Learning from the insights of others

Rachael Gooberman-Hill

Rachael Gooberman-Hill is Director of the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research and Professor of Health and Anthropology at the University of Bristol. The Institute nurtures interdisciplinary research, including in mental health, digital health, climate change and health, and infection and immunity. Her own background is in Social Anthropology, and she leads and reflects on interdisciplinary research that aims to make a difference to people living with long-term and painful conditions.


  • Interdisciplinarity has a long history, wide application and needs disciplinary expertise
  • Interdisciplinarity enables researchers to access insights from other disciplines
  • Effective interdisciplinarity requires investment in time and energy
  • Working across disciplines is as valuable as disciplinary focus
  • Practical mechanisms can unlock the potential for interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinary research has a long history and provides great benefit to individuals and the research system. It can address specific challenges, can grapple with questions that could not be answered in other ways, and can develop and drive forward new methodologies. When people work across disciplines, they may have to think afresh about a number of aspects of their research, including how best to design and conduct studies; how to share information or data; and how to make research open to, and informed by, members of the public. When functioning well, interdisciplinarity enables members of the research community to share and develop their deep knowledge, insight and skills.

Interdisciplinarity takes place in the context of disciplines that are shaped by historical social and economic forces. Disciplines can have fuzzy or firm boundaries. Researchers often identify themselves through their discipline, saying: “I am a sociologist” or “I am an economist.” The association between individual identity and discipline raises important questions for those working in interdisciplinary ways: people who span, or work across and between, disciplines need to feel that they are comfortable with their identities. This means making the value of interdisciplinarity clear to those already working in this way and to those who might consider doing so.

A key step in understanding and articulating the value of interdisciplinarity is to consider how we use words. Scholars have discussed at length how to define and therefore operationalise cross-disciplinary approaches, including those that are ‘multidisciplinary’, ‘interdisciplinary’ or ‘transdisciplinary’: roughly speaking, these reflect types of integration between disciplines. It is vital that we understand the ways in which approaches generate knowledge, but concern about which word to use or which category a particular study sits within is not always helpful. Equally, placing these approaches in a hierarchy of value or virtue may be a disservice because each has purpose and role. Although discussions about how to define approaches have a time and place, I believe that the desire to define is best balanced against a need to understand how best to encourage and enable research across disciplines. For all these reasons I prefer to use the term ‘interdisciplinarity’ in a loose way rather than worry about whether the research I describe falls into one category or another, with apologies to those for whom my laxity does not sit well.

Multi-faceted research

As an example, I lead the ‘STAR’ research programme, funded by the UK’s National Institute for Health Research. STAR focusses on long-term pain after knee replacement surgery, which treats painful, damaged knees through their removal and replacement with an artificial joint. Unfortunately, of the 100,000 or so knee replacements each year nationally, around 15-20% of people who have this surgery are disappointed to find that they have ongoing pain afterwards. In STAR we convened a team of colleagues from a number of disciplines alongside people with experience of pain. Together we designed a multi-faceted research programme that included development and evaluation of a new healthcare pathway, work to understand why some people with pain did not come forward for treatment and studies to understand trajectories of recovery after surgery.

Overall, team members have been pleased that STAR would help people with pain. Underpinning this success is commitment to interdisciplinarity within the programme. When asked, researchers described how the interdisciplinarity worked and what was needed to enable it. Openness and respect were key. Allowing time and space to have conversations meant that individuals and groups were able to bring their own activities and approaches to the table. Respect between members of the team and their different disciplinary perspectives is demonstrated in what people said and how they said it.

At the same time as STAR was taking place, research practices across the whole ecosystem progressed, particularly in relation to data availability and democratisation of access to research findings. As a team, we learned about these areas together, not least as ‘our’ disciplines looked at the issues through different lenses. As we reach the end of STAR, the research has engaged with these broader changes. For instance, in relation to data sharing, participants were able to provide their consent for sharing if they so wished and findings and data are, or will shortly be, appropriately available.

Other examples of interdisciplinarity in practice are initiatives at the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, where I am the Executive Director. Based at the University of Bristol, the Institute receives with gratitude support from The Wellcome Trust through their Institutional Strategic Support Funding. At the Institute we develop interdisciplinary research across diverse topics.

The Institute’s work to foster interdisciplinarity seems to succeed when existing organisational structures help to support individuals’ desire to learn from others and to deliver research that goes above and beyond single disciplines. Sometimes we use targeted mechanisms to support interdisciplinarity. For instance, in some of our funding schemes we ask that proposals are led by, and include, colleagues from at least two of our six faculties. Other approaches are perhaps more subtle, such as workshops and events to bring the community together. Most importantly, interdisciplinarity needs to be something that people want to do and the Institute has supported myriad examples in which working across disciplines has generated research that would not have happened otherwise: from research that considered ethics and privacy in the design of technology to research bringing together fundamental science with translation and population-based approaches.

Facing challenges

It is important not to downplay or elide the many challenges in interdisciplinary research. Those with experience of it acknowledge the investment in time and energy needed, and the importance of mutual respect. There is also a need within interdisciplinary endeavours to enable researchers to feel safe, open and clear about their contributions: only by doing so can there be discussions about how best to fill any gaps in research, skills and knowledge. To provide a scaffold for interdisciplinarity, practical mechanisms can complement continued articulation of its value. Demonstration of how and why interdisciplinarity works can help to unlock further the great potential of interdisciplinary research.