discussion at the Workshop on the theme of interdisciplinarity and innovation: •

What role do established academic disciplines play within interdisciplinary work, and how should they be integrated?

How could interdisciplinary work be considered ‘innovative’?

What are the obstacles that face the interdisciplinary researcher, and how can they be overcome?

We put these questions to some of our Fellows to consider further, and their responses were assembled and amalgamated (with their approval!) into the ‘conversation’ you see before you. The six contributors work across the social sciences (their project abstracts can be seen at and draw on a range of disciplinary experiences in their work. Together, they present a picture of modern-day interdisciplinary research,



its benefits and its associated dangers. They are: Olly Dowlen (Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary, University of London), Jonathan Hearn (Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh), Derek Hook (Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck, University of London), Bregje de Kok (Institute for International Health and Development, Queen Margaret University), Matt Matravers (Politics, University of Edinburgh), and Juliane Reinecke (Law, University of Warwick). Note: Over the course of this issue the terms ‘interdisciplinary’, and ‘multidisciplinary’ are used interchangeably. We begin with an open-ended question: why do researchers choose to embark on interdisciplinary projects? DOWLEN – On occasion, objects of investigation demand that their researchers work from a number of established disciplinary perspectives simultaneously in order to comprehend the complexities of their topics. There are a number of reasons this approach might be adopted. It might be necessary from a subject area point of view simply because no single discipline can encompass the range of material under scrutiny, or when a new object of investigation emerges and is found to sit between different existing arenas of human study. It might also become necessary to adopt an interdisciplinary approach because the methodologies or analytical frameworks of the most appropriate single discipline are adjudged to be inappropriate to the project in hand. In this final instance it might be harder to decide how to proceed, not least because it requires the researcher to make an assessment of how an existing discipline deals with its subject area, rather than merely understanding what falls within or outside that territory. MATRAVERS – One way of thinking about interdisciplinarity – one that commends it – is to think of (some) academic work as essentially problem-driven. That is, as we engage with the world we bump up against issues that are atypical, that puzzle us, or call



for justification. Those things might range from the practical or political, such as the peculiarity of restricting voting rights to men, to the abstract, such as the principles of practical reason that ought to govern our decision making process. To engage with these problems requires interdisciplinarity in that they require us to utilise a range of skills and techniques, some of which have been honed in more abstractly discipline-specific ways. As a legal and political philosopher, there is a sense in which the area in which I work is inherently interdisciplinary; that much is in the name. However, there is also a sense in which academic work has become so specialised that what would have been thought of as work at the intersection of two or more disciplines is now classified as something of its own. Thus, ‘political philosophy’ is a subject area of its own as is ‘jurisprudence’ and even (the area in which I work) ‘criminal law theory’. Of course, to do any of these ‘sub’-disciplines well involves drawing on the techniques of the disciplines from which they originally emerged: to do criminal law theory properly one is required to know something of the criminal law and of the ways in which lawyers think, and to know something of philosophy and the ways in which philosophers think. Many other interdisciplinary areas have also evolved into distinct disciplines, and to engage with them is to engage in the thinking characteristic of the disciplines from which they emerged. So to begin our discussion on the nature of interdisciplinarity, we must first ask how we should define an individual ‘discipline’. DOWLEN – To follow a discipline in the search for knowledge demands that that the seeker takes the investigative microscope or telescope to the object under examination. He or she employs Ockham’s razor to banish all extraneous secondary questions and distractions, and then invents a series of procedures or rules, both to anchor the search itself and to provide the later readers with a ‘ladder of access’ to the conclusions. A ‘discipline’ as such therefore acts as a transmissible or learnable framework



or procedure that is necessary both to carry out the exploration successfully and to communicate the validity, the sense, the truth, of the process of discovery. This scenario portrays the seeker as the original inventor of the discipline, but it cannot constitute the complete picture because all frameworks of knowledge rely on existing precedents and conventions. What I am attempting here, however, is to put forward a model where the nature of the discipline is primarily dictated by the needs of the exploration and the qualities of the object under investigation. MATRAVERS – Aristotle’s Politics (an inquiry into which persons or institutions were best suited to govern) was jam packed with moral philosophy, economics, sociology, demography and even geography. Indeed, to modern readers, the one discipline that appears to be missing from the work is ‘politics’, because for Aristotle, the study of politics was simply the study of those other topics. The same could be said, mutatis mutandis, for the work of John Stuart Mill or Max Weber. REINECKE – Historically, the academic discipline of management has excelled at recuperating concepts from other fields and adopting them as its own. Management scholars have often and freely borrowed from other social and natural sciences, a practice which some consider as ‘concept mongering.’ To name a few, studies of organizational culture have been inspired by anthropology, organizational behaviour studies are heavily influenced by psychology, and the theory of the firm has its roots in Ronald Coase’s economics of transaction costs. Concepts from biology have been used to describe organizational issues, such as entrainment to describe alignment of team rhythms. MATRAVERS – In interdisciplinary work, discipline-specific thinking matters precisely because it can only be done well by integrating the best of it; some very poor interdisciplinary work has been done because some scholars claiming to possess expertise in the territory between the fields lack a proper grounding in the disciplines required to engage properly with either their



