Interdisciplinary Research: How Birkbeck PhD students are informally trespassing disciplinary boundaries

Antonella Patteri

On the 4th of November 2017 Birkbeck’s Graduate Research School hosted ‘No Trespassing: The Risks and Rewards of Interdisciplinary Research’, a half-day workshop organised by Dr Dermot Hodson from the Department of Politics. Inspired by Albert O. Hirschman’s concept of trespassing, this workshop, primarily taught by members of staff from across the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy (SSHP), brought together a wide range of expertise and personal perspectives on the intellectual benefits and dangers of interdisciplinarity. Understood as studies that deploy methods and insights from several traditional fields with the aim of integrating and combining multiple forms of knowledge, interdisciplinary research aims to make connections between concepts and to reassemble them in a circular way. Recognising the value of interdisciplinarity, the workshop stressed that interdisciplinary training should be integrated into academic careers. At the same time, it warned about the risks of superficiality associated with interdisciplinary research and the dangers of being excluded by disciplinary politics. In this sense, collaborating across disciplines involves a serious and careful rethinking of well-established academic borders that give meaning to specific fields of knowledge. Taking research beyond its comfort zone involves a creative crossing of a range of subject boundaries. Even though not all research should be interdisciplinary, the increasing complexity of issues with which we are faced as scholars compels us to look beyond single subject areas by stepping over the borders that contain our academic reality.

As Birkbeck students, we think that such boundaries are crossed in libraries, mediated exclusively on search engines and during formal academic meetings. What if we also attempt to trespass such delimiting lines of knowledge in other ways? While my first year as MPhil/PhD student in the Department of Politics was rewarding, I initially struggled to connect with many of my fellow students. Since last year I started organising monthly meetings with Politics PhD students and this year we have a WhatsApp group with more than 30 members. November’s workshop was also a fantastic opportunity to reflect upon our links with PhD students from different schools and departments at Birkbeck. At the event, we had the opportunity to discuss ways of increasing our interdisciplinary ambitions on a human level. Thanks to the efforts of Janice Lazarus, from the Department of Geography, PhD students from across the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy are now meeting weekly. This new intellectual network is helping us to step over our own disciplines by generating relevant ideas and arguments that go beyond departmental affiliations. Why is it working? Because it is an informal, real and direct way to avoid more ‘structured’ conversations that allow us to reflect upon personal experiences and projects with the potential to enrich our work.

Law, History, Geography, Politics, Art, Biology and Archaeology at times seem incommensurable but we are linking them through methods of analysis that are discursive in theory but practical in scope. By sharing research goals, we are becoming more aware of the fact that there are different paths of knowledge. Qualitative and quantitative methods, immersive fieldwork, archives and discourse analysis are being shared as a way to trespass rigid theorization. In so doing, generating new knowledge becomes a social activity of discovery that gets more and more exciting each week. Such meetings can also offer a possibility to ‘humanise’ the unpredictability of our research, both in premises and intentions. This is not necessarily something that can be grasped easily from our laughs, personal biographies or individual storytelling or from our most awkward and funny moments. Interdisciplinarity is not just a matter of addressing complex questions through a multiplicity of perspectives. Interdisciplinary research should be about reflexive rethinking and informal interaction that trespasses disciplinary boundaries.

This BGRS Blog post was authored by Antonella Patteri, an MPhil student in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics and Research Student Representative for the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy.