Walking the line: the art of interdisciplinary research
When I talk about interdisciplinary research to people who are not accustomed to it, I like to borrow the story David Foster Wallace opened his commencement speech with in 2005 to Kenyon College:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
[T]he real value of a real education [has] almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’ ‘This is water.’
If you have not heard his speech I urge you to do that now, it is brilliant, and unmissable . The speech is about life, about how we chose to think and live. It is about being aware of the things around us that disappear into daily mundanities. It is about choosing how to think, react and behave.
So, why use it in reference to interdisciplinary research? Because I think interdisciplinary research is a micro-metaphor for life. We need to step into interdisciplinary work prepared to embrace difference, and most importantly, with an awareness of the disciplinary waters we swim in every day. We need to be aware of our own inherent assumptions and driving concepts, and be prepared to pause that background noise long enough to hear other disciplines. In the end, that same prerequisite is needed to enjoy happy relationships and lead a peaceful and interesting life.
The most successful interdisciplinary researchers I know don’t worry about labels. They don’t stop, and think, “am I working in the realm of sociology – or medicine?”, they surge forward with an idea, and bring others in to help fuel the dynamic with methods and concepts.
It may be that I seek a sort of utopia by repeatedly attempting interdisciplinary research. Looking over the fence, and slipping under it to explore further is something that comes naturally to some. But giving researchers that freedom, that ‘permission’ to cross disciplinary borders is actually a difficult thing to achieve. Many find themselves in unchartered territory and get scared. They retrace their steps to terra firma and plant themselves firmly there, where it’s safe. And those are the researchers you have persuaded to come along for the ride to start with…
Many won’t dare leave their ground to start with. Personally, I don’t trifle with the researchers who are not eager to join in the adventure. They are usually not willing to step back from their disciplinary lens, their background of assumptions. I actually think that is fine, I know where they stand, and may need their disciplinary perspective at another juncture.
The difficult ones to work with worry constantly about where they are now, and spin into an existential crisis of sorts. Am I still within my own discipline? And if not, can I be the same researcher in another discipline? When I return to my discipline will I be lost? Such anxieties are linked with challenging the fixed-points of one’s own discipline. Suddenly everything becomes relative, the world is no longer flat, everything is moving in relation to everything else…
Personally, I have never experienced the particular anxieties that I often observe in other researchers caused by the nature of interdisciplinarity. I think this is from being accustomed to not fitting, to having always existed in between labels: nationality, language, culture, country and discipline. Also, I was ‘raised’ by academics from different disciplines who were blind to disciplinary boundaries. In fact, in my work, I find labels and boxes smothering. I am irritated by having to declare myself one thing, as opposed to another. I don’t accept that my freedom as a researcher should be limited; that would be like imprisoning my thoughts.
Interdisciplinary research is an amazing challenge every time you take it on exactly because everything is constantly moving in relation to everything else. It can be hugely frustrating, because it tends to progress in starts and fits: three steps forwards and two steps back. It is also hard to develop transferable methods from one project to another, because of the inherently relative nature of the interdisciplinary beast. Projects like these are also more likely to fail to meet their initial objectives.
Based on my own (ongoing) mistakes here are my two-pennies’ worth of advice about interdisciplinary projects (please send in more!):
-Do get involved in interdisciplinary research if you are curious and excited by your own assumptions being challenged – if you can’t bear the thought of that, you might find it too stressful
-Avoid having ‘disciplinary-led expectations’ of your colleagues
-Keep the project ambitions low
-Go with the flow: don’t be rigid about controlling the process
-Let everyone know what specific work outputs are expected of them and on what timescale
-Give them the freedom to work within their own field and encourage them to venture further afield
-If you are leading the project, expect to do a lot of work integrating the processes and results along the way
-If you are the PI expect no one to be fully satisfied!
In the end, I think the key to successful interdisciplinary research is not really down to the participating disciplines, the subject matter, the funding, or the institutions involved. It all comes down to the people. If there is a spark between those interacting together, they get along, are generally curious people, are self-aware and willing to suspend their assumptions yet proficient in their chosen field, and are positive about moving knowledge forward – then it is likely to work! I have been extremely lucky to have encountered such people, and feel privileged to have worked with them.
Make no mistake, interdisciplinary research is an art-form in its own right.
Some interdisciplinary research deemed ‘too risky’ for REF (theguardian.com)