Monday, 27 February 2012

The Difficulty with Interdisciplinarity

Tim Harford, the self-styled Undercover Economist, wrote an interesting piece on his blog about the need to break out of disciplinary silos. He quoted Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, talking about military intervention in Syria. 'Regional specialists rarely understand military capabilities and options well enough to make an argument for or against, and those who understand military capabilities and options rarely understand the regional dynamics well enough to make an argument for or against.'

This is a neat encapsulation of the argument for interdisciplinary working. A similar line of argument was followed by Prof Rick Rylance, CEO of the AHRC, when he visited the University a couple of weeks back. However, Rylance was frank in his acceptance of the problems that those working in the disciplinary borderlands face. He gave an example from his own work: he's an English scholar by trade, and has worked with a neuroscientist to analyse brain patterns when people read poetry. Interesting stuff, but they had problems getting it published: humanities journals that thought that it was too scientific, and science journals that thought it was a bit too 'kooky.'

I think this won't be solved until the silos that Harford talks about are permanently dismantled, and that's not going to happen any time soon. Part of the problem is the REF (it's becoming a bit of theme today, isn't it?) which reinforces a need to focus strictly on comparing yourself with others in a narrowly defined field. If and when the silos do tumble, there's still the problem of identifying early which areas should be collaborating with which other areas. Harford recognises that it's difficult to have in place the necessary links for problems that cannot be predicted, such as Syria or the Lehman Brothers. However, he seems to be suggesting that cross-silo communication will help to pre-empt this, but I'm not so sure. After all, there's a lot of silos out there, and how do you know you've got on the line to the right one?

Which brings me quite neatly on to the question of Research Council thematic priorities. The Research Councils, as you know, have fully embraced the interdisciplinary agenda. Barely a week goes by without another call for interdisciplinary research. One academic joked with me recently that he imagined a large machine in Death Star House which automatically produced random pairs of abstract nouns, linked by a conjunction, to create the latest priority. 'Health and Wellbeing', 'Culture and Society', 'Science and Justice' etc etc.

But in all seriousness, how are such interdisciplinary areas identified? And what happens to the collaborations that blossom under the RCUK interdisciplinary sun when the weather changes? I think, too, that there is a question of critical mass. Kent was founded on the principles of interdisciplinarity, deliberately avoiding a departmental structure so that cross-disciplinary dialogue would happen in colleges, along corridors where philosophers would be housed next to astrophysicists. However, it had to bow to the inevitable and put all the philosophers together and all the astrophysicists together in separate departments. There is something to be said in having people in the same or similar disciplines together to concentrate their resources, their knowledge, their brain power on solving the issues pertinent to them.

So where does that leave us? Interdisciplinarity is good, but I don't think it's something that can be forced. I'm a little sceptical about calls to encourage collaboration in specific areas. Instead, there should be a broader willingness to accept interdisciplinary work in the mainstream academy, and thus in highly rated journals. In fact, when you think about it, these two concepts may go hand in hand: once the funders stop pushing specific (political?) areas then the scepticism amongst academics might abate, and we might well be left with a more open acceptance of the concept of interdisciplinarity.


  1. I'm not sure the problem you identify is interdisciplinarity itself but rather the problems it is proposed to address.

    The biggest problem with targetted funding is that it attempts to predict what knowledge will be needed in the future and fund that now. Whether that's disciplinary or interdisciplinary research, the problem is the same. We can't predict the future.

    I agree with your conclusion. Without all the external pressures to produce particular types of research to secure basic research funding (either through the REF or the councils), researchers might very well produce the research necessary, or at least the basic research that can then be built on at short notice to solve specific problems.

    1. Thanks for this Jo. Yes, there is a problem of trying to second guess what tomorrow's problems will be, but I do think there is a slavish belief that interdisciplinary research will provide the silver bullet to all society's ills. I'm not saying that interdisciplinary research is bad per se, but that it's not necessarily right for everyone, or every problem. Moreover, if the government and funders really do believe in this silver bullet, there's got to be a huge shift in culture to make sure its taken seriously.