methods or their subject matter. To use the example of Aristotle’s aforementioned Politics: by grounding his philosophical views on basic, misunderstood biology, Aristotle consigned women to the home, and barbarians were given no active status within the Polis. We might think it extraordinary if a modern physicist or biologist read Aristotle (other than out of curiosity) on the grounds that our knowledge of the natural sciences has advanced significantly, but that invites the question as to why we are not similarly surprised when a modern philosopher takes the time to read it. Juliane Reinecke’s comments provide a suggestion as to why this has not occurred: REINECKE – As Isaiah Berlin aptly described, scientific disciplines emancipated themselves from philosophy during the 18th century as they developed systematic ways to provide answers to questions in either of two categories: empirical questions whose answers depended on careful observation, and formal questions whose answers depended on deduction and calculation. 1 The discipline of philosophy, meanwhile, was left to address all those other questions which did not easily fit into the two categories. Disciplines thus draw their legitimacy from the fact that they provide scientific grounding for answering either empirical or formal questions, and crossing disciplinary boundaries may undermine their grounding as the foundation for scientific knowledge. So within a modern discipline-specific academic environment, what does innovative interdisciplinarity look like? HOOK – Innovative interdisciplinarity could be said to connote a conjunction of disciplinary approaches which is in some senses novel, or which leads to a novel set of concepts, findings and methodologies. This promise of the new, of forms of knowledgeproduction that elide conventional systems of understanding, and 1. I. Berlin, The Purpose of Philosophy. Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays (London; Pimlico, 1999). 11


emerge thus ‘outside the true’ of given academic disciplines, is a neat example of what Foucault conceives of as the emergence of a new discourse [this idea will be discussed further on p.11 – Ed.]. REINECKE – One of the areas of discussion at last May’s ‘Interdisciplinary and Innovation’ workshop in Cambridge was the tension between being ‘grounded’ in a discipline and being ‘open’ to insights and approaches of other disciplines. Does groundedness enhance or impede interdisciplinary research, and how much openness is possible without losing one’s grounding in a ‘home’ discipline? The ‘grounded’ scholar may argue that her position achieves and maintains a certain level of depth and ‘rigour’ in a discipline; the ‘open’ scholar, in contrast, may transcend her own discipline and introduce innovative concepts, often at the expense of being accused of lacking academic rigour. Yet she argues that grounding tends to equate to myopic ‘evangelizing’ of certain ‘accepted’ paradigms, ‘overspecialization’, and ‘gatekeeping’ within the academy, which threatens to result in a closed, largely self-referential and narrow-minded research community which lacks knowledge innovation. HEARN – We need to distinguish between ‘bringing disciplines together’ in an attempt to integrate different approaches, and simply not exhibiting disciplinary loyalty when in pursuit of a question, argument or topic. This latter approach is more characteristic of individual scholarship. There is certainly something to be gained in allowing individuals who are so inclined to be ‘generalists’, ranging across disciplines and literatures as they see fit. DOWLEN – There is a qualitative difference between investigators who work solely within one discipline who turn the existing disciplinary telescopes or microscopes onto new unknowns, and the investigators who, for whatever reason, formulate their own frameworks of knowledge: those who make their own telescopes or microscopes.



