Interliteracy: The promise (and pitfalls) of multidisciplinary research

In her recent inaugural lecture as Professor of Sociology at Cambridge, Sarah Franklin referred to the idea of ‘interliteracy’, which she defines as ‘disciplined reading across disciplines.’ Franklin’s inclusion of ‘disciplined’ is important because it highlights the importance of rigour, strategy, and design when working across disciplines. What she has in mind when she speaks of interliteracy is not a magpie approach, a random selection of choice tidbits from a random selection of disciplines, but rather a conscious attempt to mine (and combine) valuable elements from a range of scholarly traditions, with a specific goal in mind. In her own work, for example, Franklin draws on gender theory, science studies, sociology, and cultural studies within a coherent framework of enquiry focused on the social aspects of new reproductive technologies.

Interliteracy is a useful concept because it represents one possible criterion by which to assess multidisciplinarity, or, from another point of view, an ideal towards which multidisciplinary researchers can strive. Working across disciplines in a disciplined way, with a clear strategy and desired end-point, maximises the potential to generate new and creative encounters between concepts and research in diverse schools of thought. This not only ticks the ‘multidisciplinary’ box for grant applications, but also promises genuine progress in domains where anything short of true multidisciplinarity is likely to overlook important dynamics. In the field of new medical technology, for instance, understanding patient-technology interactions arguably requires an understanding of insights from a range of disciplines including (but not limited to) clinical medicine, computing science, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. In fields such as this, interliteracy is not an interesting academic add-on but a fundamental precondition for grasping salient features of the situations under investigation.

However, the embrace of interliteracy, and multidisciplinarity more widely, is by no means a panacea for all researchers’ ills. One concern has already been mentioned – i.e. the need for interliteracy to be pursued with rigour and selectivity if it is to add value to specific research projects rather than merely producing interesting but incoherent cross-disciplinary collages – but there are other, more structural issues that face many researchers attempting to work across academic divides. These include the Ambassador Problem, the Two-Paper Problem, and the Career Problem.

The Ambassador Problem

Researchers whose institutional location differs from their disciplinary background – e.g. sociologists working in medicine – are often seen by colleagues as representatives of their discipline as a whole. If researchers internalise this perception, they may feel they have to act as ambassadors and advocates for their discipline, which can be stressful if people feel they have to (re-)master all aspects of their own discipline in order to present it in a good light to others. Moreover, being perceived by medical colleagues as a (e.g.) a jack of all sociological trades can also lead to pressures, real or imagined, to participate in research projects as ‘a sociologist’ or ‘qualitative researcher’ rather than, for example, as an expert in phenomenological hermeneutics or Habermasian discourse ethics. From this point of view, the practicalities of interliteracy could work against the disciplinary specificity and distinctiveness that make interliteracy attractive in the first place.

The Two-Paper Problem

Scholars working across multiple institutional and disciplinary divides – let’s stick for now with our sociologist working in medicine – also face difficulties relating to the dissemination of research. To put the problem in its simplest form, the issues here are about where to publish and with whom. If our sociologist decides to participate in a medical project relevant to her interests, she will probably want to write a single-authored paper in a sociological journal. However, if her work has clinical relevance and if she wants to continue to be an attractive collaborator to medical colleagues, she will probably also need to write a medical paper with several co-authors and targeted at a medical journal. So she has to master two different writing styles, authorship models, and disciplinary vocabularies in order to appeal to two different audiences, and has to spend considerably more time disseminating the findings of a single project than her erstwhile colleagues in the Department of Sociology. Worse still, depending on her future career trajectory and which direction (sociology or medicine) she decides to go in, only some of these papers will ‘count’ – which leads to the Career Problem.

The Career Problem

It might be expected that this additional disciplinary expertise – this interliteracy – would be rewarded by universities in the form of dedicated career paths for multidisciplinary researchers. It’s harder, after all, and (one could argue) more likely to lead to new and creative research paths. But in fact this is rarely the case. Recognition of interliteracy depends for the most part on sympathetic employers rather than structured career paths, and researchers who want to carve out a reputation for themselves still largely do so from well-established disciplinary bases. (I.e. only 50% of the publications produced on the two-paper model will count.) One way to address this difficulty in the longer-term would be for universities to establish multidisciplinary lectureships, with research and teaching responsibilities across two or more academic disciplines, and with research outputs assessed on a holistic, interliterate basis. However, there is no sign of any such lectureships being established any time soon.

So there is some way to go before the benefits and burdens of interliteracy are accorded due recognition within academia. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that interliterate researchers will continue to generate creative and original research across disciplinary boundaries. It can only be hoped that universities and governments will recognise this potential and take action to ensure that such research is adequately supported by new institutional and career structures.

 

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