Doing Interdisciplinary Work in Applied Sociology

Doing interdisciplinary work in applied sociologyI’d like to share with you my experience of trying to engage academic sociologists on my interdisciplinary work.

Interdisciplinary research is highly valued outside academia, while academia mostly pays lip service to interdisciplinary work. Within academia, much of the the interdisciplinary “praise singing” of interdisciplinary work lies in its theorisation – what is interdisciplinary research, how should it be done, how might it theoretically change the world. Yet actual interdisciplinary work where researchers from different disciplines all work on the same end product together – that is largely being done by applied social scientists and our colleagues from other fields. I’ve worked in a couple of interdisciplinary environments and social science has been highly valued. It’s been my experience, and that of a few of my applied colleagues, that our interdisciplinary work is not similarly valued by our academic peers. How can this change?

In my experience, going to sociology conferences and presenting my interdisciplinary work became increasingly difficult, as academics don’t really value this work. Perhaps it’s the double whammy of the interdisciplinary angle and the fact that I was working in an applied context. At one conference, after I presented a social model I’d worked on with a mathematician, one sociologist asked the equivalent of, “Why would you do this?” As in, why do you bother with this work?

This is where theory and practice need to match up. Interdisciplinary theory in academia might seem like a fad, perhaps, because academics don’t really see the end product. It’s also incredibly time consuming. You not only have to learn to work together with people who aren’t trained to think like you, you also have to do a lot of ground work to achieve mutual understanding of even the most basic concepts before you can even begin the work.

For example, I’ve spent weeks and months as part of interdisciplinary teams working with through questions such as: What is a typology? What is ontology? How do we visually represent sociology concepts?

Then you have to work out ways to “translate” sociology into maths, or computer coding, or some other practical outcome. In the “publish or perish” context, where academic publications are the main system of reward, there’s little room for developing interdisciplinary research, where progress is slow and difficult and the pay off is long-term.

I keep pushing to create awareness, to bring these academic, applied and interdisciplinary worlds together. Perhaps if we made room to bring these “real world” cases of interdisciplinary collaboration into the classroom while also getting academics to really engage with this work, change will happen. The university system itself needs to change, as there’s currently little incentive to engage with interdisciplinary research.

What are your experiences in working within an interdisciplinary environment? Is this work well regarded by your academic peers? How might we improve the esteem of this research within the current academic model? Leave your comments below!

 

This post was first published on our Sociology at Work LinkedIn group, as an expanded response to a post on OrgTheory.

  • Marlon Witbooi

    Maybe I’m wrong but I think one of the reasons people are not keen on interdisciplinary work especially currently is that doesn’t have the ‘WOW!’ factor. When we look at Durkheim, Plato, Aristotle, Marx etc. they conceptualised, hypothesized and could explain why society was the way it was and could almost predict the future of society that touched the then different classes and parts of society which could be argued still exist today. The political and economical state also differed much between now and then. Some might argue that they and academics before and after did all the critical analysis we use to argue and investigate things today and formulate explanations within either one or the other framework of past academics.

    For example, if we look at the academic society, from a functional perspective keeping the disciplines distinct and not merging or crossing boundaries that was set previously, or not too far if they did, is because of the different principles to make theories valid, that was created to be distinct from other disciplines and to be able to exist as a discipline. It could also been seen as easy a way of understanding and categorising different contexts of knowledge and research. Interdisciplinary work could seen as deviating from the set principles and could arguably cause unrest among some because of implications that it could cause for their specific field.

    So is it a means to an end or means itself?

    I however agree that looking at things from different perspectives can bear fruitful results if the contexts are the correct ones and if it addresses an important and widespread need or if there’s understanding to be gained that could revolutionise how we go about life, making it somehow.

    • Hi Marlon,
      Thanks for your comments! Interdisciplinary research has its own robust scholarship – but academics in mainstream disciplines, like sociology, find it difficult to understand as interdisciplinary research in an applied context requires knowledge of working outside academia. The theorists you cited as examples have their merits, but are outdated and exclusionary. They did not “predict the future.” They explained elements of society from the point of view of White men from privileged backgrounds. They largely ignored women in general, and did not adequately deal with other issues affecting minority groups. Feminist scholars pointed this out long ago, from Dorothy Smith to bells hooks and beyond. Contemporary theoretical perspectives have addressed issues of gender, race, sexuality, disability and intersectionality to better understand the limits of functionalism, marxism and early philosophy.

      Back to interdisciplinary research – this practice requires engagement with other disciplines. Learning to work with researchers who don’t think like us, who use different theoretical and methodological tools, and collaborating with them to solve new problems. It is about providing novel answers to complex problems through the creation of technologies, models, socio-ecological programs and other services.

      The reality is that very few jobs exist tailor-made for sociologists. We are competing for jobs alongside other social scientists from disciplines that are better recognised, or that more easily adapt to interdisciplinary environments. Knowing how to work in an interdisciplinary context is a very useful skill for sociology graduates. This is not readily taught in sociology courses, which is a disadvantage to our graduates.

      You’ll find examples of applied sociologists who work in multidisciplinary as well as interdisciplinary jobs on our website. Check out our “Resources” section to see how sociology can be blended with other fields to solve “real world” problems!

  • Interdisciplinary theory in academia might seem like a fad, perhaps,
    because academics don’t really see the end product. It’s also incredibly
    time consuming. You not only have to learn to work together with people
    who aren’t trained to think like you, you also have to do a lot of
    ground work to achieve mutual understanding of even the most basic
    concepts before you can even begin the work.

    This paragraph makes a really superb point and i love how you layed out the positives.

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    • Thanks very much for your comment. Sounds like you have first-hand experience of interdisciplinary research. Great to know this post connected with you!