Derek Hook provides a pertinent example from his area of research: HOOK – Frantz Fanon’s analysis of colonial racism, Black Skin White Masks2, amounts to an unwieldy amalgamation of literary texts, psychiatric and psychoanalytic conceptualization, existential philosophy, and (typically painful) first hand observations, often delivered in a disturbing style of poetic language. This is a ‘multidisciplinarity’ not only of content, but of scholarly (and aesthetic) form, which is Fanon’s response to the difficulty of theorising new ways of perceiving and analysing the social world. Not all of Fanon’s invented concepts (‘epidermalisation’, ‘lactification’, and so on) have stayed the distance or strayed into accepted social scientific conceptualization, but others, most notably the problem of the ‘racial gaze’, of racial objectification within the visual field, most certainly have. Fanon’s work testifies that we cannot presume that the tools of critical knowledgeproduction that might be most needed to explore a topic at a given socio-historical context already exist. For Fanon, the models of analysis already in use – sociological, literary, psychological, Marxist – could not adequately capture the painful vicissitudes of colonial racism; he needed to look instead precisely between these discursive frameworks, to engender new overlapping frameworks of apprehension and analysis. Much may be risked in such forays between the boundaries of disciplines [more below – Ed.], but nonetheless, the imperative remains: we constantly need to invent new ways of seeing and knowing, because the existing models will not always suffice. If interdisciplinary work takes place across or between the disciplines, the researcher will have to negotiate many different kinds of boundaries over the course of his or her research: HEARN – There are many kinds of ‘divisions’ within the humanities and social sciences (not to mention that division itself!), so perhaps couching the issue specifically in terms of disciplines is too narrow to get an adequate feel for what enhances or impedes working 2. F. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (London; Paladin, 1970) 13


across boundaries. Are they necessarily disciplines in the standard sense of academic teaching units such as sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, politics, economics, and so on? For there may be other equally significant divisions within these units that act as barriers to more integrative work: there are ‘topical’ divisions defined by such things as geographic areas, historical periods, and specific social problems which prevent scholars from engaging with an idea (the ‘not my field’ excuse). There are methodological divisions, perhaps most fundamentally between quantitative and qualitative approaches, and there are theoretical divisions, for instance between more realist/positivist and more postmodern/ poststructural approaches. These are just some of the most general divisions that can cut across traditional disciplines per se. There are, of course, already methodologies which facilitate work across these divisions (area studies, comparative history, and so on). Having said this I sometimes think that some theoretical divisions are so fundamental, so rooted in basic epistemological and ontological assumptions, that there can be very little effective dialogue across these boundaries. For instance, in my own work on the history of the concept of power I find a striking bifurcation in recent decades between those who assimilate the concept of power to knowledge, in a poststructuralist fashion along the lines of Foucault, and those who follow a more ‘traditional’ historical comparativism, in which power is treated in more realist terms, as an objective aspect of social relations. These ways of thinking about power carry on in largely separate intellectual universes, with very little cross dialogue.3 How could these divisions be negotiated? DE KOK – It seems inevitable that interdisciplinary scholars will share enthusiasm for ‘non-sectarian approaches’4, and a useful way of considering tensions between different approaches is to adopt a pragmatic focus on complementarity rather than insurmountable differences. Miller and Fox advocated the 3. J. Hearn, Theorizing Power (Basingstoke; Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) 4. D. Silverman, Qualitative Methodology and Sociology: Describing the Social World. (Aldershot; Gower, 1985). 14


building of bridges between analytic traditions: to make analytic perspectives mutually informative, whilst respecting their distinctive contributions and (partial) incompatibilities.5 For instance, while certain aspects of ethnography and discursive psychology may be incompatible6, others can be incorporated into a single over-arching framework, enriched by the inclusion of different ‘sensitizing concepts’ which can illuminate multiple aspects of the phenomena studied. 7,8 This bridge-building approach between different analytic frameworks associated with different disciplines requires thorough reflection: both on the extent to which certain aspects of such disciplines may be incompatible, and on what aspects can fruitfully be combined to complement each other. In this way interdisciplinarity seems likely to increase mutual understanding between scholars working in different disciplines. It reduces the possibility for straw man arguments and indeed factionalism, though it does not necessarily eliminate them. We won’t reach unification but we do not necessarily need to go that far: single-disciplinary work has its own value and role in the academic ‘enterprise’. If disciplines provide our most secure methodological and epistemological groundings, why should we embark on interdisciplinary work? Olly Dowlen outlines some of the problems encountered in interdisciplinary thinking, while Bregje de Kok argues that working across two or more disciplines provides a broader perspective: 5. G. Miller and K. J. Fox, ‘Building Bridges: The Possibility of Analytic Dialogue between Ethnography, Conversation Analysis and Foucault’ in D. Silverman (ed.), Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and Practice, 2nd edn. (London; Sage, 1997) pp.35-56. 6. Discursive psychologists consider ethnographic fieldnotes to be insufficiently precise, and instead analyse audio or video recordings. 7. Discursive psychologists examine sense-making in verbal interactions, while ethnographers explore sense-making in and through non-verbal actions. 8. D. Randall, R. Harper and M. Rouncefield, Fieldwork for Design: Theory and Practice (London; Springer, 2007). 15


