Reflections on interdisciplinary working

Working at the boundaries of disciplines can be frustrating, but good things can also come out of it. My undergraduate degree was in Anthropology, with a specialisation in biological anthropology. I believe this training was incredibly relevant to public health, but anthropology is a discipline which is often viewed with suspicion or confused looks in my second field.

Now I find myself delving back in the anthropology literature for my public health PhD, I have learnt that it is a balancing act to please two disciplines at once. The biggest revelation for me is that it is practically impossible to please two diverse disciplines at the same time.

So 2 questions I keep in mind are:

  1. Who am I trying to convince?
  2. What is the usual way to frame an argument in that discipline?

Now the first point is just ‘who are you writing for’, which is good writing 101. However, the second point is one that I had never thought much about before this PhD. Anthropologist and public health academics do not write in the same way. The length, structure and evidence base are all different. It’s inevitable that the two disciplines will have some miscommunication when they are talking about the same thing. They might even have the same point of view and never really know; not because they can’t understand a different way of writing, but because it takes them that extra effort to do it, and so you have to be convinced it’s worth reading before you’ve even read it.

I suppose the way forward would be to firstly come up with an argument as to why that discipline or sector you are reaching out to should care. Each discipline has its own agenda and priorities, so if you can play to those you’ll probably have them listening. Once they’re listening, you want to keep their attention, so it makes sense to frame your arguments and evidence in a way that they are used to seeing.

I am very far from being an expert on interdisciplinary work, but one thing I have learned is that YOU have to make the effort to convince your chosen discipline(s) why working together is worth it. Within academia a lot of people seem to think it’s a good idea, but so few people seem to really have a go. What I do is only just about interdisciplinary, yet even I find myself wondering if by crossing two disciplines, I might end up alienating both. This issue especially comes up when thinking about examiners etc.

Working across disciplines is an effort within academia, yet I believe so much can be gained from viewing your work from an alternative perspective. Bringing together two (or more?) disciplines can put things into a wider context, help you focus in on the detail of something, or simply teach you a new method applicable to your own work. When the aim of your subject is to improve society (so, most), joining up the different (very detailed) dots seems like an important extra step that is rarely made.

So, how can this lesson from a PhD be applied more widely? As most readers will know, many public health solutions lie outside of the health sector. Transport, agriculture, economics, education, energy, local government; the list of health relevant areas could go on.

At a government level, my perception is that it can be difficult for other sectors to see the argument for why health should matter to them, because they are already busy dealing with their own issues. I imagine that like academic departments, government departments are actually quite siloed. Public health now routinely calculates economic costs to appeal to economists and treasury department, but there doesn’t seem to be any widespread use of this technique in other sectors. In areas where the link may not be so obvious, framing the argument in a way that sector is used to has to be a good start. Once each department/area/subject has convinced each other, it’s going to be a whole lot easier to convince a third-party.

Maybe we need a Department for Interdisciplinary Endeavours?

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