Saturday, November 3, 2012

Notes for a method of interdisciplinary research Part I

A couple of months ago, I attended a two-day postgraduate workshop on interdisciplinary research in medieval/early modern studies. The workshop was convened by Peter Anstey of the University of Otago and included sessions by Stephen Clucas of Birkbeck College, London, Peter Marshall of the University of Warwick, and John Sutton of Macquarie University in Sydney. If you check out the staff pages I've linked here, you'll see that these people (and the other workshop presenters) represent a variety of disciplines from within and beyond the traditional 'humanities'. Hence the purpose of the workshop: It provided a practical framework for pursuing research that incorporate methodologies, theoretical frameworks etc. from outside your own discipline.  Practical sessions on scoping and planning an interdisciplinary project were interspersed with papers where these researchers discussed their own experiences and application of interdisciplinary methods (including active collaboration with researchers outside their own fields).

Given my interests, I’m reasonably familiar with incorporating approaches and ideas from the allied humanities/social sciences fields that medieval historians frequently draw on – for example, literary studies, anthropology, sociology, art history, and archaeology. However, I was pretty interested to hear about some of the collaborations between humanities disciplines and the sciences. Peter Anstey, whose field is early modern philosophy, discussed his own collaboration with the botanist/plant scientist Stephen Harris to research John Locke’s seed catalogues. There was also a fascinating example of collaboration between a specialist in Shakespeare and a specialist in cognitive neuroscience for work looking into questions of individual and social memory in the early modern theatre. As one of the PhD students in attendance later framed it in a post on the Early Modern Experimental Philosophy blog:

The workshop made it clear that crossing the boundaries of a particular discipline is not only fruitful but even necessary when engaged in early modern research. Given that there is a natural characteristic of interdisciplinarity to the early modern period we must leave the comfort zone of our own discipline if we want to carry out our research projects properly. Most of us have actually done this without noticing that we are engaged in interdisciplinary research. The workshop brought this to my attention and I started thinking about the many ways in which my research would have been improved if I had consciously made an effort to enrich my understanding of any given topic by allowing myself to explore what other disciplines have to offer.

(Clearly, the same thing about blurred disciplinary boundaries – for example, between ‘natural philosophy’, ‘medicine’, and ‘theology’ – can be said of research into medieval cultures.)

This set the scene for a couple of extended practical sessions on approaching interdisciplinary research as a PhD student. Here and in a planned follow up post (Part II), I’ll summarise my own notes from these sessions to preserve the information for my future reference and to make it available to others who may find it useful. What I have noted here is what is most useful to me and I should emphasise that there were likely other aspects of this workshop that other students would have found more relevant to their own work. There was some discussion at the end of the two days about how the organisers can make this methodology more widely available (e.g. via a website or publication) so if you're interested, you can keep an eye on Otago’s Early Modern Experimental Philosophy blog for any updates.  

Part I – Determining the research project parameters

This forms a subset of a six-stage heuristic. I’ll write up my notes on the full framework and how this bit fits into it in Part II.

1) Set your temporal parameters

a) Choose the historical period(s) you’re planning to work in
b) Identify chronological overlaps and connections between periods
c) Identify the challenges posed by the chosen chronological period(s)

Challenges could include the need to master different languages, the need to get past barriers of terminology in order to accurately understand key concepts (for example, the term ‘science’ or scientia meant something quite different to people in 1412 than it does to us in 2012), lack of evidence etc. In my case, I’m dealing with a period and place where at least four languages (Middle English, Anglo-French, ‘French of Paris, and Latin) are in regular use in my documentary sources. As I’m interested in political uses of language – not just specific words or discourses but also the language strategically chosen to express them – I also need to come to terms with how I am going to treat after-the-fact written accounts of oral/aural speech acts (something I blogged about recently). Another thing to consider is how the historical period you chose defines to an extent your key terms and concepts. For example, as a well-known historian of chivalry has pointed out to me, if I chose a chronological timeframe defined by the reigns of certain kings, then I am implicitly approaching the concept of knighthood/chivalry in a top-down way, in terms of the way kings/princes defined and used it – an important and powerful conceptualisation of knighthood but certainly not the only one.

