This is the second part of a two-part series summarising my notes and thoughts from a recent ANZAMEMS postgraduate workshop on interdisciplinary research. This part starts with some examples of areas/topics of study that cannot be approached without crossing disciplines (in terms of bodies of knowledge and/or specialist skillsets) and then lays out a practical six-stage heuristic for approaching interdisciplinary research. The first part of this series described the last two stages of this heuristic: Determining the parameters of your research project (disciplinary, temporal, linguistic etc.) and determining the skillsets you need to do the research (and where you can tap into these if you don’t have or plan to acquire them yourself).
So, day two of the workshop opened with a session by Stephen Clucas of Birkbeck, University of London, who talked about his research on John Dee’s MathematicallPraeface as a way to explore the question of ‘whose disciplines are we between?’ He started by asking whether, when we identify a domain to study in the past (e.g. the history of science, in his case), we are sure we’re equipped to recognise it in order to study it. As he pointed out, disciplines and divisions of knowledge that we now consider to be entirely demarcated and separate were often completely intermingled in medieval and early modern contexts. For example, early modern writers used a mixture of theology, medical knowledge and natural philosophy to explain the ‘soul’, while religious beliefs and outlooks were constitutive of the of the natural philosophy of people like Dee. Even when working with medieval or early modern disciplines that seem to map quite neatly to modern disciplinary equivalents, one still needs to understand the different ends and objects of that discipline in the past. (One example of this that has applied in my own work is the need to understand the very different ends and objects of judicial punishment in the medieval past, even if it is being administered within a legal framework of common law that is broadly similar to the modern system.)
After the scene was set with Dr Clucas' paper, Peter Anstey of Otago University presented a framework and practical guidelines for approaching this sort of research. The notes I took were weighted towards my own interests as a historian but I think this framework would be applicable across many disciplines. As I’m in the process of writing my PhD proposal at the moment, I also found it quite valuable for structuring my thinking as I work through the questions of scope, theoretical/ explanatory frameworks, sources and the practicalities of doing my research etc.
A six-stage heuristic for interdisciplinary research
1. Frame the research problem/issue
This needs to be very succinct and as clear as possible. A good way to start can be to set up a hypothesis and then go about identifying the evidence needed to prove or disprove it. (This is quite common for historical research.) At this point, it is important to be clear about what question(s) you’re asking but be aware that your hypothesis/question will most likely change as you start to examine the evidence and the research progresses.
2. Determine your philosophy of history
This element generated quite a lot of discussion amongst the attendees. Some of us are novice researchers (e.g. first year doctoral students) while others were more experienced ‘early career’ researchers who already had their PhDs and were working on post-doc projects, books etc. At first, the expectation of having a ‘philosophy of history’ kind of spooked me a bit, but it was reassuring to have Peter point out that as new researchers, we are forging our personal philosophies as we go along and they are probably quite immature and fragmented at this point, which is perfectly okay. ‘Philosophy of history’ turns out to be a pretty broad concept in this context, and could include things like Marxist, feminist, or postcolonial approaches, progressive history (seeing history as linear progress/advance over time), microhistory, and narrative history.
This question of philosophy of history interacts with the next element -
3. Identify your historiographical framework
This stage is aimed at understanding how your problem/issue is generally understood and taught, in terms of the major explanatory frameworks. Once you know what these are, you can then determine (in part, based on your own philosophy) whether you are working with or against them. Peter pointed out that for PhD students, this stage is most likely to involve simply articulating what the historiographical framework is, rather than coming up with new paradigms.
4. Settle on the genre of the project
For example, are you creating a PhD thesis? An article? An edited text or translation? This will determine things like the length of the project/finished product, the audience, authorial voice etc. This aspect kind of seems like common sense to me, but I have heard stories of PhD candidates turning up for the final defence and being told they need to cut 30,000 words from their thesis, completely alter the writing style to suit their committee, put the whole document into a new format/citation style etc. So I guess the key message here is to be clear up front, before you even start the work, what it is that you need to have produced at the end of it. (For PhD students, this would include things like studying your university’s regulations very closely to see exactly what is required of you, down to such minutiae as document margins and line spacing. Also, make sure you are clear on the citation style you need to use and use it from the start. It is way easier and less stressful to set that stuff up in your documents at the very beginning of the process than to have to change it at the end.)
Stages five and six were to set the project’s parameters (disciplinary, geographical, temporal, linguistic etc.) and to determine the skills set you require (either skills you need to have/acquire yourself, such as languages, or skills you need to tap into from other disciplines/departments). These two stages are quite detailed and were covered separately in part one of this series.
Thus endeth the lesson. I hope some of you find this useful!