Rethinking Interdisciplinarity across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences by Felicity Callard & Des Fitzgerald (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
Where to begin when you decide to pursue an interdisciplinary research project? How do you put together an interdisciplinary working group? What kinds of difficulties should you expect to encounter? Where does the desire to engage in interdisciplinary work come from? These are some of the questions that today often remain unanswered in academic spaces that relentlessly promote the interdisciplinary savoir-faire as a necessary element of successful research. Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald address these issues and propose a rethinking of interdisciplinarity from the point of view of a researcher, or as a practice applied by certain people in certain circumstances.
Rethinking Interdisciplinarity is first and foremost the authors’ personal account of the experience of being (together or separately) part of various groups that brought together — among others — social scientists, humanities researchers and neuroscientists. However, it would be a mistake to describe it as simply a ‘report from the field’ (p. 6). The authors’ goal is not to present an instructional manual or an ultimate compendium, but to pull aside the curtain and reveal the backstage collaborative work in order to clarify the idea of interdisciplinarity that ‘everyone invokes and none understands’ (p. 4).
The discussion on the working conditions of an interdisciplinary group unfolds through a dialogue with classical and contemporary studies on the issues of interdisciplinarity. Combined with rigorous theoretical reflection, the attentive analysis of a real life experience reveals the modes of collaborative thinking and practice that characterise interdisciplinary projects (Chapters One to Four). In Chapter Five, in order to explain the specificity of interdisciplinary work, the authors develop the concept of choreography as a ‘highly elaborated’ convergence of different elements – ‘people, objects, ideas, technologies, and media’ (p. 80) – ‘through which those things are induced to relate to one another, as well as the habits and modes of comportment that, sometimes, prevent people from getting too close’ (p. 80). The notion of choreography allows, then, to give a ‘topologically sensitive account’ (p. 72) of the emergence of interdisciplinarity as the space where different elements that constitute the sense of belonging to a discipline come together.
In Chapter Six, while discussing the dynamics of power in study groups, research centres and the academic world more generally, Callard and Fitzgerald affirm that the widely accepted definition of interdisciplinarity as a scientific exchange based on the mutual partnership and the overcoming of inequalities should be seen as a ‘fantasy’ (p. 98). Some see in their scepticism about the benefits of mutuality a tendency to maintain the status quo and to adapt to the imbalance of power that favours some approaches over others — often neurosciences over social sciences or humanities (see notes). To this critique, the authors of Rethinking Interdisciplinarity react by radically distancing themselves from any apology of a blind subjugation of one group of researchers to another. Rather than justifying a kind of passive attitude, they promote a type of critical thinking that puts into question the general idea according to which reconciliation between different disciplines could be achieved only through a rational ‘frank dialogue’ (p. 105), thus challenging the assumption that successful scientific research can only be produced in a peaceful, conflict-free environment. They insist that this assumption misses the complex context of a given situation and, in particular, the very important emotional component of the relationship within a research group.
So, instead of seeing ‘interdisciplinary spaces […] as spaces characterized by the movement from epistemological confusion to reasoned […] clarity’ (p. 115) and thus trying to find an ‘epistemological resolution’ to existing tensions, the authors borrow Donna Haraway’s concept and propose considering the option of ‘staying with the trouble’ (p. 109). The last chapter focuses on this problem and proposes a positive vision of emotions, such as feeling disoriented or ‘fuzzy’ (p. 115), which are commonly felt by people in interdisciplinary projects. This vision of a collaborative practice promotes a new understanding of the way in which the interdisciplinary space could be inhabited in a more productive manner. Moreover, this vision leads to embracing the ‘being-in-common, that refuses the always-assumed bourgeois propriety of neighbourliness’ (p. 86) as it shows the necessity to replace the ideal of mutuality with the idea of a community that puts into question the existence of easily identifiable limits between different disciplines.
To define the collaborative practice as ‘actually refusing the boundaries in the first place’ (p. 45) raises, in my opinion, the question regarding the interest and desire to engage in an interdisciplinary project. While the authors repeatedly mention the ‘exhortation to interdisciplinarity’ (p. 97) in the academic milieu, they seem, however, to avoid the question of whether the desire to follow the logic of interdisciplinarity should be examined. Another important problem that appears to be ignored in the discussion of the power structure of collaborative research concerns gender or race inequalities. The issue of inequalities within university, which has been widely debated in recent years in academia, inevitably surfaces, in my view, once the question of the power dynamics within scientific research is raised. After all, as the authors rightly emphasize, this dynamics cannot be reduced to epistemological differences.
Rethinking Interdisciplinarity is a valuable resource for the medical humanities as it provides an insight into the challenges experienced (and confronted) by researchers in a diverse range of fields. By insisting that the sense of interdisciplinarity lies neither in a neutral zone ‘between’ the disciplines, nor in the reciprocal exchange of ideas, Callard and Fitzgerald emphasize that the input of humanities and social sciences should not be limited to analysis from outside of the medical sciences. It is rather by actively engaging in collaboration – in particular through training, participating in experiments and collective writing – that new perspectives and approaches will emerge. Carefully structured and easily accessible, Rethinking Interdisciplinarity is a worthwhile read for everyone involved in collaborative practice.
Reviewed by Svetlana Sholokhova, a scientific collaborator at the Catholic University of Louvain (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium) where she recently obtained her PhD in philosophy. Her research interests include philosophy of psychiatry, psychopathology and contemporary French philosophy, with a particular focus on phenomenology and its contribution to psychiatric theory and practice.
Correspondence to Dr Svetlana Sholokhova.
In particular, they reply to the critique made in Stavrianakis Anthony, Gaymond Bennett, Lyle Fearnley, and Paul Rabinow. 2014. ‘Confusion, Truth, and Bureaucracy: A reply to Fitzgerald and Callard.’ Somatosphere, December 9.