Reflections on the Pufendorf IAS Symposium and workshops on interdisciplinarity

Pufendorfinstitutet symposium

On the 4th of May, The Pufendorf IAS organized a symposium on interdisciplinarity. International guests and Lund University researchers discussed issues concerning the boundaries of interdisciplinarity in practice and theory - focusing on the prerequisites, organisation, process and practice of collaborative crossboundary research. The symposium took place at Kulturen and gathered around 100 participants.

Henrik Thorén, researcher at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (together with Hanne Andersen, University of Copenhagen) led one of the two workshops focusing on communication and facilitation of dialogue  - arranged especially for Pufendorf IAS Themes and Advanced Studygroups - leading up to the Symposium on Interdisciplinarity on the 4th. He also took part in planning the  programs for the week and participated in all events. We asked him to reflect on the two workshops and the talks, and on Interdisciplinarity in general:

What are your thoughts on the workshops and symposium?

I thought the different talks in the symposium as well as the workshops were very inspiring and thought provoking. 
One issues discussed during the events that I found particularly interesting is the importance of, and the ways to create, a common understanding and a common” ground” when working in a interdisciplinary research project. 

What is your advice for researchers going in to an interdisciplinary collaboration and a research project?

I do think that researchers involved in interdisciplinary projects need to go into these collaborations reflectively. 

There are the kinds of advice, or recommendations, that are often given in this context such as to allow for plenty of time, and have patience, in working out and isolating points of contention and misunderstanding. That is all good, but usually does not take into account that often the challenge upon which the question is premised is precisely the lack of those favourable circumstances. 

There is a methodological aspect to interdisciplinary research where there is knowledge and research to draw from but it also helps, I would think anyway, to continually reflect at a fairly abstract level on one’s own preconceptions and ideas about what interdisciplinarity is and should and how those ideas are challenged and changed in contact with others.

What are the most important issues to discuss when working in an interdisciplinary research project? 

To me it seems that there are four aspects of interdisciplinary research projects. 

The first has to do with pragmatics and technical aspects of developing a way to communicate with one another and overcoming “simple” misunderstandings. This is challenging enough on its own.
The second aspect pertains to the theoretical, epistemological and conceptual basis of inquiry, and the problem or phenomenon that is focus of investigation. This is a complicated matter and there is not just one way to go about this. Integrative or unified approaches develop a new “integrated” framework from scratch, while others develop some way to control interactions, minimise conflict and divide the labour.

The third aspect revolves around the ends of interdisciplinary research, what counts as a positive outcome or a failure, and what an appropriate form of interdisciplinary research is (e.g. asymmetry or symmetry). Views on interdisciplinarity itself varies among disciplines, according to how those disciplines perceive themselves.

The fourth aspect has to do with the forming of epistemically grounded interdisciplinary networks. The way in which trust is placed and attributed over time in interdisciplinary collaborations may change. That is, first individuals are trusted simply because they are members of some discipline. Other collaborators cannot independently assess their academic credentials beyond the rudimentary counting of publications etc. But even that usually needs some contextualisation in order to make sense. As a project proceeds and social relations are formed among participants this may change. Participants, one suspects, become trusted collaborators due not merely to their disciplinary affiliations but also a range of other factors some of which have to do with their interdisciplinary acumen. If this is right, and the implication is indeed that mutual trust becomes more grounded and better, functioning interdisciplinary networks are valuable entities that should somehow be preserved. (This might already be the case, it least in part).


What do you think Lund University, and academia in general, should to do to support interdisciplinary research? 

In the traditional disciplines there is usually more suspicion towards interdisciplinary research. It is not rarely seen as with respect to its contents little more than a buzzword but with respect to its politics a clear and present danger—both to the hegemonic position of certain disciplines, but also to science as such. It represents a hollowing out of epistemic norms and values and a favouring of less rigorous research at the expense of more rigorous. What to do about that is hard to say. There is an internal communication problem maybe. Below that there more perplexing issues that are difficult to get across regarding the role of science in society more broadly, and for e.g. the values that go into pursuing some problems rather than others.

The Pufendorf Institute already does a fair bit to promote interdisciplinary research and by also supporting longer term projects that is definitely a step forward.

Even so we must continually work to identify and try to remove unnecessary institutional obstacles where those are present. Keeping some kind of dialogue going on interdisciplinarity, both in quite concrete terms and more abstractly, would probably be a good thing but there are challenges here in balancing top-down and bottom-up approaches.