Keep your mind (and less your mouth ;-)) open: on the keys to success in inter/multi/transdisciplinary research (collaborations)

What insights can you gain from opening your minds to others? In this Utrecht Young Academy blog, Dr. Mira Scholten discusses what you can learn from interdisciplinary research by listening more. 

Dr. Miroslava Scholten
Dr. Mira Scholten (Photo: Ed van Rijswijk)

"Doing inter/multi/transdisciplinary (or to use non-disciplinary as omnibus term) research yourself and/or making collaborations in research, especially in research involving different policy areas, sectors of law, literature streams and disciplines, requires first understanding the differences and hence ‘each other’. It is about learning each other’s terminology and definitions, the way of thinking and handling, preferential methods and approaches of research and functioning, including publishing and dissemination of knowledge cultures. It may hence take more time to build such collaborations or do such research, but the chances that it pays off can be highly attractive. To succeed in this essential step of understanding each other: keep your mind (‘and less your mouth’) open." 

Do not be ‘that person in the room’ who listens with the aim to respond, listen with the aim to understand.

Open up to other perspectives

"Even though people may say they can be good at multi-functionality, your mind is more effective when focusing on fewer rather than more tasks at a given moment in time; so, listening to understand may require being silent to learn more. Non-disciplinary research confronts you with different opinions, definitions, ways of approaching things and challenging dilemmas. It takes time and effort to transform your mindset to a different set of definitions and standpoints. This step from your ‘knowledge comfort zone’ may feel uncomfortable, if not scary, but is essential to take for further development and enriching your knowledge.

Our minds tend to generate ideas in the direction of thoughts that you have.

To take it, you need to take a ‘pause’ on your way of doing things, take a step ‘outside yourself’ in your mind and simply ‘listen’ to others, be it when they are talking during one of the meetings of such collaboration projects or when you are reading literature streams of different disciplines. Do not try (in your mind or words) to pinpoint possible differences in definitions and concepts, and look for ‘better’ things in your ways of doing things. Our minds tend to generate ideas in the direction of thoughts that you have. If you believe that something is possible, your mind will focus on searching for possibilities. Once you think something is not possible, your mind will focus on why it is not possible.

To learn, it is better to open your mind to other views and try to dig into those seemingly different things, by asking yourself and the other party the question of ‘why’. Why do they/you call it X and Y? Why do they/you approach it from this side and not from the other one? What do they try to achieve and what do I try to achieve? Why do I consider it different than my approach or definition? How did you arrive to this idea on the first place? The chance is that by doing this you may dig into the core of the issue /problem, if not discover fewer differences than are seemingly lying ‘at the surface’ in the terminology, method, structure or different appearance of a story or paper."

Open your mind to understand the differences in approaches and focuses, without ‘immediate responses’, especially in the style of ‘my way or no way’. This seems one of the essentials keys to go about the differences in promoting progress and in addressing the problem you aim to address, and to enriching the ‘know-how’ in your disciplines, and for collaboration (also multicultural).

One question, multiple approaches

"From my experience, I have studied law, political science (international relations) and economics at different universities of different countries. I have been trying to bring literature streams (and experts of these backgrounds and hopefully more in the future) together in addressing the key concept of my research – enforcement of law in the EU. It is an extremely availing exercise to see how different disciplines or sections within one discipline, such as law, address pertinent questions of how EU laws should be and/or are being complied with (or not). The overarching objective is often similar: ensure compliance/adherence to norms and policy objectives and other ‘higher norms’ such as the rule of law. Yet, they approach it differently: focusing on different issues, via different methods and presentation. One approaches it more from the question of what policy goals are set, by whom and how and why they are set that way. The other investigates which rules support the attainment of those goals and if the rules are or can be followed. The third is about which enforcement regimes could be more optimal and hence effective and when.

The benefit of having those studies together (for me) is addressing the question of how laws are better enforced in the EU, why, when and how more comprehensively, especially when solutions are to be sought. For instance, would reformulation of a rule ‘solve the problem’ of non-enforcement or shall we also look at the process of making that reformulation, preferences behind the key decision-making and compliance actors, too? Thus, findings from one discipline help (me) to develop points in the literature of another discipline with a view of offering appropriate solutions; complex problems do require sophisticated solutions."

Research strategies of political scientists, economists and lawyers

"Yet, reading papers of these disciplines and listening to presentations of relevant experts may be at times a challenging task when you are embedded in one of them. Roughly speaking, political scientists and economists tend to spend way more time on presenting and justifying the method and offering a comprehensive overview of sources as to what has been done already, in comparison to the effort spent on explaining the ‘so, what?’ of their findings. Lawyers seem to be doing ‘the opposite’, roughly speaking, they can be too quick to judge without a thorough method description and an overview of what has been done and said on the topic already and what the added value of research can be.

Innovate by getting useful insights from others to enhance knowledge

Is one ‘more correct’ than the other one in approaching the aim of ensuring compliance and how research is being done? Not necessarily, yet some approaches may be more familiar to you than others due to your education and other experience. What is valuable is to be aware and note the differences, consider what strong and possibly less strong (‘biased’) points could be embedded in your approach and innovate by getting useful insights from others to enhance knowledge, also on method and presentation. These and many more insights can come with trying opening your minds to understand others." 

Mira Scholten, PhD. Member of the Utrecht Young Academy. Associate Professor of EU law enforcement.