Post-pandemic recovery requires radical interdisciplinarity

A multidisciplinary approach to the issue of attention is an experiment in charting genuinely new intellectual territory, says Marion Thain

July 18, 2021
A complicated molecule, symbolising interdisciplinary links
Source: iStock

As the world continues along a path – however uneven – to recovery from the pandemic (or at least the ability to live with it), attention is turning to how we rebuild society.

Covid-19 has exacerbated inequalities that were already in our sights and has illuminated more strongly the interdependencies of many of our social, cultural and economic structures. Hence, it has given greater urgency to addressing these challenges. Universities must play a central part, and funders and researchers are already gearing up. But can we really turn the corner if our methods, academic networks and ideas about what constitutes knowledge do not evolve?

What would it mean to try to develop more ambitious modes of interdisciplinary collaboration to take us toward fresh ways of living, working and understanding our relationships with one another? Such “radical interdisciplinarity” draws implicitly on the chemical meaning of the term “radical”: a highly reactive state that readily forms new bonds. It calls for collaboration that doesn’t just span a greater number of research practices but that draws together scholars across more distant disciplines to collaborate in more thoroughgoing ways.

Universities have long extolled the virtues of interdisciplinarity, but it is surprising how rarely its practice thoroughly bridges the gap between disciplines that are not already near neighbours. Yet surely we can only meet the needs of the moment if we think expansively across the intersections of the humanistic, the technological, the economic, the political and the scientific?

Medicine has taken centre stage in the searches for vaccines and better Covid treatments. However, for medical science to be effective it must understand the contexts in which it operates. The reality of vaccine hesitancy has powerfully demonstrated that medicine is a social, cultural and humanistic practice as much as a scientific one.

Moreover, medicine will not show us how to live in societies changed and scarred by the Covid experience, nor why we must adapt the way we think about how society functions in its wake. For those questions, the arts and humanities and social sciences must deliver – and they can only deliver by finding ways to connect with dominant discourses, to impact society in more profound and wide-reaching ways.

We need to relinquish hierarchies and territorial chauvinisms. Radical interdisciplinary is not one discipline in the service of another. It is the creation of spaces where we can meet on equal terms, opening us up to profoundly difficult but genuinely fresh conversations that chart new intellectual territory.

For this to work, we need better understanding of both the actuality and the potentiality of our colleagues’ insights. So why do we not have more institutional spaces devoted to exploring key concepts across the full range of disciplines? And where might more radical forms of interdisciplinarity sit when funding councils and publishers’ lists still usually require projects to declare a central affiliation in either sciences, social sciences or humanities?

UK Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund has responded to these problems in refreshing ways, drawing together funds and expertise from across the research councils to tackle issues related to technology, health, climate and other key topical contexts. But the GCRF has been hit hard by the cuts to overseas aid. Moreover, while these projects bring together researchers to solve particular problems, we still need to tackle the deep challenges and opportunities brought by working conceptually across different methodologies in a sustained way.

So how do we find spaces in which interdisciplinarity can challenge and reshape more fundamentally our infrastructures of knowledge while still connecting with the pressing issues of our times? A team of researchers based at King’s College London has come together from across the disciplines for an experiment in shaping what we might think of as a new “interdisciplinary discipline”, attention studies.

Given their multidimensional nature, the problems and possibilities of attention in the contemporary world can only be studied through innovative multi- and interdisciplinary approaches that integrate the individual (including their psychology and neurobiology), the cultural and social, the technological, the economic and the political.

Our aspiration is for the Centre for Attention Studies to connect profound research expertise from across the disciplines with applied outcomes and social impact. After all, attention is a concept central to the digital revolution and fundamentally underpins some of the key challenges of the 21st century, including public health messaging, mental health and democracy.

In addressing these issues, we hope the centre will also enable us to explore some of the more foundational, structural questions around interdisciplinary collaboration. That is why we are taking as our unifying focus a concept rather than a problem. It enables us to recognise the very different resources that different disciplines can bring, and to forge a deeper understanding of disciplinary difference and value.

The methods, norms and structures of our disciplines sometimes have very long histories. We don’t need to (and shouldn’t) give up on these. Indeed, they will not only underpin the new knowledge territories that we demarcate by bringing them into closer conversation, they will also each demonstrate better their individual relevance.

What is at stake at the present time is not just the standing of universities within society and the faith of the general public in academic expertise, it is universities’ ability to rise to the challenge of helping to forge a new and newly integrated vision of society in the post-pandemic world.

Marion Thain is professor of literature and culture and executive dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at King’s College London. 

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