Dr Matt Hayler is a lecturer in post-1945 Literature in the Department of English Literature at the University of Birmingham. His research interests focus on e-reading, materially experimental writing, digital humanities, critical theory, technology, and embodiment. He can be found on twitter @cryurchin.
Interdisciplinarity: A Brief Introduction
Interdisciplinarity is a long word for a good thing. And it’s become a buzzword in academic research, which means we have to remain suspicious, but yes, a good thing. And it’s misunderstood, and misused, and underestimated, but still: a good thing.
Interdisciplinarity isn’t about ignoring disciplines. Some researchers would call this “transdisciplinarity” – the occlusion of fields; it is not only hard, but, despite its renaissance appeal, might also be without purpose or possibility. In many ways interdisciplinarity is the opposite of ignoring disciplines; it is, instead, the meticulous attention to disciplines and their combination, the occlusion of their borders rather than their boundaries.
Interdisciplinarity isn’t simply drawing ideas or methods from both your home discipline and another (this is cross-disciplinarity), nor is it combining lots of fields together (multi-disciplinarity…); interdisciplinarity is subtler. It is, rather, about synthesis, about the hopeful monsters born of multiple disciplines’ methods, practices, and discourses brought together to tackle something that will not or cannot give in to the approach of any one specialism.
There are problems in the world that resist analysis from the products of the training of the greatest proliferation of specialisms in history by dint of being too complex or too new. And the jealously-guarded languages and activities of the sub-sub-sub-fields on up mean that subtle problems are sought out and answered with increasing regularity, but researchers across the road (or quad, or corridor) from one another, in a very real way, cannot speak to one another about what they’ve asked and solved.
In my own work on the philosophy of technology, I want to know how humans interact with their tools and other objects, particularly digital devices. This involves considering things both new and complex, like: how are texts affected by changes in their materiality? How might humans be affected by significant changes in media? How might human cognition entangle with non-human actants and their environment of action? How has human evolution allowed for such entanglements, and are digital technologies fundamentally different? And how can we test any of this? And so I want to speak to psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, biologists, and the scholars of my home discipline of English Studies because they each know a bit of what I need to know (and, combined, a lot of what I must find out). But, having identified my giants, how can I hope to stand on their shoulders in a way that is productively interdisciplinary?
Regenia Gagnier describes disciplines as being at least partially “defined by what they count as evidence.” So, if an English researcher draws on work from Mathematics, but eventually relies on a form of textual interpretation rather than the production of coherent proofs, then they haven’t produced interdisciplinary work, as they are relying on the same conditions of evidence that they always have. If they were instead to draw on Physics and produce empirical evidence via proof or practice, then again the work is not interdisciplinary, they are just doing Physics. The researcher has certainly moved across disciplinary lines, but no blending has occurred, and, most importantly, no problems resistant to solution by either discipline can be solved by her movement. So it’s more than just a glomming-on of new approaches; it’s the production of new ways of speaking-about and doing.
But, a last problem: On the one hand, to intentionally blind ourselves to aspects of an object under discussion isn’t a workable strategy if we wish to progress in our understanding. On the other, however, for most of us the requirement of polymathism simply isn’t an option. But a lack of extensive contextual knowledge or specific skills are not reasons to abandon attempts at interdisciplinary work, or any work which questions the rigidity (if not the necessity) of disciplinary borders. Reaching out and sharing and inventing and reinventing is some of the most important work we might do once we start to know our disciplines well. Dialogue, generosity, and a deference to established expertise can only strengthen an aspirant interdisciplinary position which doesn’t offer the pretence of comprehending every aspect of a problem, but instead demonstrates the complexity of the issue of understanding and calls for a blended methodology suitable to the task of talking better to the world.