post provided by Jane Johnson, PhD student

Supported by the Wellcome Trust, the workshop The Practice, Benefits and Challenges of Interdisciplinarity hosted by the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University was hugely thought provoking. Having read a literature review on the subject plus the recommended pre-course texts, I was somewhat relieved by Callard and Fitzgerald’s comment that interdisciplinarity is …. ‘a term that everyone invokes and none understands’ (1). So why was I here? I was here because going by one definition, my PhD did seem to fall into this category of research:

 ‘…[interdisciplinarity] involves teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance a fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline’ (2).

My PhD involves myself and the Director of Studies, both from the School of Health and Social Care, a senior lecturer from the School of Computing, a professor of psychology from the School of Social Sciences, Business and Law, plus a Director of Research from the Anglo European College of Chiropractic; input has been necessary from a patenting specialist. Together we are hoping to solve a problem that cannot easily be solved using one discipline alone, that of creating an app to capture data about the posture of people with back and neck pain. Whether what I was doing was multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary, I welcomed the opportunity to explore how best to maximise the potential of this collaborative approach.

mapstormingWe began by hearing five postgraduate researchers describing how interdisciplinary research had shaped their work then all delegates engaged in a highly interactive activity themed, ‘the archipelego’. Asked to consider how we defined our disciplines using the metaphor of a map, it was interesting to discover that whilst myself (physiotherapy), Professor Jane Macnaughton (medicine), Andrew Rathbone (pharmacy) and Samuel Azubuike (public health) defined our disciplines in terms of codes of mapmakingconduct and a sense of rigidity, specialties such as anthropology, theology, sociology, history and english defined themselves according to the methodologies they employed. This in itself was telling.

Tasked with thinking about how we communicated with other disciplines put me in mind of the recent European Chiropractic Congress Conference in Oslo where the theme of the event had been ‘building bridges’. Interestingly, during the archipelago process, attendees did not restrict themselves to one metaphorical mode of communication and also created roads, jettys, airports, and even a rather impressive tidal causeway. It was fascinating to hear how people envisioned their particular niches. I overheard the medical historian say, “the only way you can get to me is through death” whilst another commented on the fact that all of the adhesive arrows we were using to signify links seemed to point ‘to’ medicine rather than away from it.

At the end of the workshop I enjoyed being invited to reflect on this process. Three things came to mind. The first, Sir Ken Robinson speaking on the topic of passion, in which he describes how life is not linear but serendipitous (3). The second, how exploring the concept of interdisciplinary research seemed to me to be akin to trying to nail mist to a wall. To understand mist, one has to observe it moving freely; to contain it is to alter its pattern of movement. I enjoyed the meandering between different researchers and exchanging conversations at coffee breaks, the way I imagine molecules within a gas cloud map2moving and expanding, gently finding their way. This workshop provided just the right amount of containment to provide a kind of facilitated serendipity, a contradiction in terms I know. But maybe in order to engage in interdisciplinary research one has to be permitted to meander, to make serendipitous connections with other researchers, their thoughts and methods? My third thought was that, rather scarily, three of the five maps we had created seemed to have incorporated pirates, or skeleton, skull and crossbone images. I felt the title of a paper coming on: Does interdisciplinarity involve piracy and death?



(1) Callard, F. and Fitzgerald, D., 2015. Rethinking interdisciplinarity across the social sciences and neurosciences. Palgrave Macmillan. P.4
(2) Cited in Mansilla, V., Lamont, M. and Sato, K., 2015. Shared Cognitive–Emotional–Interactional Platforms: Markers and Conditions for Successful Interdisciplinary Collaborations. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 1-42
(3) School of Life & Passion – Ken Robinson – POWERFUL!!


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