Advantages of the ‘Interdisciplinary Dilemma’

“You are very unique.”

“Yes, I’ve often been called the weird kid.”

[Laughter]

This week I arrived in Malta for the second half of my Fulbright Schuman experience.  The Fulbright Schuman is a unique program because it is jointly supported by the U.S. Department of State and the European Commission. It is also one of the few Fulbright awards that requires its recipients to do empirical (that’s experience-based, for all you non-academics) and transnational work.  An applicant must present a topic that is of interest to both the US and EU and justify why they need to live in two member states to conduct the research.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also the type of program that attracts, and thankfully welcomes, interdisciplinary people like me.

If you know me, or have read my CV, you know that I have training in a variety of fields.  I hold degrees in language, history, and political science, but rather than this representing a set of unrelated and flighty interests, all these areas fit together, complement the other, and reinforce weaknesses.  It makes it very difficult to check a box that describes who you are and what you do.

This has presented some difficulties in my career.   Multidisciplinary people are praised for their ability to understand the inter-tangled perspectives of many actors and issues, but there’s also suspicion as to how much of an ‘expert’ they can be in any one of them.  [I am the first one to admit that interdisciplinary work needs a focus, by the way.]  However, there is a minority of actual support (in my experience) that sees interdisciplinarianism  as a desirable trait- events don’t fit into neat packages, organized by discipline, department, or theory.

Any institution with a bureaucracy relies on box-checking.  If you fall between those boxes or check more of them then necessary they don’t know what to do with you.  People like neat packages even though intellectually they know reality isn’t that simple.  Does this mean that we should abandon interdisciplinary work?  No.  Understand that there are people who do appreciate it, but it may take a bit longer to find them, and your niche among them. I know my niche, but I am still searching for that place.

Yet, dwelling in those “between-the-box niches” can be advantageous.  As a historian and political scientist who understands global governance and examines finance, data protection and privacy in the international economy and national security (whew),  I work among, with, in between disciplines, because my research topics lay among, with, and in between professional worlds.  I have to learn a different jargon to interact with politicians, the financial services, and the technology enthusiasts.

Needless to say, my time here has been extremely productive, but professionally I’ve never felt more in my element.

EU officials were incredibly generous with their views, and I found the business community to be similarly engaged.   I have been able to use my understanding of  interstate politics, law, finance, and IT extensively, but I have learned much as well.  It’s been wonderful to switch those pieces of my brain back and forth, to compare and contrast, to test and retest what I know and try to make all the pieces of the research puzzle fit.  (Incidentally, all of the pieces will never fit.)

A few weeks ago someone explained the role of academics from the perspective of these groups – they perceive us as nontoxic neutrals (my phrase).  Academics can bring up subjects that are considered taboo, and this is the role researchers are expected to play. Academics are expected to ask those questions and draw attention to known and unknown issues.  They make those subjects somehow more palatable by forcing commentary from the outside. Academics don’t have to consider their electorates, or the shareholders, they are outsiders without an agenda.

I consider myself one of those neutral catalysts, and my multidisciplinary training allows me to play this role from a variety of perspectives.  As part of the ones “without an agenda” I can gently prompt more discussions on topics that are too sensitive for members of several circles to engage, but conversations that even they believe are necessary to have – even if they don’t realize it themselves.  As I do, I learn from them, and I (hopefully) see how their interests conflict, or better yet, work together.  That’s what they want – research that engages them, that they can use, and is not divorced from their realities.

I began this entry with a comment received from more than a few of my interviewees, which was given and received as a compliment.  I’ll say what I’ve always said  – it’s good to be the weird kid.  There’s some great niches there.