Navigating Interdisciplinarity: Reflections from a beginner

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Interdisciplinary is a buzzword these days- one needs to cross-over rigid academic disciplines to solve real life problems which require a multi-faceted approach. In the UK, interdisciplinarity seems to be normatively accepted, even an admirable practice within the Universities. UCL itself clearly emphasizes its focus on interdisciplinary research which in part contributes to its modern progressive research and learning environment. But to quote David Wood (from an article in Nature, 2015), “There’s a huge push to call your work interdisciplinary… but there’s still resistance to doing actual interdisciplinary science.” Building up on this paradox, I’ll discuss, in this post, some of my own reflections on doing an interdisciplinary project. How does one approach interdisciplinary projects- are they just the new academic fad or a new paradigm of research in an ever so complex world?

Having had switched over from biology to Anthropology, specializing in Social Anthropology, I always had an open approach to disciplines. So, a decision to do a research on understanding role of caste-identities in causing psychological distress among University students in India across-cutting academic fields wasn’t unthinkable for me. Surprisingly, however, I did sense some apprehensions and resistance from my own academic circles to the decision I had made. While I was encouraged to take up this new project of combining caste-studies and psychiatry/psychology for my doctoral research, there were always caveats against an Anthropologist ‘straying’ away from her line of enquiry. The caution, I believe, was lesser due to their academic rigidity than due to a mistrust of ‘hegemony of natural sciences’ within the academia. One of the side-effects of a flourishing interdisciplinary project is a reducing cohesion for social scientists despite a rise in the diversity of perspectives brought from the constituent disciplines. Evidence from the UK points towards less willingness of social scientists to participate in interdisciplinary projects than other academics. The propensity to include social scientists in an interdisciplinary research project in order to tick mark the check boxes for the sake of funders and diversity has very well been known for years. I am not even stressing on the usual scenario of taking a social scientist as an add-on when ‘anybody can do qualitative research through surveys’ which increasingly alienates social scientists within interdisciplinary projects.

The crossing-over since I was issued initial caveats has been an interesting, albeit not an easy one. As a student switching fields, the uneasiness over ‘technical know-how’ of a different field is always present and even if one is prepared to deal with it through proper training, the question of combining divergent ethos of the constituent fields always loom large on a beginner. As such, I felt at loss regarding many a nitty-gritties of psychiatry and social psychology. After picking up the initial skills in areas other than anthropology, I was confronted with the question of reviewing the literature and coalescing the vast disarray of field-specific studies into one naturally flowing structure (which is something I feel struggling with even now)- there were studies on caste in education but nothing on the mental health aspect; no previous studies of caste from a non-sociological/ economic point of view; elsewhere there were studies on marginalisation and mental illness but problems in uncritically importing those as a model for a hitherto untouched area in India; and so on. Similarly, with methodology it was a difficult proposition to go into an ‘either-or’ mode and while I was advised to keep methodology qualitative, it ultimately needs to be informed of quantitative non-anthropological instruments in use for similar projects. As it progressed, however, I found myself being less anthropological than it should ideally be in order to accommodate social psychiatric/psychological modes of thinking. It is in such scenarios, that having mentors who truly believe in interdisciplinarity helps, as my both supervisors, trained in psychiatry/anthropology, and in anthropology, helped deal with the dilemma of a loosely structured literature and a rigorous methodology.

The conundrums with literature and methodology as with execution and analysis of research in interdisciplinary projects are just the tip of iceberg in a solo doctoral dissertation study like mine. One can try imagining how difficult it would be to launch a big project on a scale much higher where a number of departments and people are involved. Mostly, according to my awareness, such interdisciplinary projects are carried out in suitable separate departments of interdisciplinary research. The real challenge is faced by people working in interdisciplinary fields based in a department different to one’s orientation. As such, the disciplinary nature of Universities with separate departments creates conclaved spaces where a Department stands for a unilateral mode of thinking and practicing academics. While newer perspectives brought in from a different disciplines open up vistas of newer ideas and reaching out, it certainly gives rise to a two way anxiety which builds up from ‘alien’ modes of operating and assessing what and how evidence is constructed. So far, crossing over for me, has meant a loss of ground to call my own. Despite having a very supporting Department and good links with other Departments within UCL, institutional separation definitely sweeps one off the grounds of certainty, hopefully, just in the beginning.

Such a separation, I believe, stems from the emphasis on specialization which is backbone of a modern University structure. The emergence from 1970s onward of “specific individual” as opposed to the “universal individual”, as described by Michel Foucault (1980) contributes to some of the challenges surrounding interdisciplinary projects. While the “specific individual” speaks from “a particular disciplinary location (within the university)”, the “universal individual” “speaks as the conscience and consciousness of society”.
One of the most ironic observations I’ve had, in that sense, is the ease with which lay educated people understand an interdisciplinary exercise than seasoned academics of different disciplines. For me, it is relatively easier to make fellow University students or an educated friend understand what I am doing and how I want to do it than to make complete sense to academics in either social sciences (specifically Anthropology) or in health sciences/psychiatry. At one of the conferences I recently attended, there were very few constructive comments made on improving my methodology or approach despite the focus being South-Asia and a fair number of panels dedicated entirely to the question of caste. I suppose, this was both because of my being pretty new in this field to articulate a mixed approach effectively to the learned academic peers and the rigidity of disciplinary boundaries where academics lack a knowledge of other modes of doing research.

The biggest joy, however, that comes from doing interdisciplinary research is the awareness that the results would feed into actions towards resolving some of the pressing concerns of society in a holistic manner as opposed to simply generating theoretical knowledge relevant to one of the constituting disciplines. Theory generation in itself, is the pinnacle of academic rigour. Yet, when seen in terms of complex issues a researcher grapples with, a strict demarcation of academic limitations and boundaries does not do justice to the commitment that researchers carry with them- to make the world a better place. Another deeply satisfying factor is learning different perspectives and seeing oneself come up with creative out of the box ideas that are hard to find in traditional sense of disciplinary research. I might have been a little naive in my reflections on my interdisciplinary project as I have just been a year into it, I hope, in all its earnestness , that newer avenues of personal, academic and professional growth will arise as I gain deeper understandings and skills in navigating this interdisciplinarity.

Further resources:
Chettiparamb, A. (2007). Interdisciplinarity: A literature review. The Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning Group, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, School of Humanities, University of Southampton. www.heacademy.ac.uk/ourwork/networks/itlg

Foucault, M. (1980) Truth and Power. In Gordon, C. (1980) (ed.) Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-77. Trans. by C. Gordon et al. New York: Prentice Hall, pp.109-133

Leidford, H. (2015). How to solve the world’s biggest problems. Featured News. Nature. Vol. 525 (7569). http://www.nature.com/news/how-to-solve-the-world-s-biggest-problems-1.18367

OECD (1982) The University and the Community: The Problems of Changing Relationships. Paris: OECD.

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