DOWLEN – If we consider the construction of a discipline as a means to a higher end, in certain cases the establishment of separate disciplines – transformed into social and economic groupings by the division of academic labour – can begin to hinder the search for knowledge as the formation of the discipline becomes an end in itself. The term ‘discipline’ in this context means not a set of procedures and restraints adopted by an individual researcher, but rather a series of agreed standards and methods pertaining amongst a group who have also defined the boundaries of their arena of work. This can promote the search for knowledge, but it can also impede it, as when a new idea or project receives no attention or aid simply because it falls outside or across the discipline’s area of activity or its constructed intellectual remit. A grouping can also use its accumulated wealth, power and status to resist challenges to its orthodoxy, perhaps simply out of habit or intellectual laziness reinforced by internal group dynamics [more below – Ed.]. Similarly it is possible for an established discipline to become increasingly self-referential. Here, as the focus moves from the primary objects of investigation to the consideration of previous investigations and other secondary concerns. In such instances the link between the researcher and the world at large can easily be weakened. A good example of this is how the discourse on impartiality in political theory differs from the work of those involved in examining the practical problems of peacemaking or the appointment of members of the judiciary. In the former the discussion tends to be preoccupied with differing definitions and previous theories of impartiality. In the latter the concern is how impartiality is defined in respect to the practical outcomes of successful mediation or appointment.9 This inward looking trajectory of academic groupings is not 9. See: B. Barry, Justice as Impartiality (Oxford; Clarendon, 1995). Also: A-M. Johannssen, ‘Neutrality and Impartiality of the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations’, [sic] (2007). 16


always a negative feature, however, and might be necessary to reach new depths and insights within the topic. We could, however, also see this tendency to self-reference as a result of a division between intellectual training and the practical application of thought. This approach operates in two parts: first we must discipline the thought process, and only then can we apply it. As such it contrasts with the establishment of a discipline for the needs of an investigative task. DE KOK – Disciplines come with their own bodies of literature, intellectual concerns and theoretical ideas and concepts. As scholars we draw on these to construct a theoretical framework or theoretical lens, which illuminates aspects of reality – but only some, not others. Randall, Harper, & Rouncefield10 remind us of Burke’s11 and Dewey’s concept of ‘occupational psychosis’: the tendency to see and understand everything through one particular disciplinary lens. Since ‘a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing’12, reliance on one discipline’s theoretical framework will preclude insight into certain aspects of reality. Interdisciplinarity can avoid this form of ‘psychosis’. It pushes us to incorporate multiple bodies of knowledge and theoretical lenses. Including these into one over-arching methodological or epistemic framework within a single project enables us to get the different perspectives to interact with one another. This results in the creation of a multifaceted lens which illuminates the social world from different angles and thus brings to light a greater number of features and the relationships between them. Thus, interdisciplinary research will lead to new insights that one could not have obtained when sticking to the ‘armoury’ of one discipline alone. The analytical value of interdisciplinary work resides in part in 10. D. Randall, R. Harper and M. Rouncefield, Fieldwork for Design: Theory and Practice (London; Springer, 2007). 11. K. Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (New York; New Republic Press, 1935) 12. ibid. 17


the incorporation of multiple levels and units of analysis. For instance, in my project on loss in childbearing in Malawi I draw on ethnography, most closely associated with anthropology and sociology, and ethnomethodology, developed in sociology. In addition, I use insights from discursive psychology, a form of discourse analysis developed in the field of psychology. The different social sciences cannot be neatly demarcated along the lines of a different unit of analysis (for example: the collective and the individual). Nevertheless drawing on approaches which were developed in sociology, anthropology and psychology means that I combine a ‘macro’ with a ‘micro’ perspective; My attention is directed to macro structures like institutions and cultural ‘collectives’, meso concepts such as interactions and relationships, as well as more individualistic, psychological notions like identity and motivation. Interdisciplinarity will lead to innovation, but in my opinion it is more important that the research produces insights of theoretical and practical value. The social world is not divided along the lines of academic disciplines. Social science research which can yield valuable theoretical and practical insights must be able to capture the complex, multifarious nature of the social world. So given the potential for innovative insights into a topic afforded by taking an interdisciplinary approach, why are such projects not more common? For one thing, mixed messages surround the interdisciplinary scholar: HEARN – On the one hand there are strong cues – such as those from the funding councils – that interdisciplinarity is encouraged and will enhance funding applications. For universities, large grant projects recruiting sizable interdisciplinary research teams are attractive not solely for their intellectual content: they also bring prestige and large units of revenue to cash-strapped departments in an increasingly competitive higher education sector. It is a different story for the individual researcher. In recent years



