Talking across disciplines

Bridge across water with mountain range in background, next to lighthouse, sunset orange sky

Is your work ‘interdisciplinary’? (Or maybe it is ‘cross-disciplinary’ or ‘multi-disciplinary’.) Or is the purpose of your work to take insights from one way of knowing, and apply it to another group of people (anything as simple as taking nursing studies insights and informing doctors; to taking theories of mathematics to inform the study of poetry.) There is a lot of buzz around interdisciplinary PhDs these days—and often funding opportunities. Ten years ago, I did an interdisciplinary PhD and I continue to do interdisciplinary research, so I know how valuable it can be, but I also know they introduce special difficulties. And that’s what this post is about.

(This post will become a chapter for Inger, Shaun and my new book, Academic Writing Trouble. If you’d like to know more about the book before it’s published, you can sign up for our writing trouble mailing list.)


After you have studied, researched, and collaborated in a particular discipline for a long time, you start to use language, and think about the work in a particular, disciplined (pun intentional!) kind of way. The way you start to understand words that are widely used becomes extremely particular.

Qualitative vs quantitative: a pizza, with labels. On the left: hot, tasty, refreshing, pocket friendly. On the right: $1.25 before tax, 8 slices, 30% cheese.
Qualitative and quantitative research is only the most basic ‘difference’ between kinds of research.

For example:
‘Gender’ is a word we use every day as a tick box on a form (preferably giving an inclusive list!) and the everyday user of the term understands it in that way—a way to check if we have enough women on boards, or signal to advertisers to spam you with frilly pink or ice blue merchandise (sigh). But if you are a linguist, gender means something completely different: in many European languages, ‘gender’ is the grammatical form of every day nouns that impacts how they are inflected (another word that has multiple meanings, depending on your discipline!). For a scientist working on animal experiments, gender and biological sex are interchangeable.[1] For a medical professional, gender and biological sex may be different. For some social scientists, gender is understood as entirely socially constructed.[2]

These differences aren’t small. In fact the differences about this one (loaded) word, illuminate the differences between whole bodies of knowledge, and between models to explain the world, their theories of knowledge, what is officially called an “epistemology”.

An epistemology doesn’t just fall from a tree—it is carefully constructed, rigorously tested, and hotly debated within a field. Within that field, what ‘counts’ as knowledge, evidence, logic has been agreed and workshopped in thousands of articles, experiments, analyses, and conferences. If you come along with a different way of using words and a different way of making meaning out of them… you are likely to be met with incomprehension or confusion, if not outright hostility.

As a PhD candidate, learning how to use the language of your field, how to construct an argument in your discipline, and how to construct a ‘valid’ question and a ‘convincing’ argument for your peers, is an important part of your journey. It’s also sometimes terrifying.

ORNL_EVEREST_visualizationAnd now you need to go one up and talk across disciplines—not just learn how to do this in one discipline, but in more than one.

What are you going to do? You are going to become a multi-cultural polyglot—you are going to learn another new language and another new culture, and then you are going to accept that this makes you strangely not-at-home anywhere.  (I grew up across three continents, I know about this from life. Crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries in my life, which is probably why I ended up crossing disciplinary boundaries in my research.)

Have you reflected on how you ‘home’ or ‘first discipline’ produces knowledge? We can take it as read that this is a valid and rigorous model—but what counts?

Here’s an exercise that might help:

  • Look at the list below, which has been constructed in comparative pairs.
  • Try circling the idea that fits best for what your home discipline values.
    • None of these are wrong answers, they just might not be how your current discipline does things.
    • (Yes, they are roughly left hand hard sciences, right hand arts; so social scientists and humanities scholars are likely to have a mix of both columns.)
  • You might also circle both sides, if both count!
Numbers Words
Objectivity Subjectivities
Collaborative team work Individual insight
Detail Big picture
The quantity of something The quality of something
Reproducible work Unique work
Your data Your argument
How it relates to the physical world How it relates to the social world
Improving a thing Improving an idea
Work directly with materials Work with things other people have made
Doing it first Doing it definitively
Add your own Add your own

Okay. Great! Now go back with another coloured pen, and circle the things valued in your ‘new’ or ‘second’ discipline. Where are they different? This is where you are going to need to do your homework, to explain and defend your choices across disciplines.

In my research, I found I had the same epistemology, but different methodologies—that is, both musicology and literary studies valued the same kinds of evidence, but one looked at words and the other looked at sounds.

So I could create a new table and explain with more detail how the methods were different:

Syllables Beats
Metre Time signature
Line Phrase
Word Note
etc etc

These terms, and the long and well established ways of analysing them, need to be explained across the disciplinary boundaries.

Basically, you are creating for yourself a phrase book–a tourist guide for people from the other discipline to visit your research and know enough to get value from the trip. They don’t feel lost, instead, they feel welcomed and included. You might scatter these guide book tips through in brackets, in footnotes, or occasionally in an introductory paragraph. You might include a glossary, or a map.

Historical map, showing the North Pole; the Americas; Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia; the South Pole. Images of war on earth and heaven around the borders on top; and peace at sea and land below.
World map by Gerard van Shagen, Amsterdam, 1689

Your interdisciplinary guests are then welcomed into your text. They see where you are going, and understand what is going on. They see how your various knowledges compliment each other to explain complex, hybrid or multi-modal phenomena. They leave with their horizon slightly broadened, able to return to their deep expertise with something extra.

Interdisciplinary research can be challenging, but also rewarding! What are some of your techniques to explain your research to scholars in other disciplines?


[1] See:
[2] e.g. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990)


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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