SCAS News - 22 November, 2021

Three Days of Conversation about Interdisciplinarity

For a bit more than a year, I have asked interview persons on the podcast SCAS Talks about their
experience of the multi- and interdisciplinary environment at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced
Study (SCAS). The answers have varied, with the common denominator that everybody has enjoyed
the conversations about a variety of research topics at the lunches. Some scholars already have an
interdisciplinary background when they come to SCAS since it is in the nature of their research,
others get injections for their own projects and quite often scholars start to think about their own
discipline in a broader sense. Some collaborations have been initiated, and in some cases the stay at
SCAS was the start for an interdisciplinary project or even research centre.

With these thoughts in the back of my head, I was excited to be invited to participate in the workshop
”Beyond Advanced Studies: Interdisciplinary Theory and Research Careers” on 8-10 November 2021.
This was the first workshop out of three organized by the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study,
Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (AIAS) and Turku Institute for Advanced Studies (TIAS), funded
by the Joint Committee for Nordic Research Councils in the Humanites and Social Sciences (NOS-HS).

”What is interdisciplinarity?”; ”How does it exist in today’s academia?” and ”How can one build a research
career in interdisciplinary research?” was the focus of this workshop, for many participants the first
physical event since the outbreak of the pandemic. As the beautiful Thunberg Lecture Hall at SCAS was
filled with excited scholars I felt immersed into this bubbling intellectual environment with exchange of
thoughts and ideas. The scholars did not only share their own experience and thoughts but also took time
to listen to each other, to reflect and rethink.

While disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity may be each others opposites they also live in symbiosis - one
cannot exist without the other. Disciplines are the prerequisites for interdisciplinarity and scholars need
to be taught the methods and research methodology in order to pursue their scholarly research. But it is
in the fringes of the disciplines that new research questions can form, and some questions cannot be
solved without looking beyond the horizon of one’s own discipline. That is when interdisciplinary re-
search projects and initiatives are often born, by a ”bottom-up” principle, based on the needs and
interests of scholars. Recently, there have also been quite some ”top-down” initiatives to support re-
search that addresses urgent societal challenges, such as climate change. These calls for funding are
specific for questions that need input from different disciplines to be solved. The latter does not have
to be less beneficial than the former, but it is important to fill these often political top-down requests
with scholarly research.

In some cases, scholars are fostered in an interdisciplinary environment from early on in their career.
While enjoying the nature of their work, scholars might find it difficult to define themselves and their
scholarly identity, and by re-entrance into a discipline they might feel forced to fit into a structure that
does not suit their way of thinking or their research question. But even in those cases interdisciplinary
work is possible, and even encouraged. Here the drive of the individual scholar is of importance in
creating the research structure and culture they need. Financial support work as a catalyst to make the
new networks functional and productive. Publishing, which is essential for a research career, can be a
challenge in terms of finding a suitable journal or book series. Sometimes the material has to be adapted
to a particular forum, at other times it might be easier to create a novel forum.

Interdisciplinary projects and environments can also achieve more than just to strive towards a common
goal such as solving a problem. The challenge of understanding each other in terms of terminology,
research traditions and methods of the particular disciplines can be also be an asset when discussing more
general questions about science, what questions to ask and how to answer them. This widens both the
personal horizon and benefits the science that is carried out.

The Institutes for Advance Studies (IAS) can offer an environment for scholars where they can both deepen
their own research and broaden their horizon by interaction with scholars from other fields. The different
institutes have follow different models, for example by recruiting individual scholars from all or particular
disciplines, or even whole research groups. There are about 100-150 IAS in the world (depending on
definition) and they remain heavily under-researched. This was emphasized in a keynote lecture, which
provoked many thoughts and discussions among the participants of the workshop. The feeling that the IAS
can and should be an environment where interdisciplinarity can be promoted and initiated was mutual, many
emphasized however also the importance of not being too self-satisfied and to carefully evaluate and con-
stantly re-invent oneself. Making the individual scholar thrive seems however also to be a key motivation to
support interdisciplinarity, sometimes directly by interactions and imitations of new collaborations while being
at the IAS, sometimes by planting a seed for the future.

The three days of conversation at SCAS reminded me of what I appreciate about scholarly research: the
openness to share thoughts and experiences, the following discussions and the ambition to create change.
Being smart and brave enough to step outside the comfort of one’s own discipline, listening to others, re-
shaping one’s own thoughts and understanding of the world is an important step to contribute to a change
for the better.

Written by Natalie von der Lehr, science journalist and producer of the SCAS Talks Podcast

Read more about the Beyond Advanced Studies initiative >>