Thursday, 14 July 2016

Interdisciplinarity – facilitated serendipity?

Guest post by Jane Johnson, PhD student at Teesside University

With Professor Brian Caulfield booked to speak at the European Congress of the World Confederation of Physiotherapy Therapy in November on the topic of ‘the impact of interdisciplinary engagement’, and physiotherapists being encouraged to get out of discipline thinking (1), this is a topic I am coming to think about more and more, not least because my PhD involves supervisors from various fields. There is myself and the Director of Studies, both physiotherapists and from the School of Health and Social Care, a senior lecturer from the School of Computing, a professor of psychology from the School of Social Sciences, Business and Law, plus a Director of Research from the Anglo European College of Chiropractic; input has been necessary from a patenting specialist.

 Interdisciplinarity ‘…involves teams or individuals that integrate information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance a fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline’ (3). Perhaps because it is …. ‘a term that everyone invokes and none understands’ (2) that I jumped at the chance of attending a free workshop* on this topic, welcoming the opportunity to explore how best to maximise the potential of this collaborative approach.

Asked to consider how we defined our disciplines, it was interesting to discover that whilst myself (physiotherapy), Profession Jane McNaughton (medicine), Andrew Rathbone (pharmacy) and Samuel Azubuike (public health) defined our disciplines in terms of codes of conduct and a sense of rigidity, workshop attendees from the fields of anthropology, theology, sociology, history and english defined themselves according to the methodologies they employed. This in itself was telling and got me thinking about how different disciplines understand and use common words. For example, in my own research, how physiotherapists, psychologists and those from the computing world use the word ‘functionality’ needs clarification in order for us to work together efficiently.

During the workshop we considered how disciplines linked to one another and I reflected that with respect to my own work, linkages came about in both a structured and an unstructured way: some team members were involved from the onset, others have been brought on board as the PhD has evolved. During the first nine months of this project I have come to understand that whilst one must have structure, fluidity is important too, and I am put in mind of the presentation given by Sir Ken Robinson in which he describes how life is not linear but serendipitous (4). I am a planner by nature and came home pondering how one follows a structure whilst leaving space for chance meetings. Some of the most useful contacts I have made in the first nine months of this PhD have been through attending workshops outside of my discipline. There is a need for balancing how many conferences, workshops and seminars one attends, where opportunities exist to meet people from other disciplines who may turn out to be helpful but where this is not guaranteed, against the necessity of following the designated research path. My conclusion is that there needs to be a kind of facilitated serendipity, a contradiction in terms I know.


*Supported by the Welcome Trust, the workshop The Practice, Benefits and Challenges of Interdisciplinarity hosted by the Medical Humanities Department at Durham University.

(1) Hitchcock, G. (2016) ‘Physios must get out of discipline thinking’, Frontline 22, 15 June, p.8.
(2) Cited in Mansilla, V., Lamont, M. and Sato, K., 2015. Shared Cognitive–Emotional–Interactional Platforms: Markers and Conditions for Successful Interdisciplinary Collaborations. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 1-42
(3) Callard, F. and Fitzgerald, D., 2015. Rethinking interdisciplinarity across the social sciences and neurosciences. Palgrave Macmillan. P.4
(4) School of Life & Passion - Ken Robinson - POWERFUL!!

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