Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Perils of Interdisciplinarity

Some of the most engaging research topics today lie firmly on the boundaries between two or more distinct subjects. Research into consciousness encompasses philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and others; questions about how human behaviour in economic situations seem to be answerable (in part) by psychology, economics, and sociology; research into robotics is aided by computer science, physics and some branches of psychology. Whilst those three choices are - unsurprisingly - ones that interest me in particular, I do not think I am stretching the truth in saying that interdisciplinary topics are hot topics (consciousness, in particular, is particularly popular – a quick Google search informs me that twenty thousand scholarly papers and books on consciousness have been published this year alone); yet just because they are popular topics, we shouldn’t expect them to be easy topics.

Interdisciplinary work is, indeed, fraught with difficulties, solely by virtue of its interdisciplinarity. At the very least, a researcher attempting to straddle two distinct fields has the not-so-simple task of keeping up with research in two subjects simultaneously. Of course, having to keep up with contemporary research is a problem for any scientist or academic, not just those interested in interdisciplinary topics, so this is hardly a difficulty unique to interdisciplinarians. There are two special problems to be overcome when attempting to do such research, however.

The first is a language gap. Quite simply, different subjects require different vocabularies, and it is not often clear to researchers trying to inhabit multiple fields that these different vocabularies exist. My own personal experience with this involves what, by all means, should be a fairly trivial term – the word “paradigm”. In philosophy, the term was introduced by Thomas Kuhn in his work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to denote a set of scientific assumptions. Kuhn argued that the history of science showed that, in any given scientific subject, one paradigm tended to dominate at any given time, until a sufficient amount of evidence contradictory to that paradigm’s assumptions had built up; at that point, a paradigm shift would occur, and a new paradigm would come to dominate the field. The history of psychology is a good example (although I believe Kuhn did not wish to grant psychology full scientific status); the Freudian, psychoanalytic paradigm shifted to the behaviourist paradigm, which shifted to the cognitive paradigm, which – arguably – has shifted to one of a number of possible post-cognitive paradigms. And so the process, if we wish to agree with Kuhn’s description, will continue. This is the standard definition of “paradigm” in philosophy, and particularly philosophy of science (with apologies if my description of Kuhn’s theory is somewhat vague – when it comes to the philosophy of science, I’m more familiar with Popper’s theories).

In psychology and related behavioural sciences, the word “paradigm” has a far simpler meaning – it refers to an experimental design or procedure. So a study such as Bechara, Damasio, Damasio and Anderson’s Insensitivity to future consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex would be described as using (and, in Bechara et al.’s case, developing) the Iowa Gambling Task as a paradigm. Pretty simple, but still a minor stumbling block for a philosophy student attempting to branch into psychology – the first time I recall a professor asking me what my paradigm was, I froze; “… the cognitive one?” This answer was not particularly well received.

Yes, a large part of this entry is – in essence – venting about my own hesitation and failure to pick up multiple meanings within the subjects I study. But I am not the only researcher to encounter linguistic difficulties in cross-discipline work. George Loewenstein, a behavioural economist, notes the following in an introduction to his paper The fall and rise of psychological explanations in the economics of intertemporal choice;

“Unlike the other chapters in this book, this paper never appeared in a refereed journal, and not for lack of trying. I think part of the reason that it kept getting rejected at journals was that I missed some of the stylistic elements of papers on the history of economic thought. Subtle, and to my view generally arbitrary, stylistic differences across fields constitute one of the most impenetrable barriers to interdisciplinary work. Like regional dialects, each discipline and even subdiscipline has its own myriad unwritten rules of discourse; violate any one of them and you’re instantly branded an outsider deserving of extra scrutiny and scepticism.” (Loewenstein, 2007, p. 55)

Although my experience is limited, I can’t help but agree with Loewenstein. Whether the “regional dialects” of sub-disciplines are as pronounced as those of separate disciplines, I am uncertain; there is, perhaps, a good argument to be made that they are. Analytic and continental philosophers frequently talk past one another (when they bother to talk with one another at all), and, within psychology, the same could perhaps be said of behaviour analysts (who still adhere to the tenets of methodological behaviorism) and cognitive psychologists.

The second problem I want to discuss is, although less concrete than the first, more significant. Quite simply; who cares about the interdisciplinary work? This problem is summed up succinctly by the following passage, taken from Nick Chater’s review of Patricia and Paul Churchlands’ book, On the Contrary;

“In weaving together threads from philosophy of mind and science with current developments in cognitive science and neuroscience, the question may arise: whose questions are being answered; and according to whose criteria? Nose-to-the-grindstone neuroscientists are likely to find much of the discussion of abstract theoretical and philosophical questions remote from their concerns; whereas philosophers may wonder just how relevant specific discussions of putative computational architectures of the brain are to traditional philosophical concerns. This is inevitable in interdisciplinary work of this kind; and such work provides a stimulus for those in different disciplines to perceive and develop links between disparate areas. Nonetheless, different readers will have very different biases and concerns in reading these essays, purely as a matter of disciplinary background.” (Chater, 2000, p. 616)

Chater seems optimistic that interdisciplinary work will encourage those from particular backgrounds to broaden their own viewpoint. Perhaps this may be the case. I think it possible, however, that those with a particular background will be dismissive of those from other subjects and their quirks; certainly, I have heard many psychologists bemoan the inflexibility of economists when it comes to altering their views on how humans conform to rational norms (in the psychologists’ view - humans don’t), and many philosophers complain that psychologists and neuroscientists just aren’t talking about the right thing when discussing consciousness. There is an all too frequent tendency - when confronted with someone from another field trying to broach a shared topic - for a researcher to say “Well, that’s very interesting, but they’re missing the point. They’re not looking at what’s really interesting/important/tractable about this subject.”

I certainly do not wish to claim that such a tendency is overwhelmingly common. It is, however, another obstacle in the way of interdisciplinary research; one that should not (and, I hope, will not) daunt those interested in such areas, but one that they should certainly note the existence of.

What possible remedies for these two problems? It’s difficult to say. Linguistic differences across fields can, to a certain degree, be diminished by a researcher immersing themselves in both communities (although, apparently, even a dedicated interdisciplinarian like Loewenstein encounters some difficulties). Making researchers in other fields care about the perspective offered by your own is trickier; perhaps the best one can hope for is that at least some will find interest in your data, theories and arguments – although, once again, becoming a part of both communities certainly helps with the matter. Making sure that the perspectives your field offers are genuinely novel and illuminating with regards to a certain difficult topic is, I believe, the best method to engender progress. Such a task is not necessarily easy; but what interdisciplinary work is?


Bechara, A., Damasio, A.R., Damasio, H. & Anderson, S.W. (1994), Insensitivity to future consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex, Cognition, 50, pp. 7-15

Chater, N. (2000). Contrary views: A review of "On the contrary" by Paul and Patricia Churchland. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 31, 615-627.

Kuhn, T.S. (1962)
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Loewenstein, G. (2007).
Exotic Preferences: Behavioural Economics and Human Motivation, Oxford, England, Oxford University Press

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