Bridging Disciplines Navigating Interdisciplinarity

In January 2022, CAPAS jointly organized the workshop „Navigating Interdisciplinarity“ with Käte Hamburger Kolleg: Cultures of Research (c:o/re) in Aachen and Marsilius Kolleg at Heidelberg University. The questions this workshop sought to address include: „Where is interdisciplinarity warranted; where may a disciplinary approach be preferable? What makes interdisciplinary work succeed or fail? How do we negotiate diverging criteria of validity of knowledge?“ We spoke with the organizers of the workshop in the aftermath and asked, if and how these questions were answered and if their expectations have been met.

Philipp Schrögel: To begin with: What was the motivation, the idea for the workshop? And what is the relevance of the topic from your perspective, or the perspective of the organizations you are representing?


Thomas Meier (CAPAS): I think interdisciplinarity is an important topic in all three institutions, they have interdisciplinary at their core. And all of the three institutions are engaged in what I would call grand interdisciplinarity, or big interdisciplinarity, meaning to bridge all disciplines of the university from the humanities and social sciences to the natural sciences and life sciences. This is much more complicated than just two more or less epistemologically neighboring disciplines. That was the idea for the workshop — to talk to people who also have these problems: What are their ideas and their experiences?

Stefan Böschen (co:re): To add to this thought about grand or big interdisciplinary, I found it interesting that, although my Co-Director at co:re, Gabriele Grammelsberger, and I are really close together, as she is a philosopher of science and I'm a sociologist of science, what seemed to be near could actually be far away. I was astonished, and thought it would be really good to focus more on interdisciplinarity within Science and Technology Studies itself. It's not only about this co-work between humanities and sciences, as we typically say it. But, of course, this is also an important aspect, since the funding line for co:re and CAPAS also includes the co-work between sciences and humanities.

Four people sitting in conversation

PS: Speaking of the organizations, the Marsilius Kolleg basically is built around the core mission to enable interdisciplinarity. How do you go about that?


Tobias Just (Marsilius Kolleg): Because it was our mission from the very beginning, the motivation to join forces for this workshop was to share experiences with others, learning how to improve. We always see that interdisciplinary is an ongoing process of learning, this workshop wonderfully adds to that.


PS: We are in the midst of talking about interdisciplinarity, but perhaps it is time to take one step back. What was the concept for „interdisciplinarity“ you started with when you were thinking about the workshop? How are you thinking about interdisciplinary now – what constitutes it?


Nina Boy (CAPAS): I think that was the question at the heart of the workshop. My motivation to get involved was that I've worked in lots of interdisciplinary settings, and I feel like often there's no room to actually reflect on the process of what happens. This is what we wanted to do here. To build that room and make that opportunity for reflection available. From the attention that you could feel from everyone in the room you could tell that everyone is interested in these questions. It's somehow the call of our time, a call we need to respond to. We need to build more of these spaces, especially more continuous spaces.


PS: Were there answers you have found during the workshop? What was one example of an important takeaway for you from a theoretical perspective? Or a more practical concept or idea you took away from these days?


NB: I really like Stefan's formulation of the epistemic quality of interdisciplinarity. To me, that sums up this whole problematic of: "How do we make the various criteria of validity of different disciplines compatible?” That is something I'm definitely taking away.


SB: For me it was about this really tricky relation between the complexity of real-world problems and how we translate these into scientific problems. This includes a lot of difficult questions, like the validity of evidence and the question of justification, which bring all the complexity of socio-epistemic orders to the fore. And what really struck me is that, although I've been a sociologist of science for years, I do not have a good answer to this question.

TM: I find it interesting, Stefan, that you're starting from real world problems and translating them into academic problems. I had the impression that, not only in this workshop, but in most of the literature, people often start from academic ideas or theories and then at some point realize that they should somehow relate it to real world problems. My impression is that the starting point for interdisciplinarity often comes not from the problem, but from a theory, then trying to arrive at a problem.


SB: Well, these different perspectives perfectly relate to the different discussion rounds we participated in during the workshop, and therefore different experiences we have had. That's interesting because in the rounds I conducted so far, it was more about this relation developing from a real-world problem, although there are, as you mentioned, also situations which are put forward from within academia.

People standing in a circle, one of them writing on a board

TJ: In the workshop here, I observed that too: many of us came from real world problems and only later thought about relating to a theoretical framework, like system theory or others.


PS: Picking up on real-world problems, is there anything you'd like to share? Any insight you got from a specific example of two disciplines working together, something where it worked out or didn't work in an interesting setting?


NB: I felt the groups in the last session worked quite well, and as you said they were surprisingly stable because the conversation kept going. It was a conversation between disciplines on exactly those questions of epistemic quality. For me, one outcome is that there are overarching notions of rigor even if they take different forms. I thought that was helpful.


TM: There were a lot of surprises, I have to say. I expected that the discussion of some of the concepts would take a different direction or a different flow than they actually did. One specific thing when discussing collapse was the perspective from quantum physics, which was really extremely interesting for me. I never came across the idea that collapse is the reduction of a complex system to a simple system. And that was really striking because it turns around everything for me, yet opens the idea of collapse. The connotations in English and German are also quite different in some ways. In English you have a lot of positive things, for example „to collapse a window“ on the computer, minimizing it, something you don't have in German.


TJ: I was very surprised by some metaphors that were brought up in the first round which I never used, even though I'm in the interdisciplinary business for more than 15 years now. Especially with all these food metaphors that I had not heard so far, I was really surprised…


PS: I think one example was a stew?


TJ: Yes, stew. I never thought about that, and...


NB: ... melting pot.

TJ: Yes, melting pot, that's not how I thought about and experienced interdisciplinarity, but it's remarkable that some people use it for how they approach interdisciplinarity. I'm not sure I would use that. Probably not, but it was really interesting to think about it.


NB: Indeed, interesting. They’re all metaphors of integration.


TJ: The food comparisons were really about mixing together, thereby destroying what used to be. And that's not how I thought about it, what it means to be interdisciplinary.

People focused sitting around table

NB: Although you could say, on the other hand, that cooking means you are getting something more than the sum of its parts, right?


SB: Oh yes, and creating something new out of it. Your potatoes are different then. The beans are different then. You can boil away also.


NB: It’s also an art...


SB: It's an art. And, although you may have a cookbook, it doesn’t mean you are a great cook, right?


TJ: You have to learn to improvise.


NB: But also a craft. And this is an interesting tension: between being an art and a craft.


PS: So maybe we should consider a shared cooking event for a next workshop! But coming back to our current workshop and its title „ navigating interdisciplinarity“ – what would be some advice to navigate interdisciplinarity you would like to share?


TM: There's one thing I found especially interesting. At the end of the workshop, most of the reactions of the participants went like this: „Well that was really interesting, but now we would like to know how to do it practically, be it organization, be it soft skills.“ How to get to the real meat in the pot, to continue the food metaphor. This was very interesting because, of course, we can still go on theorizing, but at some point we have to get to the real-world problem, to the real world interdisciplinarity of sitting together and writing a paper or doing a research project together.


SB: That's true. And with regard to advice, Marsilius Kolleg Heidelberg, or our Käte Hamburger Kollegs, they provide a space. And what is also a very important: Käte Hamburger Kollegs really offer time. Not only to have a place for interdisciplinarity, but also to have really time, this is decisive.


PS: Unfortunately, our time here has come to an end. Thank you all very much for this great workshop and for you interesting thoughts!