skip to Main Content

On the exhaustion of the interdisciplinary scholar

by Jennifer Edmond

A version of this post was given as a presentation at the SHAPE-ID Webinar “Pathways to Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences: Bridging the Research Policy Gap” on 25th June 2020.

I am an interdisciplinary scholar. And I am tired.

I am tired of having to constantly justify my choice of research questions, my methods and approaches, and the value of my work. Yes, I do think such conversations can be exciting, and make research richer and more integrated. But the fact that I have developed the perspective and vocabulary to see how two different things may fit together does not mean that I always want to be the one to take on the devalued emotional labour of explaining those connections. As a humanist working at the edge of technology and the social sciences, I have been told my work was far-fetched, bad social science, an ethnographic failure, and not technical enough. I have also had journals struggle to find reviewers for my work. Though my research was not always greeted with scholarly acclaim when I was working in a monodisciplinary context, at least the critique that I faced generally treated the sources and arguments being made on their own terms, rather than from a position of their lack or deficiency vis-à-vis other knowledge systems.

I am tired of having to produce multiple artifacts and bodies of supporting argument for my publications, promotions and grants. Different types of output are often needed to embed discoveries with multiple audiences, but then you are only halfway done. Interdisciplinary work is also generally required to provide some kind of narrative to explain how its component parts fit together, because working in the space between any two or more disciplines itself also requires certain specific skills. Because these bridging competencies are less well theorised and can vary between projects, their status generally overlooked. I was recently told by a representative of the European Commission that they struggled to find Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) evaluators for their collaborative research programmes. In an attempt to better understand this comment, I did a quick survey of my colleagues in Trinity College Dublin’s Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS). Of 65 responses I received to the question of whether my colleagues were registered as reviewers in the Commission’s expert database, just under half replied that they were, but only 5 had ever actually been called to review within the Societal Challenges calls. I was left to conclude that either interdisciplinary evaluators are like Schrödinger’s cat, both available and impossible to find, or what was really being looked for here was disciplinary expertise in an interdisciplinary cloak.

I am also tired of hearing people trumpet interdisciplinarity as a cure all, a source of innovation, the new oil, the new bacon, whatever. In general, these voices are not coming from people with real experience of forging and embedding work across the disciplines, and because of this, they tend to focus on specific shining examples of transformational work. I too marvel at what these scholars have achieved, but extolling their products, and not their processes, can misrepresent the real difficulties, the average rocky path toward interdisciplinarity, and indeed the lack of preparation most scholars receive to forge such pathways

And I am SO tired of being told I sound defensive. The impulse to speak first of why I do what I do, rather than what, comes not from a need to defend it, but to explain it, an almost Pavlovian, trained response to years of the first response to the mention of my field being the often emphatic question “What’s THAT?” I know the value of my research and practice, but the discipline is still the accepted norm, and interdisciplinary work therefore has to somehow be bent, again and again, to fit the language and values of the existing, accepted categories. This is not for a lack of effort to expand these categories. Starting with the 1990s work of Martha Nussbaum, to the manifestos and defenses and values statements of the 2000s, through to the more sector-focussed perspectives of recent years, it seems the case had been made so comprehensively that students and collaborators should be rushing to our doors with offers to collaborate. This however, does not yet seem to be the case.

Perhaps this body of work is too inwardly focussed? But in fact, industry too has been calling for increased integration of humanities skills: Slack’s Stewart Butterfield claimed that:

Studying philosophy taught me two things. I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down … I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true — like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces — until they realized that it wasn’t true.

Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker stated:

… without the humanities … we are intentionally building the next generation of technologists who have not even the framework or the education or vocabulary to think about the relationship of Stem to society or humans or life.

So maybe the problem is not one of understanding the value of the Arts and Humanities in an interdisciplinary context, but knowing how to integrate it, of understanding those bridging competencies I spoke of earlier? But, again, the evidence is all there already: Net4Society’s success stories series, reports from IHS Vienna, EASSH and LERU – even the European Commission’s own monitoring reports on SSH integration should have provided us by now with all the support we need to make a real and widespread contribution by the Arts and Humanities in interdisciplinary settings possible.

So yes, maybe I do feel defensive, not about the value of my work, but of the sheer volume of extra effort that seems to be required to scale the mountain of systematic biases set against it. As a woman in an academic field with a strong technical edge, I can tell you that nothing is so very galling as being excluded, marginalised or discounted, and then being told that pointing this out makes you sound defensive. Shall we instead remain on our pedestal of knowing our own value, confident, positive … and alone, unfunded, excluded?

