Can we fit together? You sure? I know that we will be (BoA, Who Are You)
This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for a month or so, but it’s taken the release of the British Academy’s big report on interdisciplinarity the other day to give me the kick up the backside I needed to make some time, sit down and get it finished. Initially this was going to be a nice wee story about ten very warm days I spent in Taipei in the middle of July. As I started to write, though, I realised it was more about how two researchers from very different methodological traditions can come to work together in a meaningful way. What I say here is by no means authoritative. Rather, the purpose of this post is to lay out what works for me and my collaborator in interdisciplinary research, and to encourage readers to think about what works for them and why.
First a bit of background. Since January this year, I have been developing a broad-based collaboration on climate change vulnerability assessment with Dr Wanyu Shih of Ming-Chuan University in Taiwan. We draw in other people as and when appropriate, but we are at the core. She is a super-quantitative GIS, spatial analysis and urban planning person. I am an ultra-qualitative environmental sociologist with an interest in energy and marine issues. On paper this should not work. And yet it does.
Since I finished my PhD I have worked almost exclusively on ‘interdisciplinary’ projects, but it is only recently I have come to realise what the biggest challenge is. Namely, to go from working alongside other disciplines, taking parallel approaches to a common issue with paths never meeting, to working together to reach a more robust solution for a problem. I’ve sat through so many project meetings where each ‘work package’ has a presentation slot. The geologists show slides of rocks, the marine biologists play a video of bubbles on the seabed, and the social scientists put up forty slides of text and run ten minutes over. Then we break out into our sub-groups and never see each other again.
The eurkea moment for Wanyu and I came on my last day in Taipei. We were sitting in a cafe in Songshan with our laptops, the tropical rain hammering down on the decking outside. Turning back from gazing at the bouncing raindrops, I realised an Excel spreadsheet was open on my screen. I was doing statistics. Meanwhile across the table my collaborator was furiously making notes. She was thematically coding a policy document. We had completely switched roles. Or, more to the point, we had started to figure out how we could add something to each other’s research. I, for instance, was using some of what I knew about social science critiques of ‘resilience’ to suggest a more nuanced way of using socio-economic data to assess climate vulnerability (come to GSDI in Taipei in November if you want to find out more about what exactly we were up to…)
From a social science perspective, I think flexibility is key in working towards this integration. Admittedly this is not always what one is encouraged to do from a career progression perspective, but having a set of theories and methodologies one can adapt to a range of contexts helps no end if your goal is to work across disciplines. When I was doing my PhD, a sage older student called this a ‘portable methodology’. I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time, but having been able to use a mixture of interviews and ethnography to draw links back environmental governance theory for radiation in Fukushima, carbon capture and storage in Scotland, and now heat mitigation in Taipei, I think I get the idea. The big challenge while doing this, of course, is to keep a sound theoretical base, sustain a coherent research career narrative, and resist the urge to write purely empirical papers all the time.
Another thing that I feel has worked well so far for us is starting small and building up gradually. Our first aim was just to see if we could do an abstract for a conference together, which we presented together at the Pacific Science Congress in Taipei in July. Next was to add a small bit of new empirical research onto an existing dataset of Wanyu’s, which we did by interviewing planners and academics during my time in Taiwan. Now we’re working on a book chapter, drafting our first co-authored papers for peer-review, and are applying for funding to turn some of the ideas we’ve talked about into concrete projects. Certainly in the UK we have a tendency to go for Big Stuff straight off, but in my view this kind of groundwork is absolutely vital when bringing different epistemological and methodological traditions together. It doesn’t have to be a prolonged process either – we have learned an awful lot about how we work in just six months, which is really helping now we are getting to the bread and butter of publishing and applying for funding. In short, if you build good understanding on smaller pieces of work, by the time you get to the big projects you know how to work well together.
This leads me to a final point, something I don’t think we talk about nearly enough in academia. Good interpersonal relations. So often we choose collaborators, hire colleagues and judge peers on the basis of numbers. We agonise over H-Factors, numbers of publications, and thousands of pounds of income brought in. These are of course important whether you agree with them or not. But how much time do we spend thinking about whether we can work well together as people? In this regard I am really lucky, because as well as being a formidable scholar Wanyu is also someone I get on really well with. We trash-talk each other’s country’s whisky (this year Old Pulteney retook the World Championship for Scotland, but if I am being honest I prefer Kavalan…) We both like good coffee. We can talk to each other in English or Japanese. I really don’t think academics give enough thought to the relationships between people themselves when we make research partnerships. With interdisciplinarity this becomes especially important – because believe me, there are times you will need all the patience and understanding you can muster. Collaborating with someone you want to work with is what will make you put in the extra hours to bridge the gaps, persuade you (reluctantly) to try doing something different in your methodology, and make you question why it is you insist on having that social justice paragraph in an otherwise quantitative paper.
As I said at the start, the aim of this post hasn’t been to explain how to ‘do’ interdisciplinarity. Instead I’ve offered a few insights into why the collaboration I am involved in at the moment is working well. Others will have different views, and I am also acutely aware I am a social scientist. I’d be really, really keen to hear from more physical scientists as to how they think about working with scholars from socially-oriented backgrounds, or indeed from those who feel they straddle the two spheres as individuals. Maybe if there is one thing we can all get better at doing to aid the interdisciplinary cause, it’s making a bit of time to reflect on why things go well when they do, and cataloguing and sharing our experiences accordingly. I hope this post can contribute to such a body of reflection.