Person: Is there an ‘interdisciplinary attitude’?A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines
Few interviewees regarded interdisciplinarity as a goal in itself, and most of them had not deliberately sought out an interdisciplinary career. As Fernando Santos told us: ‘[I] end[ed] up seeing myself as interdisciplinary, but without realizing it. Just across my career, it happened, like I was not designing my profile to be interdisciplinary, but I ended up enjoying this kind of research.’ Claartje Rasterhoff also stumbled upon interdisciplinary themes more or less accidentally: ‘The topic in question just caught my interest and I started researching it. Only in a second instance did I realize that I was doing multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary research in the field of Digital Humanities, where researchers with various skills and knowledge met. I was never intentionally interdisciplinary.’
The nature of an interdisciplinary attitude
What constitutes an interdisciplinary attitude, whether ascribed to someone or adopted on one’s own? According to Hanneke Hulst, interdisciplinary scholars aim to alter or overcome existing disciplinary boundaries rather than to combine the knowledge of experts from different backgrounds. ‘The way I see it, multidisciplinarity is the collaboration of experts. When a radiologist writes a piece on the MRI scans in a manuscript on neural correlates of cognition, I do not consider that interdisciplinarity. […] I believe that interdisciplinarity is about processing and recombining the information from different disciplines. […] It is about the synthesis of insights with different disciplinary origins into a new whole.’
‘Interdisciplinary research […] raises awareness of how little you know beyond the safety of your own field. It is almost an existential experience, to discover the limits of your own knowledge when talking with experts, real experts, from a different field. […] You have to open up to them.’
Scholars mention remarkably similar factors when they are asked howa culture for interdisciplinary collaboration might thrive. Inquisitiveness, the ability to listen and a tolerance for deep uncertainty are recurrent themes. According to Fernando Santos and Caroline Nevejan, interdisciplinary scholars ‘have to be comfortable being uncomfortable’.
Jan Willem Duyvendak emphasizes modesty as an essential virtue for interdisciplinary research, as it allows conversations to flourish with scholars whose arguments are grounded in different worldviews and/or based on unfamiliar premises: ‘Interdisciplinary research […] raises awareness of how little you know beyond the safety of your own field. It is almost an existential experience, to discover the limits of your own knowledge when talking with experts, real experts, from a different field. […] You have to open up to them.’
Hanneke Hulst illustrates an interdisciplinary attitude via an image of two trees filled with birds and various birds flying between them. ‘The birds in the trees symbolize the disciplinary experts, for instance within neurology, radiology and anatomy. They are the hyper-experts and have an incredibly deep knowledge of their respective topics – more than I will ever know. However, they do not bridge disciplines. This is where the interdisciplinary researchers, the birds flying between the trees, come into play.’ Natali Helberger agrees: ‘My added value [in interdisciplinary collaborations] is that I know about the law and that I can translate concepts from the law into other disciplines, but also back into the legal analysis.’ The essential capacity to move between (or fly to and from) various perspectives and interests was even more pronounced for Annoesjka Nienhuis and Else Veldman in their work with various researchers and stakeholders. Nienhuis concisely summed up the necessary characteristics of bridge-builders like herself: ‘You need curiosity, a broad range of interests, and the ability to listen.’ Yet she and Veldman added that such an attitude was not itself sufficient. Transdisciplinary work, they underlined, also requires the persistent cultivation of an environment enabling cross-fertilization and committed collaboration. Trust and understanding need to be built up over time. Collective applications for funding, shared work spaces (for a part of the week) and informal gatherings are all indispensable parts of that process.
Ask, don’t explain
According to Duyvendak, cross-disciplinary collaborations, especially when they are interdisciplinary, are irreconcilable with the propensity to ‘explain the world to others. […] You have to open up, you have to be curious’. To do so requires didactic skills and an awareness of the often unmentioned premises of one’s own discipline. Claartje Rasterhoff describes how she often aims to work ‘on the fringes’ of related but different fields, where researchers may differ in methods but share a similar puzzlement regarding a given topic: ‘What defines my experience as a researcher is that I am always inclined to discover a new field “sidewards”, so to speak, operating from the boundaries. In what I observe in our daily life and in society, I am always interested in the fringes, where things work differently or simply go astray. I am intrigued by such topics, as they make me think “let’s see what happens there, which processes I can identify”. I think the same goes for my attitude towards methods in academic research: I am always looking for the fringes, the hard-to-grasp areas where I can signal the tensions that spur my curiosity.’