On the pragmatics and politics of collaborative work between the social and life sciences

For scholars in the humanities and interpretive social sciences, it sometimes seems like hardly a day goes by without some kind of exhortation towards ‘interdisciplinarity’ – a trend that has only become more pronounced during the ongoing realignment of public higher education in many countries. ‘The humanities are being driven into defensive positions,’ wrote the vice-provost of University College London recently, ‘despite isolated counter-actions, they experience marginalisation as martyrdom and tend to look inwards rather than outwards to new possibilities, such as recovering their status and influence through interdisciplinary working’ (Worton, 2013). Or as John Brewer, the ex-President of the British Sociological Association, was quoted just this week in a reflection on the values of social science: ‘we need to move beyond rather insular profession-oriented courses and introduce courses that have breadth rather than depth…that bring together teachers from a variety of different disciplines’ (Reisz, 2013).

For those of us who work in/on/through topics in the life sciences, of course, these declarations have a special lure: given how practiced we have become at finding the gaps and interstices in the practices of the life sciences, many of us seem well positioned to collaborate with medical and biological colleagues. This opportunity is manifested in ethnographic accounts of interdisciplinary interventions (Rabinow and Bennett, 2009), in historical and genealogical accounts of the split between the bio-logical and socio-logical disciplines, (Renwick, 2012; Rose, 2013), and, of course, in a still-ongoing theoretical retrenchment between concepts, cultures, bodies and biologies (Wilson, 2004; Haraway, 2007).

Somewhat less common, however, are some of the very basic and pragmatic outlines of what a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moment of interdisciplinary labour between the social and life sciences would actually look like. A sense of this gap was at least part of the impetus behind a recent workshop, and subsequent report, from the European Science Foundation (ESF) – ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Understanding Collaboration between the Social Sciences and the Life Sciences’ (I was the commissioned ‘rapporteur’ of the workshop, and subsequent author of the report, although note that authorship, in this context, was more a work of collating and summarizing contributions to the workshop than anything else. Note also that what follows here are my own summaries and reflections, and not those of either the ESF or the participants at the workshop). What set the workshop apart was an attempt to identify, in a fairly matter-of-fact and case-driven process, the basic elements of a ‘good’ collaboration between a social scientist and a life scientist – and then to set out what distinguished it from ‘bad’ or frankly ‘ugly’ collaboration. The workshop, steered by a small multidisciplinary committee, then distilled its discussion into groups of recommendations for individual researchers, academic institutions, funders, and policy-makers.

Cases ranged from an account of how the nascent Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC) was working to correlate social-scientific variables with large-scale genetic data-sets; to a report on the well-known ‘Whitehall II’ study, where social scientists have collaborated with clinicians to somehow shift the attention of an epidemiology away from the body of the individual, incorporating notions like class in the emergence of disease; to an auto-ethnographic reflection on the sometimes surprising and awkward mixing of theological, anthropological and neurobiological considerations in a study of the neuro-cognitive correlation of religious experience. Not all of the outcomes and recommendations can be repeated here – but I want to draw particular attention to three over-arching three themes of the discussion.

First is that, if working between and beyond disciplinary boundaries is probably more-or-less a good thing, ‘interdisciplinarity’ is still not a good in itself. This sounds like a truism – but can be hard to recall amid ceaseless exhortations towards, for example, an amorphous ‘knowledge exchange.’ More to the point, a taxonomy of bad and ugly collaboration might well be achievable – and although the workshop did not attempt to exhaust this possibility, there were some consistent themes. Prominent, here, was a focus on collaboration rooted in excessive trust or gullibility – and an unwillingness, or an inability, to account for contest and controversy in another discipline. Certainly we all have our favourite (or least favourite) examples of scholars from the interpretive sciences who suddenly discover a monolithic ‘genetics’ or ‘neuroscience,’ and proceed to recover insights from these fields as they if were subject to no degree of internal contest or dispute. But this is tricky too: if excessive enchantment is undesirable in a collaborator, still some degree of trust is required; the hard part is knowing when to trust and when to be critical – which can sometimes be a surprisingly tacit or affective form of knowledge (‘know who the assholes are,’ as one contributor pithily put it).

