Interdisciplinary Research. Part three: Building bridges.
This post is part of a series on the topic of interdisciplinary research. Each member of the current blogging team is involved in some form of interdisciplinary research, and we’ll be sharing our individual experiences of this every Wednesday from the beginning of March to the beginning of April – so stay tuned!
The bright side of interdisciplinarity
More and more academia is moving towards an interdisciplinary approach, leaving behind those days in the past of specialising in a single research area. I still can’t help but react with extreme surprise when I ask a teenager about what they are doing for their Highers – art and biology? Dance and physics? These options weren’t available back when I was in High School and was forced to choose a single subject area to follow.
The possibility of studying different subject areas becomes crucial when moving to postgraduate research. In most cases, the completion of the thesis involves research across different disciplines. For instance, my research lies in the intersection between psychology and philosophy. I work on the nature of consciousness by looking into sleep phenomena. In broad terms, my research looks at how we individually experience consciousness, which in philosophy is called the ‘subjective character of consciousness’.
One of the things that determines your principal discipline is your research question. Depending on the question that your research wants to answer, you will be officially enrolled in one discipline or another. Whereas psychology has done a lot of experimental work on consciousness research by helping us to understand more about how our brain works, philosophy grants us with a more theoretical perspective on how to interpret experimental results. Because of this, while I’m officially doing an MPhil in Philosophy, part of my supervision is in psychology and my research involves a great deal of work into empirical methods.
The possibility of working in different disciplines highly enhances your research and allows this to cover a wider array of directions. A particular discipline might lack knowledge on a specific methodology – for instance, philosophers aren’t usually well known for being good at the scientific method – but the opportunity to work alongside experts on a different area can cover those deficiencies. Similarly, the conversation between disciplines broadens the research and gives different perspectives. With a bachelor’s in psychology, I spent a great part of my academic career approaching research from a more experimental angle. The immersion in the philosophical research methodology allowed me to reconsider from a different point of view some of the knowledge that I previously acquired.
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It seems that interdisciplinarity research can only maximise your work and improve your research thesis. Why, then, is it so difficult to put into practice sometimes?
The downside of interdisciplinarity
One main reason is ignorance. Recently, I presented my research on consciousness during sleep at an interdisciplinary conference targeted at researchers working on different questions on sleep states. One of the attendees I spoke to (a neuroscientist), made very clear that ‘he wasn’t interested in philosophy’ and therefore didn’t attend any of the sessions on that panel. Similarly, when I’m asked about what I study, I often need to stop people who start rambling about their personal problems with a ‘well, I’m not THAT kind of psychologist’.
Another reason is the difficulties of writing an interdisciplinary research proposal. Although many funding bodies do reward interdisciplinarity, their application processes seem to ignore this aspect. Since last September I have had several existential crises while applying for PhD scholarships for next year. Starting from the choice of research consortium, some of these applications don’t facilitate the task to applicants working on different subjects. If my research lies in between Humanities and Social Sciences, where shall I look for funding? If my research involves expertise on different subjects, which review panel shall I select? It’s already extremely difficult to write a clear proposal that can be followed by non-experts on your area, but the task becomes even more daunting when parts of the proposal are about a different discipline.
Sometimes I feel like a tennis ball bouncing from one side of the court to the other. If it’s not too theoretical, my research turns out to be too experimental. If I’m trying to present my work to a non-interdisciplinary audience, they don’t seem interested in some parts and demand more answers on something that I haven’t covered. When working between two (or more) disciplines, I’m caught many times with the following questions: Shall I approach my research from discipline X or discipline Y? Shall I take X’s research method or Y’s? Or shall I merge both and develop method Z?
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Challenges mean opportunities
Although many times I feel frustrated and often find myself in a trickier situation than my peers not doing ‘interdisciplinary’ research, I keep advocating for this approach. During my postgraduate research, I have had the chance to meet other colleagues and researchers also carrying out interdisciplinarity research who have reassured me once more how my work can benefit from this wider approach. So, instead of seeing this as an obstacle, I’m taking it as an opportunity to work more in the collaboration between different disciplines.
As I mentioned above, most of the problems in interdisciplinary collaboration lie in the ignorance about other’s work. Once we create spaces of dialogue, we find how other’s research can help to develop our own and how it provides us with a different perspective to answer our research questions. Recently, I set one of these spaces of dialogue by co-organising an interdisciplinary conference on philosophy and psychology (keep posted, I’ll write about how to organise a conference in a couple of weeks!). This ended up with excellent debates between speakers and attendees who informed each other about their respective work on their disciplines and how these helped them to approach similar research questions.
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The experience of organising an interdisciplinary conference and the opportunities I had of attending other similar events have made me realise about the importance of collaborative research. So far, all these sorts of activities have deemed very fruitful and I have had the chance to know more about other’s work and how to incorporate this into my research. Because of this, I am planning to organise more future workshops and activities to establish stronger collaborations between researchers working on different disciplines.