Sunday, 5 April 2015

Interdisciplinary Work and its Politics

Credit: Wellcome Library, London
In the last few days I have been thinking about several aspects of success, inspired by the other posts on the blog and by new readings. Today I'll write about one aspect, inspired by previous posts by Michael and Matteo: what success means when applied to interdisciplinary work. Here I'm not interested in whether interdisciplinary work is successful in terms of fulfilling research objectives and making progress with a complex issue. Rather, I'm interesting in whether reflection on interdisciplinary work can succeed at changing the politics of research and the sense of what is acceptable and desirable at the stage in which research is presented and disseminated.

My research has always been at the intersection of philosophy and psychology. I think some issues cannot be investigated successfully within one discipline, because one way of thinking about them needs to be constrained by the theories and empirical findings that another discipline generates. Recently I have become less apologetic about my methodological commitments, and I have started submitting thoroughly interdisciplinary work to those journals that are known as "core philosophy journals", that is, they have an excellent intra-disciplinary reputation (they are good for the REF), but do not have a history of publishing inter-disciplinary work. This was in part an experiment. The result has been fascinating.

In the two recent cases I have in mind, feedback has been overall of excellent quality, and my work has been by and large favourably reviewed. No objections have been raised to the research methodology, but I have received comments such as:

  • "One cannot write a paper on x without mentioning work by philosophers A and B on x" (notice that there is no requirement that the work to be referred to is also discussed in depth or integrated into the proposed account);
  • "Too much of the paper is spent describing the psychological evidence, surely the author can summarise the results without going into so many details" (notice that there is no suggestion that the references to the psychological evidence are irrelevant). 

I find it interesting that there is no substantial objection to the methodology, but there are reservations to the way the argument is presented. The attempt is to make one's work more respectable (more publishable?) but limiting the extent to which it appears (as opposed to is) interdisciplinary. One of the issues that I would love to discuss as part of the residency in the Hub is the politics of interdisciplinarity and its implications for success: When our methods change does our style also need to change to reflect that? How can interdisciplinary work succeed at pioneering new ways to present argumentation, communicate results, engage different audiences?

I think that within a collaborative and interdisciplinary project like ours we would be able to uniquely address such questions because it would require people from different disciplines to talk, think, and write together, but also make things happen. How does an interdisciplinary team jointly interviews an expert, commissions a play, elicits ideas from the public, moderates a debate, invites artists and performers to work together? How would the interdisciplinary (and individual) differences that would characterise any core team play out in such contexts? For the team members, each public engagement event will be like throwing a party where one person may take the lead in the organisation, but the space to be filled and brought to life is essentially shared, and the rules of engagement need to be negotiated.

My guess (hope?) is that the natural reaction of defensiveness I encountered in my "experiment" with submitting work to core journals will give way, and creative solutions will be explored to doing and presenting research. I envisage creating space for research that challenges common assumptions about success, and moulding new modes of presentation to fit the research questions and methodology, rather than imposing a mode of presentation that satisfies previously codified criteria of acceptability.

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