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From bridges to building sites: facilitating interdisciplinarity in the arts & humanities

by Geoffrey Crossick

A version of this article was given as a presentation at the SHAPE-ID panel session at Vitae Connections Week 2020, on 17 September 2020.

I’ve been around the leadership of research councils and universities for long enough to have learned that there is something of the motherhood and apple pie syndrome when we talk about interdisciplinarity. It is so obviously a good thing, it seems, that the problems it faces must be because there are barriers put in its way. So, when SHAPE-ID invited me to speak on a panel it was putting together for the Connections Week organised by Vitae, the organisation that works to support the professional development of researchers, I took it as a call to be challenging.

I raised just three themes that emerged from my experience of research and university management, and my advocacy for the arts and humanities. First, we talk too much about the arts and humanities engaging in interdisciplinary research with science and technology disciplines and far too little about research collaboration within the arts and humanities themselves. Second, we need to reflect on the implications for interdisciplinarity of the relatively slow way in which team-based research has emerged in the arts and humanities. Finally, I asked whether creating new institutional structures is the best way to overcome the barriers that seem to inhibit interdisciplinary research.

Why does so much of the case for the place of the arts and humanities in interdisciplinary research present it as a support for STEM-led thematic projects, arguing that you cannot research the big challenges such as climate change, artificial intelligence or the coronavirus pandemic without what arts and humanities can bring to the table? The argument is correct, of course it is, but the fundamental importance of arts and humanities research can get lost to view when we concentrate our attention on projects that have been constructed elsewhere. Who defines the problem determines how it is addressed, and it would be interesting to ask what would happen if a large cross-disciplinary research initiative on climate change or artificial intelligence were to be led by arts and humanities researchers rather than their joining in a supportive role once the project has been shaped. It wouldn’t be better or worse if they led while thematic work packages from STEM or social science disciplines had to fit into a project shaped by the arts and humanities. It would simply be different and would generate different knowledge and ways of understanding.

As far as these big global challenges are concerned, we surely must distinguish between bottom-up interdisciplinary research that happens when disciplinary specialists respond to their own individual and collaborative imperatives, and top-down interdisciplinary research that is established by policymakers and funders to handle pressing societal issues. The intellectual drive through the former is often the most compelling, and without the bottom-up research there wouldn’t be the knowledge platform from which to address these big challenges. I was struck by a survey of 1100 Danish humanities researchers of whom only 11 per cent said that mission-oriented research programmes motivated them to engage in interdisciplinary projects, whereas 82 per cent said that for them interdisciplinary collaborations started from the bottom up, with researchers reaching out to collaborators from other disciplines as they worked to address complex problems. [1]

The implications for research policy and management must be thought about within the arts and humanities rather than just urging for them to be included in STEM-led programmes. One dimension is the risks associated with interdisciplinary research, not just the greater risk of failure (itself a contested concept) but also the risk to careers. There is quite properly much talk of facilitating interdisciplinary career paths, especially managing the risks facing early career researchers. In seeking to do this we should distinguish between disciplinary specialists involved in interdisciplinary work with those from other arts and humanities disciplines and the much smaller numbers of those who build their careers primarily within interdisciplinary research. The institutional needs of each may not be the same, especially so for early career researchers. Whichever of these we’re thinking about, however, let’s talk less about collaboration with STEM disciplines, which is not improper but is the easy case to make, and talk instead about how arts and humanities researchers can embark on projects together because that enhances the distinctive knowledge base of the arts and humanities.

Let’s also uncouple the arts from the humanities in our conversations about this. I’ve read over the years a good number of reports on interdisciplinarity and have been struck by the absence of any consideration of the creative and performing arts. In academic, policy and advocacy discourse the arts and humanities are forever hitched together as a single entity, but an entity that generally means the humanities. Except, of course, when the creative industries need to be evoked to demonstrate economic benefit. The arts are in even greater danger of being employed by other disciplines for their ability to communicate research results to wider publics. For some years I reviewed applications to the Leverhulme Trust’s Artist in Residence Scheme. Many of the applications were from science researchers planning to host an artist to help them present their results beyond the confines of academic journals, whereas for me the most exciting proposals did not make the artist a support for the scientific researchers but a co-researcher who challenged them to think in different ways. In neglecting the creative and performing arts, we are also missing how they have themselves developed in interdisciplinary directions more than have the humanities in the last decade. This is in part through interdisciplinary arts practice but inevitably also in practice-based research. The distinctive character of arts-based research knowledge is something the humanities are still struggling to embrace, which is one reason for their absence from debates about interdisciplinarity.

The second of my themes is the implications of the very slow growth of team-based research in the arts and humanities compared with the sciences. Reaching out to other disciplines has long been part of humanities research, but this mostly involved an individual themselves mastering or at least engaging with another discipline within the humanities or social sciences. The team-based research that helps work across disciplines was slow to grow, and when it did it was mostly driven by the availability of large-scale external project funding. Developing that capacity was one of the objectives of the Arts & Humanities Research Council established in the UK in 2005.

