Conducting Interdisciplinary Research

guest blog By Tina Brown and Michèle Schlehofer

Due to the complexity of human behavior, emphasis is increasingly being placed on the need for and conduct of interdisciplinary research. We’ve all heard that interdisciplinary research is the hot new trend. It can lead to the development of innovative methodologies to support the interdisciplinary integration of social/behavioral disciplines with other disciplines. It can spur integration of various levels of analysis ranging from individual to aggregate levels. And, there’s clearly a big push among some of our biggest funders (namely, NIH) for interdisciplinary research. However, conducting interdisciplinary research can be a somewhat intimidating endeavor.

We started at our university within a semester of each other, and this was our first faculty position for both of us. Partly driven by a need to develop a program of research and partly driven by a need to develop an ally on campus, once we realized that we had overlapping research interests, we formed an interdisciplinary psychology (Michèle) and nursing (Tina) research collaboration. It’s been fruitful: we’ve become known in our respective departments for being productive researchers; we’ve presented our work at several conferences; we’re preparing manuscripts for submission to journals in our fields; and we’ve received a few small research grants.

Obviously, interdisciplinary research has its rewards. We’ve been able to expand the size and productivity of our research lab by having each of us bring on undergraduate research assistants from our respective departments. Having someone to share theorizing and writing with is nice, too. And, we serendipitously found that each of us brings certain strengths to the table: Tina has many well-established contacts in the local community, allowing us to do community-based work, while Michèle is strong in statistics. The benefit of having a colleague outside your department (and who is also outside your department’s politics) who you can use as a resource is phenomenal. Finally, it’s been rewarding for us to get visibility in a field other than our own. For instance, Tina is now a member of SPSSI, and attended the 2008 conference and plans to attend the 2010 conference in New Orleans, as well.

However, we’ve also found that navigating the field of interdisciplinary research can be tricky. We soon came to realize that there were subtle differences in standards of what constitutes “good” research across our two disciplines. Experimental manipulations, a cornerstone of social psychological research, are not considered ethical to those in the nursing field. And, theories and methodologies often used in nursing research are foreign to social psychologists.

Publishing our work has proved further problematic. One thing that we’ve learned is that psychologists and nurses just write “different.” The differences are subtle, but have an important impact on manuscript decisions. It can be difficult to learn another discipline’s language. And, because psychologists and nurses write “different,” journals in the nursing and psychology fields have different criteria for accepting an article, and may even have different criteria as to how the manuscript is prepared.

We are interested in hearing other’s experiences with interdisciplinary research. What has worked? Have you been successful in publishing your work, and if so, do you have any tips to share? What hasn’t worked? Is interdisciplinary research supported and encouraged at your institution or organization? Or perhaps is it discouraged? As SPSSI scholars, what value do you see in conducting interdisciplinary research?

We look forward to reading your comments, questions, and learning from your own experiences!!

[Note: This post was originally contributed as part of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Early Career Committee 2009 blog.]