Drifting between disciplines: the challenges of doing multi- and interdisciplinary research

Dr. Erie Tanja, postdoctoral researcher

Multidisciplinary research








Nowadays, when talking about scientific research, the call to make it multi- or interdisciplinary, is never far away. Although the terms are often mixed up or used interchangeably, there is a difference. Multidisciplinary research is about ‘simply’ combining insights from different disciplines; interdisciplinary research is the ‘symbiosis of disciplinary questions, methods and outcome measures’, transforming scientific identities in the process (De Jonge Akademie 2015). As so many researchers are trying to find out how to go from mono- to multi- and interdisciplinary research, it is necessary to share experiences and insights to prevent all of us from unnecessarily reinventing the wheel. In this blog, I want to do just that. Sharing my personal experience and viewpoints, means n=1 and that the perspective is inherently subjective. In the social sciences, such results would not merit much attention. But sharing and comparing experiences will help other researchers that conduct multi- or interdisciplinary research to find the way forward.

My PhD research in the field of political history, which addressed what constituted ‘good politics’ in the eyes of Dutch Members of Parliament (Tweede Kamerleden) in the period 1866-1940, was almost completely monodisciplinary in character. At the same time, a multidisciplinary approach came naturally to the topic. When looking at the development of written and unwritten political rules in this historical period, neglecting insights from the field of constitutional law would have meant putting blinkers on, as up until the turn of the 20th century constitutional law and parliamentary politics were strongly intertwined. In my PhD research, I used mainly theoretical insights from constitutional law (both modern and from the historical period itself), political science, and sociology in order to get a grasp on the development and meaning of parliamentary rules and conventions. I also belong to the group of political historians who believe that cooperation with political scientists might ask efforts from both sides, but is necessary and worthwhile (on the topic, see the inaugural lecture of Wim van Meurs, Never mind the gap). After my PhD, while working in the national public administration, I learned in practice how different (political or policy) perspectives can collide as well as reinforce each other, and how finding a solution can be both strenuous and straightforward. I therefore welcomed the opportunity to participate in a multidisciplinary project in which I could also use my practical experiences.

In 2017, the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance of Utrecht University started an ambitious multidisciplinary research program, called Resilient Societies. It consists of nine projects, carried out by nine postdoctoral researchers in cooperation with different scholars from the three departments that form the Faculty. My postdoctoral research, on responsive governance, is part of a subprogram on Resilient Rule of Law. Although the goal was to ‘only’ perform multidisciplinary research, I have experienced the following three challenges that are often connected with doing interdisciplinary research: (1) how to balance between disciplines; (2) connecting different academic discourses; and (3)  time investment.

The first challenge is how to find a balance between disciplines. In discussions on interdisciplinary research and especially interdisciplinary education, it is often stated that a firm monodisciplinary base is needed, before you can (or should) broaden your knowledge to other disciplines. I wholeheartedly agree: we can only build bridges between disciplines when scholars have a firm disciplinary base. This might seem counter-intuitive, but to relate to another perspective you need a point of departure with which the insights of other disciplines can be compared. Otherwise the risk is to get adrift, to lose one’s point of reference, and in that way make interdisciplinary research even more time consuming than it already is. Over the last year, I have sometimes felt like I was drifting between disciplines – I might have left my own disciplinary island, but have not yet found new dry land. Using another metaphor, that of the T-shaped professional (see Elaine Maks inaugural lecture on the T-shaped lawyer), in this case the T-shaped scientist, broadening before deepening means the danger of becoming top-heavy. Due to the physical shape of the T, there seems no risk of tilting or falling over – but the experienced weight can be too much. However, the fact that a firm disciplinary base is needed, does not mean that for multi- and interdisciplinary research to be successful, participants are at the same time required to look across the borders of their own discipline. Humor and a sense of perspective are also needed.

Secondly, an important question is to which academic discourse or debate interdisciplinary research must connect. This is a more fundamental issue than the question “where to publish?” The goal of interdisciplinary research is to bring the scientific debate further, going beyond monodisciplinary discourses and academic debates. But at the same time, you cannot bring a debate further if you do not relate to it. The challenge is how to reach a certain amount of depth in interdisciplinary research to be able to connect to a debate (or rather, multiple debates), bringing it further along and potentially transforming it. The primary value of interdisciplinary research lies in combining or integrating different scientific views. The risk, however, is that this integrated view only scratches the surface of a topic and does not reach an adequate amount of scientific depth. Moreover, something that is a complex issue in society does not become easier if you research it from an interdisciplinary angle. On the contrary, the question of the relative importance of different elements or insights becomes even more difficult to deal with. In the context of my own research, the enormous normative weight and fundamental and principled character of the rechtsstaat (rule of law) makes it very hard to transcend the legal debate. At the same time it is essential to transcend that debate, if we want to research the challenges that the rechtsstaat faces (that are often of a non-legal nature), and avoid that the rechtsstaat becomes seen as something for lawyers, and as an obstacle rather than an asset.

In the third place, for the reasons stated above, interdisciplinary research is very time consuming. It takes time to understand concepts, theories or methodologies and to know which academics are the leading ones in a field. This makes interdisciplinary research very much a team effort, and even then a slow effort. It also takes time to understand each other, and then some more time to bridge the gaps between the disciplines, which sometimes might even be a step too far. The fact that interdisciplinary research is time consuming is not a problem in itself – that comes with the territory. It does mean that when starting an interdisciplinary project, it is important to make sure that the objectives are clear and the conditions good.

As a last point, I would like to give some suggestions, that can make both multi- and interdisciplinary research easier:

  • Start working from a concrete problem or specific topic, rather than starting at the theoretical or conceptual level or tackling a broad topic. Even concepts that are widely used in the social sciences and also in law such as norms or institutions, have different meanings in different disciplines and refer to different things. Bottom-up is easier than top-down.
  • Think about the level of symbiosis you want to attain. Are insights to be combined (to prevent blind spots and deepen conclusions) or is the ambition to integrate them?
  • Accept that the process might be like the dancing procession of Echternach: taking three steps forward, and two back again.
  • Make it a team effort!
  • Share experiences, the good ones and the bad.