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Multidisciplinarity Issues: An interview with SSHRC President Ted Hewitt

This interview was originally published on December 11, 2017, in Découvrir, an online publication by the Association francophone pour le savoir.


Questions by Découvrir, and answers by Ted Hewitt

Découvrir

How does one consider multidisciplinarity in the social sciences and humanities? How do we update it?

Ted Hewitt

Paradoxically, I will answer by first stressing the importance of disciplinary research, which represents the majority of work funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). In fact, for certain, highly specialized questions, only a disciplinary approach would be appropriate. For example, studying a specific historical event or exploring an archaeological site.

But, other, complex challenges inevitably require combining diverse knowledge: for example, school dropouts, technological or social innovation, or the resilience of cities. These touch on a host of realities and, as a result, demand more complex responses.

There are two types of multidisciplinarity: a multidisciplinarity of proximity, which draws on various disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, and a broader multidisciplinarity, which combines social sciences and humanities with other disciplines, such as natural sciences, engineering and health sciences. About 55 per cent of projects funded by SSHRC include more than one core social sciences and humanities discipline (sociology, economics, psychology, etc.), and 87 per cent include more than one subdiscipline. It’s a trend that should be encouraged!

In fact, we don’t have to decide between disciplinary and multidisciplinary research. Both need to coexist, and even intersect. Disciplinary work leads to accurate data that can contribute, or be essential, to solving larger problems.


Découvrir

In terms of the close disciplines you're talking about, can you give some examples of projects supported by SSHRC?

Ted Hewitt

Let's take the work of Denis Gagnon, of the Université de Saint-Boniface, on the complexity of Métis identity and miscegenation processes. This researcher is interested both in cultural matters and territorial and political matters. As a result, he has to combine various disciplinary perspectives, such as anthropology of modern societies, political science, sociology, psychology, arts, culture and religion.

Or take the work of Tamar Tembeck, of McGill University. This art historian studies the differences and similarities between the forms and perceived functions of contemporary works commissioned by hospitals. The study, which focuses on both art and the health-care environment, draws on disciplines like art history, architecture, and medical social sciences and humanities.


Découvrir

What about collaborations that combine social sciences and humanities with other disciplines, like natural sciences, engineering or health sciences?

Ted Hewitt

This type of collaboration is increasingly essential for putting research results to citizens’ use. For example, the work of Thierry Rodon, a political science researcher at Université Laval, focuses on the impact of extractive industries and on climate change adaptation, particularly communities’ participation in resolving these issues. On which disciplines does his research rely? Political science, natural resource management, education, public policy and the environment.

Juliana Alvarez, a postdoctoral researcher at the Université de Montreal, has created connections between the sociomedical environment and the quality of relationships between health-care professionals and users, whom she has invited to collaborate in designing technology prototypes for clinical use. To do this, she is drawing on sociology and on industrial design.


Découvrir

This is a good example of technological innovation! You have also written about the connections between the social sciences and humanities and technological innovation. Could you tell us more about this type of multidisciplinarity?

Ted Hewitt

You are, no doubt, referring to the article I wrote last year with Ed Greenspon. In this article, we explain the five stages that characterize the innovation process, and point out that only the third stage (experimentation) is technology-based. The other four (idea generation and mobilization; advocacy and screening to sell ideas; commercialization; and setting up the mechanisms to effectively deliver the innovation) are based on human, cognitive and social processes. While the experimentation stage centres on technology, knowledge from multiple disciplines is applied in the other stages.

This clearly demonstrates the role of the social sciences and humanities in the innovation process. But we don’t seem to realize that, as, when we talk about innovation, we only think about technology. It’s a very simplistic vision of innovation success, since the human aspect is what’s actually at the heart of the innovation process. Understanding this is key.


Découvrir

It flips the perspective on things.

Ted Hewitt

Absolutely! The innovation process is, in general, holistic. Hence, we have to approach it that way.

Many social science and humanities researchers work with innovators, but all too often their work starts after the technological innovation process. Sometimes, however, collaboration is established from the beginning of the process. SSHRC's Partnership Development Grants encourage exactly such an approach.

Researchers in a variety of disciplines are well placed to think about and contribute to the innovation process.


Découvrir

In your opinion, what is multidisciplinarity’s status today? What progress is still needed?

Ted Hewitt

Today, we are living in a pivotal period, as we still focus mainly on disciplinary research. The majority of research funding is based on a disciplinary approach. But this is changing. We are now searching for new ways to finance or support multidisciplinary projects. We need to continue discussions with the research community to strike the right balance between supporting disciplinary research and encouraging multidisciplinary research. I am confident multidisciplinary research will grow in response to pressing issues of the day, the complexity of a globalized society, and the tremendous advances in scientific knowledge.

However, I believe it’s important not to force researchers working from a disciplinary perspective to change. Why demand they change if they work very well like that? Many researchers also work from both a disciplinary and multidisciplinary perspective. Some are afraid SSHRC will put priority on multidisciplinary research; but we intend to support both approaches. It’s up to researchers to decide which approach they wish to take. The decision is really up to them.


Découvrir

In other words, SSHRC facilitates research and provides opportunities for researchers, while leaving them the freedom of scientific creativity they need.

Ted Hewitt

I would add that it’s also important to encourage new methodologies, and to keep aware of new research trends. That’s a major challenge, given the rapid pace of change in the world of research, but it’s a task SSHRC has been working on.


Découvrir

Research funds still play a significant guidance role, do they not?

Ted Hewitt

Absolutely! But their role is not to direct …


Découvrir

… but more to reflect?

Ted Hewitt

Exactly! To reflect new ways of thinking, and new approaches and methodologies. To encourage advances, without imposing them.


Découvrir

I’ve seen research funding bodies evolve in collaboration with researchers who sit on selection committees or take part in consultations. Is SSHRC collaborative an organization?

Ted Hewitt

Yes. SSHRC is very active on the ground. Maintaining an ongoing dialogue with those who benefit from our funding is the best way to understand changes happening in research and to respond to emerging needs.

However, there is certainly room to continue to encourage new ways of thinking, acting and deciding. I’m thinking, in particular, of increased collaboration between the research community and end users of research results.

This is why SSHRC also needs to play a facilitation role. We do this, particularly, with forums organized through the Imagining Canada's Future initiative. Without directing research, we create the conditions necessary for researchers from a variety of disciplines, and stakeholders from a variety of sectors—who are not used to exchanging or collaborating—to work together.


Découvrir

In conclusion, do you prefer one prefix over the others: multi, pluri, inter, trans?

Ted Hewitt

Ha! [Laughs]! Good question! We talk more about multidisciplinarity. But to me, the term doesn’t really matter. What matters is the collaboration and the result. What also counts is the ability to find the best way of working to provide answers to the questions asked.