About the wonders and pitfalls of multi-disciplinary research

In my November 2022 round-up post, I mentioned that one of the projects that I am working on, at the moment, brings together researchers from different disciplines, and that this requires some adjustment from all. It is not the first time that I have experienced this adjustment, though – this is very much a feature of multi-disciplinary research. After one such project, the team even wrote a paper capturing our experiences.

This was a three-year project where six academics from different disciplines came together to examine the consequences of UK surveillance requirements for organisational systems in the financial services and the travel industries. Our focus was the flow of customer data throughout the organisations in question and, then, from them to public bodies, such as law enforcement organisations; how that flow was produced and interpreted; and the consequences.

We all had experience of working with other disciplines and, indeed, we very much valued this opportunity to work alongside each other to look at this complex issue. None of us could get a full view of the issues under analysis based on their “home” discipline, alone. Rather, it was through the combination of our individual perspectives, and by accessing each other’s knowledge, that we could get a richer understanding of the problem.

The first requirement to ensure that our collaboration would work and would be more than the sum of its parts, was for each of us to “let go” of our respective “disciplinary roots” and try to see the problem from the others’ perspectives. This was demanding from a cognitive perspective. We often spent considerable time clarifying terminology or unpacking a particular concept. And we had to read work from other disciplines to understand each other’s background.

It was also uncomfortable. You had to face the limitations of your discipline (and of your knowledge within the field). Moreover, you had to find ways of highlighting the limitations in how the other person was looking at the problem without upsetting them. At the end of the day, you are challenging the other person’s professional identify. So, you need to be diplomatic.

Having said that, this process of letting go can also be very liberating. When we were in those meetings, we didn’t have to fit within a specific boundary. We had full permission to do things differently.

And, we did end up with more confidence in our own individual work and why we do it. After all, the project was successful because we each brought our own particular perspective to the table. We added value to the collective effort because of our individual disciplinary background.

You can read mine, Keith Spiller’s, Kirstie Ball’s, Elizabeth Daniel’s, Sally Dibb’s and Maureen Meadows’s reflections in the paper “Carnivalesque collaborations: reflections on ‘doing’ multi-disciplinary research”, which was published in Qualitative Research back in 2014. An open access version of the paper is available here

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