‘ interdisciplinarity’ has become something of a ‘ buzzword’, a mantra to insert into funding applications or to be discussed in the course of job interviews. But simultaneously, many of those working between or across the fields are placed at a disadvantage in terms of securing this funding, getting articles published, and developing their careers. REINECKE – Working interdisciplinarily can be a challenging task when one is faced with institutional, epistemological, and cultural obstacles. In terms of institutional constraints, the disciplinary practice of academic performance evaluations suggests that grounded research fares better in the context of rather narrow – yet consequential – ‘excellence-based’ journal rankings. While much lip-service has been paid to the value of interdisciplinary research and teaching in management studies, recent research found how presumably ‘top-ranked journals’ are systematically biased towards mono-disciplinary research, creating a market which suppresses openness and interdisciplinarity, even though this is espoused as an academic and social goal by peer review panels such as the Research Excellence Framework.13 HEARN – Achieving recognition for one’s work on disciplinarilydefined REF panels – recognition being linked to publishing in discipline-specific prestige journals – creates pressures toward disciplinary inwardness. This position is reinforced by the fact that the basic operating units within teaching organisations tend to be disciplinary in a fairly traditional sense, with departments and subjects often competing locally with one another for limited resources and appointments. There are certainly intellectual benefits in talking across disciplines, but academics are under pressures to make a mark within the idiom of the discipline in which their career must advance. The discipline-specific nature of university departments, REF 13. I. Rafols, L. Leydesdorff, A. O’Hare, P. Nightingale and A. Stirling, ‘How Journal Rankings can Suppress Interdisciplinary Research: A Comparison between Innovation Studies and Business & Management’, Research Policy, 41 (2012), 1262–1282. 19


panels, journals and funding bodies all reinforce disciplinaryspecific research. So how does this reinforce attitudes towards interdisciplinary work? We return to Derek Hook’s discussion on the formation of new discourses: HOOK – Michel Foucault provides an example of this in his 1970 inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, ‘The Order of Discourse’, in the guise of Gregor Mendel, the man that later science would recognize as the founder of genetics. Because neither Mendel’s methods nor his findings conformed to the established ideas prevalent in botany and its associated fields, he found himself in the odd situation of producing forms of scientific knowledge which – by strict definition of existing science – did not fall within the range of the ‘true’. Foucault of course often draws attention to this difficult position, of the author or innovator whose generation of new methods, ideas or conceptual problematics puts them outside a field of discourse and consigns them to the status of the outsider. The advance of disciplines – or, in Foucault’s own preferred term ‘discourses’ – produces its own forces of resistance and modes of ostracization against those that fail to conform to its procedures and concepts. If, for Foucault, the advance of disciplinary social science systematically produces ‘monsters’ – those objects of knowledge which transgress the norms it has established – then it may likewise be said to produce its own outcasts, namely individuals with hopes of engendering types of ‘counter-knowledge’ which enable a series of different conceptual problematics to come to the fore in opposition to accepted practices. There is also a practical obstacle to interdisciplinary work: DE KOK – The more interdisciplinary I seek to be in my work, the more I realize how much literature, ideas and evidence there is to know, and thus how much there is to learn – the classic credo that the more one learns, the more one realizes how little one knows is pertinent. In interdisciplinary research, the body of literature and number of theoretical ideas and concepts on which one can draw



expands exponentially. My own experience and conversations with interdisciplinary colleagues suggest that worries about being perceived as a ‘Jack of all trades’ are not uncommon among academics. Serious engagement and achieving proper, in-depth understanding of the disciplinary perspectives of two or more fields is hard in part because it is so very time-consuming. In academia, we are trained to go for depth rather than breadth – something I often tell my postgraduate students when advising them on essay writing at Masters level. There is a tension here with interdisciplinary work which tends to be much broader; perhaps these concerns should be taken (more) seriously. DOWLEN – Because they mount challenges to existing orthodoxies, because they fall between different sets of funding criteria, and because they often have to satisfy, or feel they have to satisfy, critics from a number of disciplines, life is not easy for interdisciplinary researchers. They are, however, fulfilling a vital function. A common-sense view would suggest that collective human knowledge develops through the efforts of those who specialise and those who build older specialisations into new synthetic forms. The former will be thorough in their burrowing; the latter in their linking and challenging existing models. Disciplines and disciplinarians are the upholders of the formal rules for evaluating the truth of any inquiry and maintaining the procedural standards for all scholarly investigation. Without this act of co-ordination interdisciplinarians cannot proceed, even in their acts of reordering some of the rules of the game. But those who specialise within the sets of formal restraints that make up a discipline run the risk of increasing abstraction, or creating a selfreferential purgatory, if they are not regularly challenged as to the value of their strictures in relation to the development of new areas of understanding. Could improving communications between the fields advance interdisciplinary work? DE KOK – Real understanding between academics from different



