The Pitfalls of Interdisciplinarity

A few weeks ago I tweeted a friendly reminder about interdisciplinary research: that it can’t be done alone. ‘It takes a sustained network of people with varied perspectives and expertise to make that kind of magic happen.’

This tweet stemmed from a series of conversations I’ve been having recently about what it means to be an interdisciplinary researcher. It also came from the panel talks and seminar discussions at January’s Thinking Big conference in London. It allllllssssso came from my recently getting thrown into the deep end of the world of statistics. That’s right. My research had led me down some dark paths, y’all.

What even is interdisciplinary research, though? The word interdisciplinarity gets thrown around a lot these days, despite continuing to prompt those little red dotted underlines whenever you type it into Microsoft Word. Microsoft Word is confused. So are a lot of people. What are we talking about here? Everyone seems to be doing interdisciplinary work, and it seems that funding bodies are favouring projects that advertise themselves as interdisciplinary.

According to Wikipedia, ‘interdisciplinarity involves the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity (e.g., a research project)… It is about creating something new by thinking across boundaries.’ So, as per its name, interdisciplinary research involves working across disciplines, putting them into conversation with one another to achieve an academic goal. Easy enough, right?

Evidently not. At Thinking Big, Rick Rylance presented his ideas of ‘near neighbour’ and ‘distant cousin’ interdisciplinarities. The former refers to work crossing disciplines that are pretty similar in their approaches to problem solving and analysis. For example, English and history employ a lot of similar analytical frameworks that guide researchers through dank archival material and a plethora of theory-based and armchair-philosophical textual material. Arguably, this is where book history as a discipline tends to sit, pulling from literary studies and history to create its own little niche. The latter of Rylance’s ideas – distant cousin interdisciplinarity – refers to work crossing disciplines that use employ significantly different approaches to problem solving and analysis, and that have not usually come together without people consciously trying to connect them. My own doctoral research sits at an intersection of book history, social sciences, and computer science: three fields with (1) potentially very different problems to focus on and (2) very different approaches to solving problems if they ever find themselves facing the same ones. It’s distant cousin interdisciplinarity that causes problems.

For those of you unfamiliar with my research, you can read all about what I’m doing at this page here. I describe my research as ‘book history’ because I am, without a doubt, heavily rooted in my disciplinary upbringing. I have two degrees in book history that have engendered my particular approaches to problem solving and analysis, and I pride myself in aligning with this particular field as I strongly believe that my research will help perpetuate its lineage.

This said, I don’t just describe my research as being ‘book history’. Rather, it’s ‘book history with an adrenaline rush.’ This is 90% to make myself sound like a badass. However, 10% of why I distinguish my research this way is because of the adrenaline rush the discipline gets when I mention my collaborations with computer scientists in particular.  But we have nothing in common, book historians declare. What do they want from us? What do they have to give us?

More than 50 years ago, some old white guy called C. P. Snow (you know he’s serious because people refer to him using his initials instead of his real name) presented the notion of ‘two cultures‘: the sciences and the humanities. According to Snow, this dichotomy has hindered the generation and execution of productive solutions to the world’s problems and, on a more individualist level, has divided people into arbitrary categories defined by disciplinary identity markers. Sure, I self-identify as a book historian, but I’m a lot more than that. I enjoy when my friends tell me about their experiences in engineering, and teach me about Newtonian fluids. I get a real kick out of listening to my finance-themed podcasts. Yet I am a book historian. That is how I present myself because it is easier to just pick one thing. People remember that I am a book historian because it is easier for them to just remember one thing.

Now, I’m not saying that disciplines are bad. In a world of so many options and so much information, picking one discipline and its particular approaches to problem solving can help streamline thinking and help us get on with our lives. Aligning yourself with a particular discipline can help you find likeminded people who may be available for collaboration and can help you get the most out of your critical analysis. Disciplines aren’t the only way to put likeminded people in touch, but they’re very much part of our current academic (and general) circumstances, and it doesn’t do anyone any good to ignore them.

This said, the readiness of people to identify as purely ‘humanities’ or purely ‘sciences’ is dangerous. Interestingly, people don’t generally go around advertising: ‘Hi, I’m Leah. I’m in humanities.’ Rather, they present their ‘humanities’ or ‘sciences’ identity through negatives: ‘Oh, I’m not a science person’; ‘I’m just not into English or literary analyses’. The funny thing is that every single discipline draws from the same social contexts. To fully participate in our modern Western cultures, we all need to be able to read. We all need to understand basic arithmetic. We all need to draw upon history to figure out what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. At what point in our lives do our shared abilities to do these things split into dichotomizing – and alienating – specializations that result in different world views and ways of articulating those world views?

So disciplines can be helpful, but they can also be harmful. When one’s world view is so constrained by arbitrary disciplinary boundaries, old white man Snow’s words echo through time: the dichotomy between ‘humanities’ and ‘sciences’ continues to hinder the generation and execution of productive solutions to the world’s problems. What makes these solutions productive is that they are holistic. They are considered from various angles.

And you can’t do this kind of problem solving alone. Disciplines create experts, and you need to go interdisciplinary to draw upon those experts who may be able to offer you some fresh perspective. You need to bounce ideas off each other. No one is saying that the humanities and sciences can’t continue to exist. But humanities and sciences people need to start talking to each other regularly, finding common ground so they can eventually work towards holistic considerations of problems for productive solutions. We need to embrace our distant cousins.

Only then can we move onto the next problem:

How the heck do we disseminate this research?

One thought on “The Pitfalls of Interdisciplinarity

  1. I agree with you – though I see ‘interdisciplinary’ studies a little differently – deep knowledge of a single discipline can take a life-time to acquire, so the best sort of interdisciplinary study is (as you describe) the interaction of persons, each of whom has his/her area of expertise. On the other hand, the nature of my own work in provenancing awkward items and artefacts, sometimes no more than fragments far-removed from their rightful place, means that you must become a specialist in comparative iconography and materials science – with all that entails (chiefly endless reading). Having colleagues who are specialists in one particular field is the necessary balance, and fortunately the tradition in academic work is still co-operation and transparency, not the secrecy and scrabble for bucks that accompanies artificial efforts to make scholarship ‘publish or perish/payment by results’. So far, anyway.

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