History with present-tense value: A historians perspective on interdisciplinary research

Just like my colleagues I’ve been doing my bit at conference season over the last couple of weeks, so I thought I’d share my reflections on some interesting conversations I’ve been having on my travels. A lot of this chat has revolved around the issue of interdisciplinarity, and what it means for historical research.

Charles Rennie MacKintosh understood the value of an alternative perspective
Charles Rennie MacKintosh understood the value of an alternative perspective

Interdisciplinarity can mean something as innocuous as sharing knowledge across the boundaries of academic disciplines, or as potentially radical as using this shared knowledge to forge a whole new academic discipline. Like research ‘impact’ and the ‘REF’, interdisciplinary working can feel like something that is being imposed on academics from above, while already busy work-schedules allow only a tokenistic engagement with the interdisciplinary research process. There has been many an article discussing concerns and opportunities surrounding interdisciplinarity in Times Higher over the years.

Historians are often written into interdisciplinary research bids because having someone to provide the ‘long view’ of the research topic adds gravitas. Also certain skills in archival research or recording oral histories are relatively specialist and sought after. However, there are very real concerns to consider, such as how interdisciplinary research may affect the integrity of your work? Moreover, if historians are really going to engage with interdisciplinarity how can understanding of the past be meaningfully integrated with data collected from present-centred disciplines?

For many of the historians I’ve been talking to there is an appeal in working with researchers from other disciplines so that their historical research becomes relevant for the present day. There is a desire among some historians for their work to have a real present-tense value. Of course some historians do manage this without engaging with interdisciplinarity, by readdressing popular myths surrounding an event or personality, or through public engagement with schools, museums etc. But if you are interdisciplinary inclined here’s my top three tips for interdisciplinary working that I’ve picked up from my time with health economists, social scientists and anthropologists:

  1. Structure: There is no one-size fits all answer as to how an historical perspective can add value to an interdisciplinary research project. It may be through data collection -unearthing new materials from an overlooked archive. It may be how data is interpreted in the analysis stage of the project. It may be that a historian’s ability to tell a story with their research means they are most valuable when thinking about research dissemination. Therefore, it’s important to share work with your colleagues at every stage of the research process, invite them into the archive, give a ten minute work-in-progress paper at an informal team meeting. Build these meetings and opportunities for listening and learning into the research time-table.
  1. Tools: Be open to learning new ways of data collection and storage, especially if this means they are more easily shared with your colleagues. I’ve been getting to grips with NVIVO, since it’s the software that my colleagues use, and too my surprise it’s worked well and I’ve even found other historians using it too!
  1. Language: A term that you may use fairly casually in your own discipline can become a point of contention when you are talking to someone from another background for whom it’s meaning and implications are very different. Working outside your discipline can be a great exercise in simplifying the language you use and becoming more adept at explaining key concepts in your discipline. It’s imperative to encourage a practice of learning and discussion from the start, to avoid heated discussions further down the line!

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