disciplinary backgrounds requires the translation of each others’ concepts14 and ‘active attempts at clear communication’.15 The onus is on social scientists to use language and concepts that can render their ideas accessible and thus engage scholars from other disciplines. This goes for medical or natural scientists too but social science concepts tend to be more ‘woolly’. ‘Translations’ should include explanations of the relevance of social analyses for policy and practice; something which has been more at the forefront in the medical than social sciences.16 Making our analyses relevant is important for all social science research in general, whether interdisciplinary or not. REINECKE – An alternative role may be that of the interdisciplinary ‘broker’, a researcher who travels across disciplinary boundaries and translates concepts, approaches and insights from one field into another. In terms of epistemological constraints, theories are typically embedded in the intellectual history of a certain discipline and employ a nomenclature of concepts, terms and assumptions that may resonate within their home discipline but are alien to other discipline. Moreover, the aim of knowledge varies within each discipline from technical to practical to emancipatory interest of reason, to use Habermas’ terms. Brokertranslators could be essential to convey the value of the ‘new’ theory as well as make it understandable to new audiences – even though the meaning of established concepts may get adapted through this process, they may also generate novel variations. HEARN – There needs to be scope for individuals to be generalists, to work across disciplines, even regardless of disciplines, to the best of their ability. Allowing this kind of research may be a key ingredient in fostering cross-disciplinary dialogue. But 14. P. Bevan, ‘Researching Wellbeing across the Disciplines: Some Key Intellectual Problems and Ways Forward’, ESRC Research Group on Wellbeing in Developing Countries, WeD Working Paper, 25 (2006). 15. B. de Kok, J. Hussein and P. Jeffery, ‘Joining up Thinking: Loss in Childbearing in Resource-poor Settings’, Social Science and Medicine, 71 (2010), 1703-1710. 16. ibid. 22


supporting this may entail supporting a mode of scholarship that is increasingly seen as out-dated in the modern, corporatised, team-organised academy. Perhaps a direct collaboration could be the answer? DE KOK – What may ultimately be a more feasible approach is to engage in interdisciplinary projects in which scholars of different disciplinary backgrounds join forces; here, the projects become interdisciplinary without the need for individual interdisciplinary scholars. Interdisciplinary work beyond the social sciences may bring along an additional set of challenges. I work in global health; an area where interdisciplinary work is pertinent and its relevance quite widely accepted. Nevertheless, achieving a true synthesis of public health and social sciences perspectives together is not easy. Drawing on Bevan17, colleagues (including a medical scientist) and I have discussed barriers and facilitators to research crossing the boundaries of social and medical sciences.18 Barriers include language issues, disciplinary cultures and values, and power relationships. For instance, power differentials between public health and social sciences may constitute a potential barrier to the uptake of social science research from those in other disciplines. Since it is public health evidence which tends to inform global health policy and practice, this may limit the applied potential of social science. HEARN – Cultivating a wider view through interdisciplinary work can be difficult to achieve ‘by committee’. I have worked on large interdisciplinary research teams that were certainly productive and collegial, bringing together multiple disciplinary perspectives on a common topic (national identity and constitutional changes in the UK19), but I doubt that any new perspective was constructed. 17. P. Bevan (2006) ibid. 18. B. de Kok et al (2010) ibid. 19. F. Bechhofer and D. McCrone, National Identity, Nationalism and Constitutional Change (Basingstoke, Palgrave 2009). 23


In my view, the individual human mind remains the basic unit of cognitive synthesis. It is very difficult for a large and diverse group to achieve this kind of cognitive integration, at least in a truly cooperative spiri


This issue features: Olly Dowlen Jonathan Hearn Derek Hook Bregje de Kok Matt Matravers Juliane Reinecke

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