The slow way team-based research has emerged in the arts and humanities sets it apart from most STEM disciplines, where serious research can only be carried out in structured groups. This has powerful implications for the de-risking of interdisciplinary career paths. Where team-based research is the norm, irrespective of whether that is within or across disciplines, universities and research funders have less problems in understanding the contributions different members of a team make to a project’s success, not least its multi-authored publications. Not so in the arts and humanities where the dominant model is still that of the individual researcher. When deciding about an appointment or a promotion, how does a panel (even one made up of arts and humanities academics) compare a scholar with sole-authored publications with another who has her name on a much larger number of multi-authored ones? Yet in such competitive settings comparison is necessary. As long ago as 2010, Blackwell et al reported on how younger interdisciplinary researchers in the UK felt that without a strong and clear disciplinary base they would face problems developing careers. [2] Has anything much happened to improve the situation over the decade that has followed?

These work groups and teams in STEM disciplines are, of course, not democratic groupings but have their own structures of status and authority. With all the inevitable problems that go with authority structures of this kind, that is how they focus on delivering their objectives. What happens, as is largely the case in the arts and humanities, when the team that is brought together doesn’t have an inbuilt hierarchical structure but has members who are genuinely equal collaborators? This is a culturally-rooted but deeply pragmatic challenge, one that we need to understand better if we’re looking for ways to make it work. Indeed, we need research on how interdisciplinary teams actually function: not the grand theory nor the prosaic institutional structures, but rather the study from ethnography, linguistics, epistemology and elsewhere of what is actually going on in interdisciplinary teams. This isn’t about communication but about different kinds of knowledge and the different kinds of practice that need to be nurtured. We must see these differences as key benefits that are brought to the table rather than problems to be overcome.

This leads me to barriers and institutions, which constitute my third and final theme. University structures and management systems can certainly inhibit interdisciplinarity: departmental structures, resource allocation models, appointment and promotion systems and so on. We can nonetheless focus too much on them, imagining somehow that arts and humanities academics are champing at the bit to support and reward interdisciplinarity only for institutional management structures to thwart them. I’ve seen through my encounters with university promotion systems and research council funding processes that the conservatism of disciplinary academics is often a real obstacle to supporting interdisciplinary researchers. I’m not sure that a cadre of interdisciplinary assessors such as will operate in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework is itself the answer, not least because of the danger of reifying interdisciplinarity, but it is certainly a recognition of the problem.

I’m wary of solutions that put new structures in place, as if interdisciplinary research was a thing rather than a process. We’ve seen interdisciplinary engagement turn into new disciplines or sub-disciplines: for example, cultural studies, medical humanities, behavioural economics. When invited to speak at a policy conference in Vienna about research institutes [3] I learned that over a 50-year period Austria had established some 600 research institutes outside the university system, many of them interdisciplinary. Each of these was frozen in the groupings of disciplines fashionable when it was set up and they became less and less relevant over time. Flexibility is an essential part of facilitating interdisciplinarity that institutions must learn to cultivate.

An early career researcher once told me that she knew in her own university the metaphorical bridge that led from her department to the one where she’d find relevant collaborators. But, she said, she didn’t want a bridge but to stumble through a building site finding collaborators almost by chance. How do universities facilitate a framework for serendipity, an environment in which interdisciplinary opportunities can flourish? In a context where funding and policy militate towards the short- to medium-term, how can universities focus on the longer-term environment in which research cultures and behaviours are shaped and in which they can flourish? My remarks were offered to an event attended mostly by research development professionals from universities, and I concluded by suggesting that they had a major role to play. They could from their faculty or university offices target disciplinary opportunities but interdisciplinarity might need a matrix structure, one that embeds them in big research areas as well as in their institutional offices, to enable them to play the role of linking disciplines that is needed. Not quite facilitating serendipity, but as close as we can reasonably expect an institution to get.

[1] David Budtz Pedersen, ‘Integrating social sciences and humanities in interdisciplinary research’, Palgrave Communications, 2016, https://www.nature.com/articles/palcomms201636

[2] Alan Blackwell, Lee Wilson, Charles Boulton & John Knell, Creating value across boundaries. Maximising the return from interdisciplinary innovation. NESTA Research Report May 2010 https://media.nesta.org.uk/documents/creating_value_across_boundaries.pdf

[3] Österreichische Wissenschaftsrat, Kooperation und/oder Wettbewerb Zum Verhältnis von universitärer und außeruniversitärer Forschung, Vienna 2010 https://www.wissenschaftsrat.ac.at/downloads/Konferenzb%C3%A4nde/Endversion_Publikation_Kooperation_Wettbewerb.pdf

Geoffrey Crossick is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is an urban social historian of modern Britain and continental Europe. He was Director of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council’s major Cultural Value Project whose report was published in 2016 and has attracted considerable international attention. His previous roles include Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, Warden of Goldsmiths, and Chief Executive of the former Arts & Humanities Research Board, taking it through to its establishment as a full research council

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