My research in the Digital Humanities has sensitised me to the way in which unconscious biases can enter and inform a knowledge creation eco-system, hidden within the data that informs it, the processes it privileges, and the teams that work within it. Over time, these inputs can suffuse that ecosystem and sublimate into its values, coming to be viewed as somehow objective indicators of quality, rather than culturally determined norms.

The moment in which I am writing down these thoughts, against a background of international movements questioning the systemic disadvantages and privileges shaping the life experiences of so many people in so many countries, embodies, one might hope, the potential to forge more just, equal and diverse societies. But what of our research cultures?

So, just as a thought experiment, what if for a few moments we assume that we, the scholars seeking to reach out and forge interdisciplinary connections from the Arts and Humanities outward, are NOT the problem. What if we assume that instead, knowledge creation systems as we know them have been built in the image of the STEM disciplines, and that intrinsic values and hierarchies are the actual barrier to the greater meaningful integration of cultural and social perspectives into the very heart of research? What if we take on Budd Hall’s idea of historic ‘epistemicide’ [1] and of the need to recover and integrate traditions reaching beyond “western white male euro-centric science.” How would this strange world look different?

  1. First of all, interdisciplinarity would be the norm, not the exception. Networks of bridging vocabulary and practice would emerge to enable scholarly achievement in one discipline to be immediate and transparent to other, different ones. Disciplinary training would instill a fundamental respect for and understanding of other epistemic cultures, founded upon trust and curiosity, rather than ever deepening silos and disciplinary exceptionalism. Being monodisciplinary would become the strange anomaly, queried and probed, questioned and required to justify its position.
  1. Not only would funding not be so terribly skewed toward the sciences as it is today, but leadership in large scale, problem-based research initiatives would be as often within the hands of AHSS researchers as STEM. Investment in the intractable, difficult problems of culture, identity, and human fallibility would increase, as cultural fixes may be harder to deliver than technical ones, but that does not make them any less important.
  1. Evaluation of research proposals would explicitly address inclusion of the Arts and Humanities, and indeed the specific skillset that is interdisciplinarity.
  1. STEM researchers would be allies and champions for AHSS. It would be a part of their training, and they would be more than willing to see some of ‘their’ money going to support ‘our’ work for the many benefits strong, integrated AHSS could bring.
  1. Evaluation systems would be evolved enough to recognise interdisciplinary work on its own merits, rather than aligning it to the epistemic vocabulary of other disciplines.
  1. Finally, AHSS researchers themselves would step up to these challenges, training their students to see their work for its integrative potential, and rewarding colleagues whose research leads them to applied work as wholeheartedly as they do the basic traditions.

Unfortunately I think we are a long way from this utopian recognition and reversal of entrenched disciplinary privilege, and of course we do not want to lose all of the benefits of deep scholarship that the disciplines have provided. Furthermore, the liminality of interdisciplinary work is not all bad: having to query the foundations of our assumptions and the validity of our conclusions ties us firmly to the very foundations of scholarship. But such questioning should serve knowledge, not hierarchies. The unprecedented challenges of our globalised, technologised age will take every tool in our toolkit to manage, and it is in all of our interest to find ways to maximise the diversity and strength of our knowledge creation systems. We will, and must continue to spar and compare and critique, but this can only be effective when it starts from a parity of esteem between disciplines, and between disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches. In this respect, fighting is good: but just a little rest might be nice too.

[1] Hall BL. ‘Beyond Epistemicide: Knowledge Democracy and Higher Education1’ 2015. Preprint: Available at:

Jennifer Edmond is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at Trinity College Dublin where she is co-director of the Trinity Centre for Digital Humanities and a funded Investigator of the SFI ADAPT Centre.  Outside of Trinity, Jennifer serves as President of the Board of Directors of the pan-European research infrastructure for the arts and humanities, DARIAH-EU, and is a member of the European Commission’s Open Science Policy Platform (OSPP). Over the course of the past 10 years, Jennifer has coordinated or participated in a large number of significant inter- and transdisciplinary funded research projects, worth a total of almost €9m, including CENDARI (FP7), Europeana Cloud (FP7), NeDiMAH (ESF), PARTHENOS (H2020), KPLEX (H2020), PROVIDE-DH (CHSIT-ERA/IRC) and the SPECTRESS network (FP7).

Back To Top