Second is that an institutional rhetoric of interdisciplinarity is not always matched by sources of funding, or by the provision of genuinely collaborative spaces and resources.  Several of the cases presented at the workshop were dependent on fortuitous access to small amounts of seed funding, or to pots of money that were otherwise unmarked. But these remain relatively rare. Others mentioned the on-going difficulty of accessing data held under the aegis of scholars from another discipline, or a discipline-specific funding body. And almost all stressed the persistent compartmentalisation of national research-funding councils, and of reviewers of proposals, along still fairly rigid disciplinary lines. There are signs that this is shifting (the growth in small-scale funding for ‘sandpits’ and ‘ideas factories’ was mentioned for instance) – but the workshop still stressed the need for many more small-scale, low-stakes and epistemologically-tolerant sources of funding for tentative collaboration between social and life scientists.

Third: doing truly interdisciplinary research remains deeply risky for a lot of people – and can leave junior scholars struggling for both resources and recognition. There is clearly a lag between the rhetoric of working across disciplinary boundaries and, in many of the social sciences at least, the nonetheless profoundly disciplined spaces of scholarly prestige – including high-ranking journals, prestigious funding bodies, and job openings. For too many would-be collaborative researchers, there is a nagging awareness that they still have to build a career amid a community of scholars for whom ‘is this sociology?’ (or economics, or anthropology, or whatever it is) remains an interesting and useful question. No doubt this too is changing – but it remains a salient fact that scholars stepping outside – truly outside – the epistemic boundaries of their own discipline are taking a not-insignificant risk with their careers.

To conclude, let me add three further observations of my own, that I think should also play into future thinking on interdisciplinarity and which might build on the conclusions of this report. First, while I still think that collaborative labour between the social and life sciences is vital to the future of both sets of disciplines, we still need to be sensitive to the ways in which an unproblematized ‘interdisciplinarity’ may be pursued and promoted within an increasingly market-driven and instrumentalized academy. This workshop certainly wasn’t guilty of that – but amid a broader drive for disciplinary entanglement, we need to be wary of eroding the space for intellectual practices that are already marginalized, and to recall that lots of good scholarship within the social study of the life sciences may have little to say to biological or clinical outcomes, or to health policy, or health services research, or whatever it is. Second: there is still scope for a more fine-grained analysis of degrees of interdisciplinarity – and of the different problems faced by researchers at different levels. I mean this, first, in the sense that not all gaps are equal: we should acknowledge that there may not actually be a significant epistemic distance between, for example, political science and genetics, or between analytic philosophy and neuroscience – whereas there may be a much bigger gap between (some strands of) medical anthropology and clinical medicine. Calling collaborators in all of these cases ‘interdisciplinary’ thus obscures some important differences (cf. Maasen, 2000; Schmidt, 2007). But I also mean this in the sense that we need to be mindful that a model of interdisciplinarity that imagines a kind of trade between experts may mandate a very specific prior expertise – and thus a form of mutual exchange that actually maintains a quite conservative attitude to pre-existing epistemic boundaries. There is thus more space, here, to think about the ruptures between an inter-disciplinarity, a trans-disciplinarity, or even a post-disciplinarity (see Thompson Klein, 2010). Finally: we are going to need to be much, much more attentive to the epistemological politics that structure so many interdisciplinary interactions – and, without retreating to a conservative and defensive posture, it is going to become increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the great drive towards, for example, a ‘neurophilosophy’ or a ‘neuroaesthetics,’ is also rooted in the epistemological, political and financial marginalization of philosophical and literary inquiry. I stress – this is not to get bogged down in a tedious turf war over resources: but it is to remember that collaborative work across the social and life sciences can be vital, and ground-breaking, and mutually re-constitutive of both socio-logical and bio-logic epistemologies – even while it gets filtered through a shifting, ambiguous, and sometimes unhappy politics of knowledge. Learning to pick our way through this challenge, I think, may well mark how ‘good,’ bad,’ or indeed ‘ugly,’ our future collaborations actually turn out to be.


Des Fitzgerald is a postdoctoral researcher at the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University, Denmark, where he works on the use of evidence and experiment in the new brain sciences. He received his PhD in sociology from the London School of Economics in 2013.



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