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Pathways to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research for the arts and humanities

'Interdisciplinarity' by SynLLOER : FLICKR public domain.

When I tell people that SHAPE-ID, the research project I manage from the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute, focuses on improving the integration of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) into interdisciplinary research, two responses are common. The first is an enthusiastic affirmation of the importance of this aim. The second is the observation that we’ve been having this conversation for a long time now and seen little change. It’s true. We begin from a contradictory situation in which policy rhetoric promotes the virtues of more and better interdisciplinary research between the AHSS and other science and technology disciplines, yet disciplinary specialism remains the norm in practice – supported and rewarded in funding schemes, in publication spaces and in research career opportunities. Despite a plethora of reports, academic papers and recommendations over the years, and despite the availability of interesting resources like the td-net toolbox for doing transdisciplinary research (usually understood as interdisciplinary research that also includes non-academic stakeholders to address societal challenges), we find ourselves circling back to the core questions: why should we want to collaborate with other disciplines? How can we address some of the major problems our society faces today and the urgent need for AHSS leadership on these challenges, if not in partnership with others? How do we improve the ability of the AHSS to work alongside colleagues from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, as well as industry and civil society?

We should acknowledge that the current political reality presents the arts and humanities with far more pressing problems than simply not being adequately included in interdisciplinary funding calls. If the arts and humanities often sound defensive in restating their value it’s because they are under attack globally from reduced funding, programme closures and authoritarian regimes willing to silence dissenting voices. Interdisciplinary and collaborative research is not a solution to or escape from this greater threat but it is a path worth forging if we want to reframe political priorities and contribute to steering techno-scientific and economic development in another direction – one that has at its heart long-term thinking, critical analysis, creativity that isn’t reduced to its purported economic value, human dignity and respect for the beauty and diversity of the world we inhabit, not just its perceived utility.  

SHAPE-ID has been studying what can enable or obstruct interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research with AHSS leaders or partners, through our literature review, survey and stakeholder workshops across Europe. Top-down barriers – such as the absence of appropriate funding, a technocratic attitude towards societal challenges that implicitly discourages arts and humanities involvement in collaborative research and the predominance of disciplinary silos in higher education institutions, funding agencies and publishing – are well known. Funders have an important role to play in building capacity with programmes like the Irish Research Council’s COALESCE strand that funds interdisciplinary research led by an AHSS researcher with a STEM co-investigator; and there is much that higher education institutes need to do to de-risk interdisciplinary careers and to incentivise and recognise interdisciplinary research. But there are also steps researchers and educators themselves can take to begin to change the culture from the ground up.

Community: Most larger scale collaborations emerge from existing partnerships, which often begin informally or on a small scale, building on shared interests. It takes time to build the mutual respect and trust needed for successful collaboration. Start from the strength of your own disciplinary foundations and what you bring to understanding a subject, then reach out to colleagues addressing the same topic in other disciplines with an open mind and a willingness to listen, learn and explore the potential for collaboration. Similarly, the arts and humanities community needs to work to build relationships with policymakers and other societal actors, from citizens to industry, who should be partners in efforts to develop transdisciplinary research.

Capacity: Research leaders in the arts and humanities are well placed to introduce students and early career researchers to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches and ensure they have opportunities to learn with and from their peers and senior researchers in other disciplines and sectors. Education and training initiatives introduced locally can help build capacity in the next generation of researchers by cultivating curiosity, a collaborative ethos, reflexivity about the relationship between their scholarship and society, and the translational skills needed to communicate across traditional disciplinary and sectoral boundaries. I can think of some excellent examples from work colleagues in Ireland. Jennifer Edmond (Trinity Long Room Hub) has developed an interdisciplinary elective on ‘Thinking Digitally and Culturally’ for Trinity undergraduates, with Owen Conlan from the School of Computer Science and Statistics. Niamh NicGhabhann (current Chair of the IHA) has recently written for the SHAPE-ID blog about her experience of establishing undergraduate initiatives and a structured PhD programme in the Public Humanities at the University of Limerick, and why this is important for changing the culture. I’m sure there are many more fine examples and we need to make sure we share them widely.

Communication: Finally, there is still much work to be done in learning to communicate what it is that the arts and humanities do, what we excel in and why this is so badly needed. We need to learn to ask ourselves these questions and to craft stories about our research culture and community and we need to reach out with these messages to the public, to colleagues in other disciplines and to policymakers.

Trying to build pathways for interdisciplinary research involves more than a rhetorical defence of the value of the humanities. It involves considering in concrete ways how humanities disciplines can shape the research and policy agenda. Can we propose ‘missions’led by the humanities, and what might these look like? What roles are humanities researchers willing to play in collaborative research, and who defines those roles? To what extent can we or should we seek to redefine the terms on which the crises facing society today are discussed? Research addressing these challenges, including interdisciplinary research, will take place with or without the arts and humanities. We need to make sure we can be an integral part of those discussions and the conclusions they reach about what our lives will look like.

In SHAPE-ID workshops and webinars we’ve brought together researchers from across disciplinary divides, as well as funders, policymakers and representatives of industry, civil society and the cultural sector, to discuss how to build these pathways. It is heartening to see both the potential and desire these groups have to work together. The larger cultural and systematic changes needed can seem a long way off and we still need to continue to advocate for these at institutional level. SHAPE-ID has already published a Policy Brief and will publish a toolkit next summer which we hope will help navigate this terrain. But in the end it is the small steps we take individually and as a community that will get us there.

Published: 18 Nov 2020  Categories:

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Doireann Wallace is Research Project Manager of the SHAPE-ID Project, which is funded by the European Commission under its Horizon 2020 Framework Programme and led by Professor Jane Ohlmeyer at the Trinity Long Rom Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute. Her PhD research at Dublin Institute of Technology (2012) explored how online platforms were transforming photographic culture and communication. She has previously worked as a research funding officer, an instructional designer, an art critic and a lecturer in Photography and Visual Culture.