Interdisciplinary research is highly valued outside academia, while academia mostly pays lip service to interdisciplinary work. Within academia, much of the the interdisciplinary “praise singing” of interdisciplinary work lies in its theorisation – what is interdisciplinary research, how should it be done, how might it theoretically change the world. Yet actual interdisciplinary work where researchers from different disciplines all work on the same end product together – that is largely being done by applied social scientists and our colleagues from other fields. I’ve worked in a couple of interdisciplinary environments and social science has been highly valued. It’s been my experience, and that of a few of my applied colleagues, that our interdisciplinary work is not similarly valued by our academic peers. How can this change?
In my experience, going to sociology conferences and presenting my interdisciplinary work became increasingly difficult, as academics don’t really value this work. Perhaps it’s the double whammy of the interdisciplinary angle and the fact that I was working in an applied context. At one conference, after I presented a social model I’d worked on with a mathematician, one sociologist asked the equivalent of, “Why would you do this?” As in, why do you bother with this work?
This is where theory and practice need to match up. Interdisciplinary theory in academia might seem like a fad, perhaps, because academics don’t really see the end product. It’s also incredibly time consuming. You not only have to learn to work together with people who aren’t trained to think like you, you also have to do a lot of ground work to achieve mutual understanding of even the most basic concepts before you can even begin the work.
For example, I’ve spent weeks and months as part of interdisciplinary teams working with through questions such as: What is a typology? What is ontology? How do we visually represent sociology concepts?
Then you have to work out ways to “translate” sociology into maths, or computer coding, or some other practical outcome. In the “publish or perish” context, where academic publications are the main system of reward, there’s little room for developing interdisciplinary research, where progress is slow and difficult and the pay off is long-term.
I keep pushing to create awareness, to bring these academic, applied and interdisciplinary worlds together. Perhaps if we made room to bring these “real world” cases of interdisciplinary collaboration into the classroom while also getting academics to really engage with this work, change will happen. The university system itself needs to change, as there’s currently little incentive to engage with interdisciplinary research.
What are your experiences in working within an interdisciplinary environment? Is this work well regarded by your academic peers? How might we improve the esteem of this research within the current academic model? Leave your comments below!