Interdisciplinary research is on the rise and is itself increasingly a topic of discussion and study. At this year’s Association for Psychological Science (APS) annual conference, for instance, Situationist Contributors Geoff Cohen and Jon Hanson participated in a symposium titled “Psychology as a Hub Science II: Navigating Early Career Interdisciplinary Collaboration.”
In the last issue of APS’s Observer, Eric Jaffe has a terrific article, titled “Crossing Boundaries: The Growing Enterprise of Interdisciplinary Research.” Here’s the introduction.
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Anyone who followed this past election season — and, considering the voter turnout records, that’s pretty much everyone — no doubt grew familiar with, and likely a bit tired of, each candidate’s avowed mission of “reaching across the aisle.” Almost immediately upon winning the presidency, Barack Obama set out to do just that, inviting a handful of Republicans to a Super Bowl party. Still he was able to rally only meager cross-party support for his historic stimulus bill, failing, in some eyes, to validate his call for a bipartisan era — which in turn prompted The New Yorker to point out that eight days in office was, after all, “a tight schedule for era-delivering.”
In the sciences, the era of interdisciplinary study has been delivering for some time. The past 50 years have seen researchers engaged in their own version of aisle reaching, extending a hand or a methodology or a graduate student across campus and, in some cases, across the globe, to advance some form of basic understanding. A recent National Academy of Sciences committee, charged with summarizing the state of scientific study across disciplines, reeled off an impressive list of achievements, from genome sequencing to neuroimaging to the Manhattan Project.
Psychologists have not been strangers to this trend. Rather, they have been in the vanguard, according to a paper published in Science (Wuchty, 2007). In the second half of the 20th century, the average size of a psychology research team increased 75 percent — the top rate of increase among social sciences.
As research teams have expanded, their composition has diversified. Economists and political scientists, in particular, have teamed with psychologists at a progressive rate, the Science authors found. More importantly, the citation impact of these larger teams seems to have increased with their added size and breadth. This heightened influence holds true even when adjusting for the increase in self-citation that comes with a greater number of researchers per study.
New fields have already begun to emerge from these meetings of minds—neuroscience, political psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology, to name a handful. Such instances distinguish true interdisciplinary work from multi-disciplinary efforts, which, as APS Past President John Cacioppo pointed out in a previous Observer column, require “only that one share an established procedure with an investigator in another field.” Ideally, interdisciplinary collaborations lead to more than a parlor game of pass the procedure. They don’t just shift eyes onto the question at hand; they ask completely new questions. The goal here, it would seem, is not to reach across the aisle, but rather to eliminate it.
Still, despite their head start over the Aisle Reacher-in-Chief, collaborative scientists also face many challenges when it comes to working outside their comfort zone. An additional workload, communication breakdowns, and tenure-track requirements are some the interdisciplinary scientist’s heaviest burdens. But most consider the evolution of psychology well worth the growing pains. “When psychology departments were forming, it was experimental, social, clinical, developmental — as if any one of these things can be studied independent of the other,” says APS Fellow and Past Board Member Elizabeth Phelps, who is part of the interdisciplinary Center for Neuroeconomics at New York University, of the way psychology operated up through the first half of the 20th century. “I think we had divided up how we understand human behavior. “I see a lot of those barriers starting to be broken.”
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Jaffe’s fascinating article is just getting warmed up. To read it in its entirety and learn more about some of the triumphs and pitfalls of interdisciplinary research, click here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Quick Introduction to Experimental (Situationist?) Philosophy” and “Behavioral Economics and Policy.”