Sunday, 22 March 2015

On Interdisciplinarity: some initial thoughts

My experience of interdisciplinary research strongly support the view that a collaborative project on success would have a transformational effect on what we do and how we do it. My research has always been interdisciplinary, in the sense that it has always been borderline between philosophy and something else (biology, psychology, anthropology, and, more recently, politics and economics). This is due partly do the fact that I personally find pure philosophy extremely boring.

In itself, this is just a biographical detail of little interest, of course. But it is interesting to note that among the great philosophers of the past, only very few were not involved in some other discipline, such as physics, physiology, economics, etc. This is something that academic philosophers nowadays often forget, as a result of the pressures towards hyper-specialisation that are becoming stronger and stronger in philosophy just like in every other field of knowledge.

These pressures towards hyper-specialisation have a reason of course, and especially so in the sciences (probably less so in the humanities, but this is a matter of controversy). Obviously, specialisation is important, and it is actually crucial for scientific progress and the accumulation of knowledge. But, as shown by the work of those great philosophers, so is the right kind of interdisciplinarity.

Spending time together in the same physical space allows for richer interactions. And this is amplified when these interactions occur on a regular basis, in a relaxed and informal way, that is, differently from what happens at an interdisciplinary conference. (Interdisciplinary conferences can be useful too, but normally not because of what one learns by listening to other people's talks, but rather as a result of the informal chats one has during coffee breaks, meals, and at the pub. This in itself says something important about what good interdisciplinarity amounts too).

The interactions that one can have in an interdisciplinary space are richer in terms of the explicit information that one acquires in those kind of settings, but also in terms of the implicit knowledge that one acquires by spending time together with experts in other fields and working with different methodologies. And, as many sociologists of knowledge have pointed out, this transfer of implicit knowledge is very important in the production of new knowledge. There is also the emotional/friendship/bonding component, which in my view plays and important role in making scientific and intellectual communities work well, though this is something that philosophers of science so far have tended to ignore. My academic visits to two interdisciplinary institutions, where people working in different fields interact on a daily basis in formal and informal ways (such as the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University and the IFOM-IEO Campus in Milan) confirm all this.

From meeting on a regular basis and in informal settings, we could generate reports on our methodology, and more generally on the way we work and think, and on how the project is affecting it. And we could then write something (informed by classic and recent discussions in the philosophy and the sociology of knowledge production) on the nature of interdisciplinary research in general, on the kind of opportunities that such a project would provide, on our experience and use of such opportunities, and on how we see the future of interdisciplinary research in the light of this.

Interdisciplinary endeavours can themselves be successful or unsuccessful. Many ways of doing interdisciplinary research do not seem to me to be particularly fruitful. This also means that they are a waste of resources, both intellectual and financial resources. It will be an interesting challenge to do interdisciplinary research in the right kind of way, and to share our successes and failures with a larger audience.

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