The winds of change are blowing in research. No longer do research papers sit unused on the dusty shelves of academia – instead, policy and implementation are the new buzzwords around town. Mixed methods research projects are becoming ever more common from undergraduate final year projects right up to institutional research. Similarly, research that is ‘multidisciplinary’ in scope is now recognised as a more constructive and valuable way to reconceptualise complex problems outside of the confines of individual fields of expertise.
In a 2012 meeting of the American Psychological Association Board of Scientific Affairs, the importance of expanding the field of Psychology as a member of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) team was highlighted, and as a result discussion was held around the role of psychology in multidisciplinary teams. Multidisciplinary work is not without issue. How are research grants awarded if the team is spread across multiple faculties? How do students maintain enough clarity in their discipline to be awarded a single-school degree – or, do universities need to examine if there is a need for cross-school degrees? If so, that could mean potentially dismantling and rebuilding the college-level system as we know it, something that is not an easy or quick undertaking.
That said, what if we consider the potential benefits of multidisciplinary research? Of collaborating with our neighbouring departments?
Consider the field of child psychology. We know that a child does not grow up in isolation from, or unaffected by, the world that surrounds them. Instead, as posited by Bronfenbrenner, children’s developmental trajectories are influenced by their interactions with the multitude of contexts within which they live their lives. If we take Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological system as a basis for our argument, it becomes clear that factors relating to many different disciplines overlap in the developing child’s life, and many impact either directly or indirectly upon the child’s psychological well-being, both at the time, and into the future.
In the innermost circle of the system, which depicts characteristics of the individual child, we can see that physical health, nutrition, and many other non-psychological factors play a part from the beginning of life. Within the microsystem, we see the importance of understanding the role of the child’s immediate surroundings such as home, school and community, in addition to the mesosystem, or relationships between these settings. Finally, in the exosystem and macrosystem, we can see how the wider environment impacts on the child’s development; the overall economic situation of the child’s resident country, the geography and meteorological situation, the political situation and many more, can all play influential, if indirect, roles in the child’s development. This is but one small example of how one theory within one area of psychology can easily be viewed from a multidisciplinary vantage point, as well as how studying child development can benefit from expertise across a wide range of disciplines.
It is worth noting that the combinative nature of multidisciplinary research does not reduce the value of individual schools of thought and the specialists they produce. We will still need psychologists in their own right, as well as sociologists, geographers and every other kind of researcher/practitioner. However, when the research question allows, if we can compromise and lay aside the cliques of old to combine talents, skill sets and brilliant minds from different fields to consult on the same data sets, considering them from different angles and perspectives, this combining perspective can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand. We just need to figure out a way to make institutional thinking to work with us to make this happen.
Sarah Hughes is a PhD candidate in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin and the Trinity Research in Childhood Centre (TRiCC). Her PhD research explores what stress and coping means to adolescents, particularly in relation to their preparation to sit the Leaving Certificate. TRiCC is a new, multidisciplinary centre that looks to build in-depth research in an inclusive way, building bridges where necessary to achieve a better understanding of childhood. To know more, follow @ on Twitter.