I have magpie tendencies. I like draw on different fields to find ‘applicable stuff’. I have, for example, be known (as a qualified dance teacher) to use my dance moves to explain English-word collocations, drawing on the physical to aid the understanding of something abstract. I like to look at the ways ideas can be applied in non-traditional ways, not simply regarding them as belonging in a fixed place. This, I think, came from one of my MA tutors, who advised starting ‘with what you know and like’ as a means to choosing my dissertation topic – at the time I had just left a job working in a small, family-run cinema in Aberystwyth. I loved that job, not just the watching of the films for free (bonus!) but the atmosphere of the place, watching people’s interactions in the theatre etc. I also loved the history side of my degree, particularly social history. I connected the two, and ended up writing a dissertation about cinema-going in Britain and Ireland, 1945-50. When it came to PhD1, I needed to think around a bit to access material – the BBC didn’t really keep brilliant records regarding comedy/light entertainment so I had to utilise a lot of interviews. And interviews for historical studies required quite a bit of justifying (in terms of the benefits of the method). Moving to post-doc, I came into contact with more disciplinary crossovers, weaving in and out of history, television studies and performance and theatre studies, again using interviews to question actors about their past performances in documentary presentations. Taking a look back over all these experiences, I cannot imagine life boxed into one discipline – a good thing, then, that I am currently researching something that crosses health, sociology, therapy etc., also benefitting from the experiences of three supervisors from very varied disciplinary backgrounds, including Anthropology, Sociology and Social Gerontology. Call it ‘interdisciplinary’, ‘multidisciplinary’, ‘cross-disciplinary’, ‘transdisciplinary’ (Pisapia et al., 2015: 660-1) or whatever, despite fears of being less-fund-able or lacking because of poor REF status next to discipline-specific publications (Pisapia, et.al., 2015: 670), ‘it’ is, as far as I am concerned, a wonderful thing. Research that crosses borders, I maintain, is logical, allows innovation and the location of new ideas, injects fresh air into the endeavour, can lead to clearer explanations, promotes collaborative working relationships (which are certainly desired in the UK’s academic environment), and most importantly is just really interesting to do.
However, I must make one comment. Where I see a problem lying is in the institutional home for such work. Whilst academics may wish to pursue ‘the interdisciplinary’, the institutional framework in which academics operate doesn’t always help. Here’s my personal evidence: I am a PART-time student, affiliated to TWO universities, operating in the medical AND humanities and social science faculties. I am also someone who happens to be a paid employee of the primary university where I simultaneously study. I do not think it unfair to say that the institution(s) are struggling a little to cope with this set of circumstances, with the administrative aspects of the doctorate causing nothing short of big headaches for all involved. Would it really be so hard to encourage a more porous, malleable approach in university administration departments as well as in the content-based zones?! Must the organizational boundaries between faculties and registries be so pronounced, when the spirit of collaboration is so actively sought, indeed encouraged, in terms of research content?!
That said, every cloud and all that…I can draw on this for my research. On 13th March 2017, I attended a talk organised by Northern Centre for Mood Disorders and Newcastle University. Shirley Smith (of the suicide bereavement and prevention charity If U Care Share Foundation) spoke at this event, highlighting the need to ‘treat people as people’ following a suicide loss, to not put them in ‘grief boxes’ requiring pre-determined modes of support. Good principles. Thus, whilst my frustrations at the bureaucracy I will undoubtedly have to contend with throughout my studies will persist, I can at least channel them more productively, reminding myself to challenge my own (as well as others’) assumptions, to move across and beyond perceived boundaries, to reinforce in my research the need to not seek to fill pre-defined boxes or confine to expected traditional boundaries or labels, to consider ‘the individual’ level and allow those who decide to be involved in the work to develop and inform definitions by describing their unique experiences and interpretations.
Pisapia, J., Razzaq, J., and Townsend, T. (2015). ‘Fostering Interdisciplinary Research in Universities: a case study of leadership, alignment and support’ in Studies in Higher Education, 40:4, pp.658-675.