Social scientists address challenges and opportunities in interdisciplinary research

14 October 2016

We must be more specific about articulating the different ways of conducting interdisciplinary research, David Sweeney, Director (Research, Education and Knowledge Exchange) of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) told an Academy and Campaign event Tuesday (October 11).

Mr Sweeney was speaking at wide-ranging conference on the topic of Interdisciplinarity: Challenges and Opportunities for the Social Sciences. The all-day event brought together academics, researchers, funders and doctoral students to discuss some of the individual and institutional challenges to interdisciplinary collaboration, such as funding, university structures, and career objectives. The conference assessed how to foster cooperation while maintaining disciplinary integrity in a time a deep competition for resources and recognition, and looked at the role of social science in these processes.

Professor Sue Scott FAcSS opened the conference by saying “complex problems need multifaceted solutions,” highlighting the role that interdisciplinary research can play in addressing broad social challenges. Advances in knowledge come from “marriages in different disciplines,” she said, while recognising that “we haven’t quite yet developed the methods to make them meet,” a major focus throughout the day.

Mr Sweeney said the way in which the Research Excellence Framework tries to capture interdisciplinarity should encourage greater collaboration across different fields. However, in order for panels to assess case studies, the academic community needed to specify the criteria which the panels should use. Value should be clearly defined wherever possible and in a way that respects the different positions taken on excellence in different disciplines.’

The fact that universities, funding, and journals are all organised along disciplinary lines contributed to disciplines becoming “narrower and more specialised,” said Professor Soskice, Professor of Political Science and Economics at LSE and co-author of Crossing Paths: A report on the findings of the British Academy’s research into interdiscplinairty.

But the real world doesn’t produce problems in “nice simple ways in which many social scientists are now trained to respond to,” he contended. The most serious challenges require a whole range of disciplinary inputs to be able to understand them.

“Strong interdisciplinary work leads to a lot of key innovations back into disciplines themselves,” he said.

Professor Colette Fagan, Associate Dean for Research and Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, examined how to promote collaboration outside of traditional academic comfort zones. She said interdisciplinarity means different things to different people, ranging from individual researchers applying theories and methodologies from another discipline, to larger exploratory collaborations across subjects.

“The career structure logic many academics face is about cultivating an academic ‘home’ as a pathway to individual career advancement,” she said. Rather, researchers should be encouraged to “travel” outside those spheres. This could be achieved through an emphasis on building capacity and trust between disciplines. While this would take time, it would also require taking risks at the institutional as well as individual researcher level.

For Professor Fagan, who co-authored the Crossing Paths report with Professor Soskice, “interdisciplinary research is a good thing. Institutionally it is important for us to foster it, and we need to get the structures in place to help us get there.”

The “intellectual fission of the academy” has resulted in the formation of particular disciplinary identities, according to Professor Veronica Strang, Executive Director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University.

She agreed with Professor Fagan in her emphasis on structural impediments such as journals, peer review processes, and university departments, that discourage ventures outside carefully defined disciplinary areas. She noted that “hierarchies of disciplines” were upheld by the competitive context in which speacialism is framed as desirable, while interdisciplinarity becomes seen as “transgressive.” “It challenges people’s need to identify and categorise.”

Professor Strang cautioned against seeing interdisciplinarity as a problem solver in utilitarian terms. She proposed a “rethinking of the academy’s common origins,” in which social science has the “analytical tool-kit” and “theoretical networks” to bring other disciplines together.

She said interdisciplinarity isn’t just a “bolt on super structure,” but a deeper process of rediscovering shared roots, where projects could gain strength from diversity. This would require an acknowledgement of the equal value of all disciplines, where an openness to unfamiliar approaches would ultimately be transformational for all.

Professor Andy Jordan FAcSS, Professor of Environmental Sciences at UEA, also noted variations in both the understanding and execution of interdisciplinary research. He pointed to some of the difficulties if bringing together all the moving parts at play, specifically in university management and funding, and how interdisciplinarity is taught and evaluated.

“Lots of disciplines are engaging in interdisciplinary work, but it is clear that there are some absent partners. What’s been lost by those disciplines not playing as big a role as others?” he asked.

The challenges for interdisciplinarity becoming more integrated into in university and funding structures start much earlier, according to Rachel Thomson FAcSS, Professor of Childhood and Youth Studies at the University of Sussex. Professor Thomson noted how schooling is focused on funnelling students in certain disciplinary directions, at the expense of wider studies.

“We need to think about why we start so narrow,” she said, saying that interedisciplinarity is offered as a “strange reward” to students once they have progressed to the Masters level.

She acknowledged that specific discipline areas create intellectual continuity across generations, but said there is a danger of not allowing exchange and building up knowledge over time.

“Interdisciplinarity is a good way of assembling everything from research bids to multi-university blocks of power. It allows for sideways growth in ways that are intellectually enriching.”

Not everyone agreed that interdisciplinarity was inherently positive, however. John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham, said that while there are varieties of interdisciplinarity, there is only one that is generally talked about in the social sciences and humanities. This is “challenge-led, problem-focused research organised to address complex societal challenges. That’s not interdisciplinarity; that’s managerialism.” What he called the “managerial imperative” in relation to funding is what ultimately reduces interdisciplinairty to its utilitarian identification, he said.

“The impact agenda is shortermism. It’s about maximizing the time from idea to preferably income, and if not income, then influence.”

For Professor Holmwood, managerialism is “altering the nature of knowledge production practices.” In his view, it is disciplines that are most effective at addressing complex societal challenges.

Concerns were raised throughout the day that interdisciplinarity risks cementing social science as the “handmaiden” of STEM subjects. Many of the speakers acknowledged that the social sciences were rarely given the opportunity to shape research, and at times only brought in to add a human element. At the same time, they sought to reinforce the idea that interdisciplinarity should be fostered where appropriate, without hollowing out or dismantling individual disciplines.