Introducing interdisciplinary research

Jan 23, 2023 | Postgraduate, Transformations (Issue 8)

Introducing interdisciplinary research

Photograph by Alex Hibberts (on Twitter)

On 21 November 2022, the IAS ran a workshop ‘Introducing interdisciplinary research’ in the Discovery Museum in Newcastle for 80 students funded by the NINE and Northern Bridge Doctoral training partnerships.

As the title suggests, this interactive workshop aimed to introduce participants to key issues attendant on the practice of interdisciplinarity. It assumed no prior knowledge or experience, and was been specifically devised with early career researchers in mind. A key aim was to highlight the increasing importance of interdisciplinary working within the academy in recent decades. Researchers frequently find themselves grappling with complex problems or phenomena that cannot be adequately explored from a single disciplinary perspective and require a broader range of expertise, sometimes requiring collaboration with colleagues from other fields. Conducting interdisciplinary research can be a highly rewarding and intellectually enriching experience, but it entails significant challenges—not least, developing adequate understanding of the theories and methods of disciplines other than one’s own, and communicating effectively across teams comprising representatives of disparate specialisms.

In holding a joint event for researchers funded by the NINE and Northern Bridge DTPs, the organisers sought to provide a useful opportunity for participants to encounter peers from a wide range of humanities and social science disciplines and to identify opportunities for potential collaboration and intellectual exchange.

The workshop was in two parts. The morning session comprised of four short presentations exploring interdisciplinarity from different aspects. The opening presentation, given by Professor Patrick Zuk, examined the origins and meaning of the term, and sketched the development of interdisciplinary research within the academy. The three subsequent presentations furnished examples of contrasting collaborative interdisciplinary projects, drawing on the speaker’s first-hand experiences of collaborations across the arts and humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Professor Ian O’Flynn, a political philosopher and the Director of the Northern Bridge DTP, illustrated the challenges of communicating across very different disciplines, referring to his collaborations with specialists in statistical analysis. Professor Deborah Riby, the Director of NINE DTP, discussed her work with partners external to academia during her current project focussing on autism, and the opportunities that it provided to generate impact. The last presentation was given by Professor Karen Johnson, who spoke about her research on soil health and her engagement with local communities.

In the afternoon session, which was led by Professor Johnson, the attendees were divided into break-out groups and were assigned tasks to help build confidence in approaching interdisciplinary research. The main task was to explore possibilities to develop interdisciplinary projects aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals—an imaginative exercise requiring participants to think about how they could avail of the expertise of their fellow participants and develop interdisciplinary research questions of shared interest.

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