Reflections from an interdisciplinary collision conversation

Friday, January 17, 2020
by Grace VanDam

NB: This blog article was written by Grace VanDam who worked here as our wonderful Operations Assistant from September-December, 2019

As a candidate for a Bachelor’s of Science with a Major in Psychology and a Minor in Biology, I always thought of myself as a multidisciplinary student. Working at The Games Institute, a self-identified interdisciplinary institute that strives to communicate this aspect of itself in everything, showed me how much I still had to learn. It was in this space, surrounded by open-minded individuals from all over campus, that I started to fully grasp the relationship between disciplines. In particular, my understanding of what it truly means to be interdisciplinary was better realized thanks to a conversation held by qLab, one of the many labs affiliated with The Games Institute.

Every Tuesday, members of the qCollaborative Lab host tea time in the Games Institute's Collaboration Space and welcome anyone to join for conversations about feminism and media. I frequently attended the teas and learned a lot from the consistently excellent conversations. I credit one conversation in particular with helping me see the potentials of engaging in interdisciplinary collaboration. Specifically, the conversation helped me put into words what my disciplinary perspective is, and where I can contribute and benefit in an interdisciplinary team.

There are two elements of this conversation that stood out to me as unique and necessary: one aspect was the way the conversation flowed between members with each person allowing for disagreement and discussion without judgement, and the other was how each person brought their own disciplinary way of thinking to the conversation. A multidisciplinary conversation would have involved idea sharing and discussing - but what we had was an interdisciplinary conversation, meaning that our collaborative approaches allowed us to discover intersections of our perspectives and identify new potentials.

We mainly talked about the different ways individuals viewed data analysis implemented by other disciplines, whether specific research methods are important, and a research methods relevancey in interdisciplinary work. The creation of an open and inclusive environment by the group provided everyone with the confidence to question ingrained concepts, such as the scientific method, and ask if there was a better way to research ideas.

When the topic of differing methods in disciplines initially emerged, it started with a conversation about the Social Sciences. Specifically, the method of analyzing people and their behaviors, often used in Psychology, was questioned. I recall someone state that this method: “tries too hard to be objective but often misses the mark”. Another individual spoke frankly and wondered why some studies coming out of psychology seem obvious, and therefore didn't require the volume of research papers granted to the idea in the first place. This gave me the opportunity to cite research on the Hindsight Bias, which provides evidence that this is not the case.

Our openness to dialogue provoked my colleagues with Humanities backgrounds to ask me questions that I was able to clarify for them. And for me, the comments were revelatory because they demonstrated new ways question what I believed was standard. For the first time ever, I wondered “what should psychology use if not the scientific method and why does it use the scientific method over something else?”

The discussion about methods that emerged forced me to consider the purpose of psychology research in comparison to other research forms, and I even wondered why psychology exists at all. Through this train of thought, I realized that the context of one's work truly determines what kind of research is relevant. All of this consideration about methods brings up the question I consider the most important: "What is the goal you are trying to accomplish?" To determine the usefulness of a method you must know what you are trying to find. Whether or not you use an empirical or an interpretive method for your research depends on the information you are looking for and the audience your research will have.

The purpose of a research paper could have many meanings, or exist as part of a larger body of work. Choosing to state what you found and the direction of future papers based on your findings is a useful foundation for other research and interpretation. From my understanding, Humanities researchers focus on the context around the data and their effect on the overall topic of study, and are less concerned with achieving objectivity. What seems like opposite approaches, are truly two ways of studying a topic. Examining these differences in method allows the research purpose to shine through. In one discipline the researchers are looking for objective truth about a context without changing anything, in another, findings are meant to be applied and conversed about immediately in order to make the current discourse more informed.

This conversation evolved into a brainstorm about how we could overlap our methods in order to get the best results toward a common goal - one that can become broader and reach higher than working inside one disciplinary framework in isolation. We noticed how adopting interdisciplinary approaches could have far-reaching implications. For example, we imagined how using mixed methods in order to have the most objective results, while still applying them as soon as necessary in order to solve a problem, could be extremely effective and efficient. In this case, we made the argument that the scientific method is often good at taking the first steps when trying to solve a problem by narrowing down what variables are the most important and have the largest effect on the situation. Starting your research off with some empirical evidence gives it a solid foundation to ensure you are working in the right direction. Once this is done, you can interpret the results from the specific viewpoint of the people you are trying to help, or the situation you are trying to change.

This conversation didn't scare me away from being challenged about using the Scientific Method, nor do I wish to leave Psychology and Biology behind. This conversation strengthened my understanding of concepts such as the scientific method, and also helped me define its limits. This revelation only emerged through interdisciplinary discourse.