2) Set your disciplinary parameters

a) Select the historical disciplines you’re looking at – e.g. natural philosophy, theology, rhetoric etc.
b) Select the contemporary disciplines you’ll be drawing on to help interpret and understand those historical disciplines. For example, if you’re looking at early modern alchemy you may also be drawing on the modern science of chemistry.
c) Regulate any mismatches and determine how you are going to deal with them. 

The alchemy-chemistry example is a good one in this context, as early modern alchemy incorporates elements of mysticism, theology etc. that are utterly foreign to the modern lab science of chemistry.

3) Set your linguistic parameters

a) The historical languages of your sources
b) Contemporary languages - for example, I need to incorporate modern scholarship on my topic that is published in German, French etc. Depending on their topics, others might need to learn the disciplinary ‘languages’ of chemistry (periodic table, chemical formulas...), mathematics etc.
c) Identify potential issues and problems so you can figure out how you are going to deal with them. This could be anything from learning a new language to putting aside funds to hire translators or engaging in strategic collaboration with someone that does understand the ‘language’ (a mathematician, a botanist, a theologian etc. etc.)

4) Set the technological parameters

a) Identify any historic technologies or processes you need to understand – e.g. printing or book-making, manuscript production, alchemical equipment, medical equipment etc.
b) Identify any contemporary technologies that you need to use – xray, carbon dating, photography etc.

5) Set any other parameters, including e.g.

  1. geographical,
  2. thematic (‘skills and practical knowledge’, ‘material culture’ etc.),
  3. institutional (church? universities? medical professions? etc.)
  4. social –  is your research focused on elites/nobility? merchants? artisans? etc. To an extent, this also determines the next parameter, which is –
  5. sources - archival records, books, material culture, landscape etc.

6) Determine your requisite skill set

Given all of the above, what do you as a researcher need to be able to do or understand in order to complete your project? Obvious skills for historians include languages (modern and historical), archival research skills, palaeography, codicology etc. Someone studying historical boat-building, manuscript illumination, or alchemy (amongst other things) might also learn a good deal from some hands-on experience in the practical aspects, tools etc. There was a historian of early music at the workshop who told us they didn’t fully grasp the logic behind a particular musical notation system until they built a copy of the relevant historical instrument and tried it out themselves. An important point made at this juncture was that you don’t necessarily need to learn all these skills yourself but learn how to find and draw on the knowledge and skills of specialists.

Finally, on the first day of the workshop there was a brief session on ‘mapping’ disciplines other than your own. I thought this would be particularly useful for anyone in a humanities discipline wanting to get to grips with a field quite a long way from their own – for example, historians wanting to understand cognitive neuroscience or chemistry. So to conclude Part I of this series:

Mapping disciplines other than your own

This was presented as a structured way to go about finding the important and useful ideas in a field and understanding the wider context they evolved in (including any disciplinary shit-fights and controversies you may be unknowingly wading into). You can start with popular works, especially in the sciences (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Stephen J. Gould) to get a sense of the overall field, but be aware that these people are often writing outside their own speciality in order to make their works accessible for a lay audience. You then need to get into the academic literature in order to understand how the bit you’re interested in fits into the larger field. Start by identifying the main journals in the field(s) (asking someone in the target discipline in your university can be a quick way to find out which are the journals that really ‘count’). Then, hit up the review / ‘state of the field’ articles to start getting to grips key concepts and theories, how they developed, dissensions/ debates, counter-arguments etc. You also need to figure out if the particular theory or finding you want to draw on is considered respectable or pretty leftfield/wacky. Citation counts on something like Google Scholar are one indicator of this but they can be misleading. (For example, the person could be getting cited a lot in articles criticising their work/findings.) Again, review articles and talking to people currently working in the discipline are a good way to get some fast feedback.

Okay, well that was pretty long but I hope some of you may find it useful. In the second part of this series (which I’ll aim to get up within the next week or so), I’ll describe the wider six-stage heuristic that this parameter-setting exercise fits into.

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