The Meta Question

Mar 1, 2021 | IAS Director, IAS News, Transformations (issue 2)

Written by Veronica Strang

One of the key challenges in interdisciplinary research is to define an overarching ‘meta question’ that can unite the more specific questions generated within disciplines to meet common goals. This comes hand-in-hand with a need for a mutually comprehensible theoretical approach that will support a meta-analysis. Articulating these things may also encourage the use of ‘meta-methods’ that provide common intellectual ground, such as the use of GPS mapping to record layers of, geological, ecological, cultural and historical information.

A search for larger unifying questions, overarching theories and forms of meta-analysis pertains within disciplines too.  Thus former IAS Fellow Howard Morphy observed that

Archaeologists and anthropologists are inevitably involved in the process of developing an analytic meta-language that is used in the analysis of data and the interpretation of culture. (Morphy 2005: 51)

My own interest in meta-analysis was sparked in New Zealand and Australia by ‘lively’ political debates about the comparative nature of Anthropology. A critique by indigenous scholars and post-modernists placed anthropological knowledge alongside and putatively ‘in competition with’ local/indigenous knowledges. Writing in Current Anthropology I argued that this was a political straw man. Both kinds of knowledge generate models aimed at understanding the world.

In Hegelian dialectical terms a collective ‘meta-discourse’ requires a critical shift from subjective experience to objective inquiry… But while such analytic detachment may be particularly valorised in Western societies, it is by no means   confined to them. As Miller observes, all human consciousness relies upon a dialectic in which information is objectified,  differentiated and then reintegrated. (Strang 2006: 983)

Similarly, an assumption that anthropological theories are wholly the product of ‘Western’ thought fails to acknowledge the epistemological co-authorship of host communities and the value of their alternative cosmological perspectives. Anthropological knowledge is co-produced through a dialogue between researchers and informants, and between local communities and international disciplinary conversations. I am keenly appreciative of the way that the indigenous understandings of the world, generously shared with me by Aboriginal elders in Cape York, have inspired my thinking as much as the theoretical discussions exchanged with academic colleagues.

However, local knowledges and anthropology are very different in form and scale. By creating ‘meta’ questions, theories and methods, anthropology aims for a comparative analysis that strikes a balance between recognising the uniqueness of particular lifeworlds and discerning their shared humanity. The same could be said of disciplinary and interdisciplinary endeavours and indeed the relationship between all specialised knowledges and the shared intellectual aim to advance our common human understanding of the world. My own research on human engagements with water, conducted with indigenous communities and a diverse range of other groups, provides a useful background for considering how academic disciplines might work together. Different cultural and sub-cultural groups within river catchments similarly have their own worldviews, languages and epistemologies, their own beliefs and values, and particular material engagements with the environment. Comparing and understanding their different relationships with water and ecosystems, and the shared issues they address, requires cultural translation that is not dissimilar to that needed to find common ground in the interstitial spaces between disciplines.

There are other disciplinary starting points. My colleague Nicholas Saul could doubtless say a great deal about the ways that literary research makes use of ideas about meta-discourse. Disciplines generally require theories and methods that enable them to formulate overarching questions that frame specific case studies and permit comparison and generalisation. When they collaborate on topics via interdisciplinary research we might say that what they really need are ‘meta-meta questions’: overarching queries that are big enough to give them a common goal, but which have sufficient relevance to each area that there is a there is a healthy zig-zag of exchange between the specific approaches and interests of the participants and their collective intellectual developments.

One of the things that I set out to do in taking on the leadership of the IAS was to initiate a strand of activities that would help us to develop this kind of reflexive approach to interdisciplinary research. In essence this was a quite practical search for disciplinary ‘cultural translation’ that would help colleagues embarking upon interdisciplinary projects to understand each other’s theories and methods, and to create the frameworks for the meta-analysis that would bring these together to achieve the ‘more than the sum of its parts’ that is the holy grail of interdisciplinary collaboration.

This reflexivity has informed a number of the IAS’s activities. My colleague Sandra Bell and I used to run a bi-annual workshop Navigating Interdisciplinarity, for Fellows and their Durham collaborators. This was designed to open up a conversation about interdisciplinarity itself, and consider the kinds of steps that project teams could take in discussing how to bring their ideas together. The accompanying handbook observes that

Each discipline focuses on particular things, and has its own ways of understanding of ‘how the world works’. Perkins (2006) calls these ‘epistemes’. We could also describe them as ‘meta-discourses’: higher level thinking that allows people  to discuss research questions at a level that is sufficiently abstract to encompass different kinds of material… One mights ay that interdisciplinary research, in essence, requires a ‘meta-meta discourse’: a level of abstraction that rises above  specific disciplinary viewpoints to articulate the things that connect them. For example, the Hearing the Voice project has   overarching questions about how we conceptualise and represent phenomenological experiences. In dealing with tipping points in physical landscapes, financial markets and social trends, the Tipping Points project also has broader questions about how we think about sudden changes, how we measure or predict them, or how metaphors of tipping points  permeate multiple dimensions of life.  (Strang and Bell 2015[2012]: 12-13)

A next step was to write (often with Tom McLeish), a series of reflexive pieces about interdiscipinarity and meta-analysis. This included a collaborative project with key thinkers across the Research Councils to articulate some key principles for conducting and evaluating interdisciplinary research (Strang and McLeish 2015). This work was very strongly supported by the IAS’s use of annual research themes, each of which served to raise some key ‘meta-questions’ about the topic, and therefore to facilitate cross-disciplinary exchanges between the Durham researchers and IAS Fellows involved in the sub-theme projects.

The IAS has continued to make use of this reflexive work to explore ideas about meta-analysis, for example in an international conference Transformation and Transfusion, the creative potential of interdisciplinary knowledge exchange. It was also used recently to assist the development of one of our current IAS projects, Firing up the Epistemological Engine, which aims to create a new ‘meta-method’ using computer science (CS) tools such as natural language processing, deep learning and AI to automate the process of conducting literature reviews. This year, in order to offer practical help to colleagues keen to exchange knowledges across disciplinary boundaries in IAS and other research projects, the IAS has collated its material on reflexive interdisciplinarity on a new web-based resource page, Developing Interdisciplinary Research.


Hegel, G.W.F. 1977. The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller, Oxford Clarendon Press.

Miller, D. 1987. Material Culture and Mass Consumption, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Morphy, H. 2005. ‘Aesthetics Across Time and Place: an anthropological perspective on archaeology’, in Aesthetics and Rock Art, eds T. Heyd and J. Clegg, Aldershot: Ashgate Press. pp 51-60.

Strang, V. 2006.A Happy Coincidence? Symbiosis and synthesis in anthropological and indigenous knowledges’, in Current Anthropology. 47(6): 981-1008.

Strang, V. and Bell, S. 2013. Navigating Interdisciplinarity, e-publication. Durham University: Institute of Advanced Study.

Strang, V. and McLeish, T. 2015. Evaluating Interdisciplinary Research: a practical guide, Durham: Institute of Advanced Study.





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