On the Value of Interdisciplinary Research

Image: Cultural Probe Kit, https://openlab.ncl.ac.uk

Research funding bodies and universities support interdisciplinary research. For example, the Stern Review identified “the essential role of interdisciplinary research in addressing complex problems and research questions posed by global social, economic, ecological and political challenges” (Stern Review, 2016). The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is equally committed to “support new and exciting research which combines approaches from more than one discipline” (ESRC, 2019).

But does the term ‘interdisciplinary research” mean and how does that work in practice? Aboelela et al. identified various ways of working across scientific disciplines: multidisciplinary work involves two or more disciplines working in parallel by addressing the same or related questions, but from various perspectives or paradigms. In interdisciplinary research, the research is more integrated using multiple or intersecting models, but multiple data sources and / or varying analysis of the same data. In transdisciplinary research, the research problem is stated in a language or theory that is broader than one discipline and the research methods are fully synthesised (Aboelela et al. ,2007). Aboelela et al. define interdisciplinary research as “any study or group of studies undertaken by scholars from two or more distinct scientific disciplines. The research is based upon a conceptual model that links or integrates theoretical frameworks from those disciplines, uses study design and methodology that is not limited to any one field….” (Aboelela et al. ,2007).

From my own experience, it is challenging to integrate various perspectives as each discipline has its own, clearly demarcated space. For example, I make use of the concept of “design / cultural probe” developed in design. Cultural probes were originally developed as part of the Presence project (Gaver et al., 1999). The probes were designed to “provoke inspirational responses” from participants with the purpose of generating “inspirational data” to stimulate imagination of the designers (Gaver et al., 1999). Their purpose is “(…) not to capture what is so much as to inspire what might be” (Boehner et al., 2012, p. 185). However, there have been substantial modifications based on the concept of “cultural probes”. For example, Crabtree et al. developed a method which combines ethnographic study with adapted cultural probes and user-centred workshops (Crabtree et al., 2003). Unlike the original cultural probes, the informational probes developed by Crabtree at al. were aimed at data collection by gaining insights into participants’ lives (Crabtree et al., 2003). So, in other words, the probes were no longer used as an inspiration for designers, instead, they provided an opportunity to collect data from participants – perhaps in a similar way to how data would be collected in the social sciences. However, the adaption of the original probes caused a lot of controversy, as the Gaver et al. insisted that the cultural probes should not follow the logic of “objectivity” and “validity” as in the social sciences. Gaver et al. emphasised that the probes focus on playfulness, uncertainty and subjective interpretation (Gaver et al., 2004). However, research within social sciences is increasingly seeking and making use of more innovative methods (see the book “Inventive Methods” by Wakeford and Lury, 2012, but also “Creative Research Methods in the Social Science” by Kara, 2015) while the value of terms such as “objectivity” and “validity” are considered of rather limited value in the more anthropological and ethnographically oriented types of research.

So, in the process of conducting interdisciplinary research, challenges to the main paradigms of each discipline is inevitable if we want to integrate perspectives from different discipline in a meaningful way. This may not always be comfortable for researchers in the field. When selecting potential supervisors or examiners for the PhD viva, this may become a problem, especially if there is little openness or understanding of other academic disciplines and the way things are done or considered “good practice” in other disciplines.

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