By Kayt Button
When we think about historical research, it is easy to picture someone trapped behind piles of dusty literature and papers, getting lost in the minutiae of their chosen subject. After all, years of study of history have preceded their final, chosen, specialised subject of “The Pig War of 1859”!
However, the intervention of additional expertise could make a wider understanding of “The Pig War of 1859” much more relevant. It would not just be pertinent for scholars today, but also applicable to policy influencers, and useful to military strategists to learn from the experiences of those who were present at “The Pig War”.
There seems to be an increased appetite for the idea of bringing together experts from diverse fields of research and from different countries and cultures, crossing both subjects and national borders.
Terms such as:
- International collaboration,
are used to encompass sharing ideas, theories, and methodologies of different disciplines in new ways.
So the question arises, what do these terms mean (and do they actually mean anything?)?
Firstly, they do have different implications, although in practice they may well be used interchangeably, depending on the researchers and research being undertaken. Cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary both refer to a situation where different disciplines discuss and collaborate on their outputs but there is no significant crossover of theories and epistemologies. Interdisciplinary indicates that there is a more integrated approach of theories and methodologies and a shared experience of research. Transdisciplinary is when this new way of working becomes a whole new discipline in its own right, leading to ever-increasingly long titles such as “Bio-psycho-socio-enviro-spiritual” or “Socio-eco-techno.”
My own viewpoint is that interdisciplinary work is important, and should be valued and encouraged. It inspires collaboration across disciplines that might be able to solve questions raised by other subjects. My own background is accidentally multidisciplinary. As an undergraduate I studied “Rural Resource Science” which was primarily environmental science with agriculture. My first postgraduate qualification was in molecular and cellular biology. Then, through a series of misadventures I found myself studying a further postgraduate degree in Geographic Information Systems (G.I.S) and becoming a geodemographic consultant. These seemingly diverse subjects would appear to have little in common. However, I realised that applying GIS to the micro systems I had been working on could be very advantageous both for the methodology and output of microbiologists. G.I.S. is now used across a range of microbiological studies (the results of a google search for examples can be found HERE)
Now, a good few years after my undergraduate degree, I have become an “historian-in-training” studying the environmental impact of the national grid, looking to unravel its technological, environmental, social, economic, cultural and political aspects and how it has affected our lives. All of my previous training is proving useful to me: I use G.I.S. to map the grid at various scales, consider its environmental impact at all scales, and collect people’s stories of their first encounters with electricity. Who knows? It might create a discipline all of its own and I can call it…