On the Challenges of Interdisciplinary Collaboration

For those of us in fields that are inherently interdisciplinary – like HPE – the possibility of collaborating with colleagues in other fields is exciting. We like the idea of bringing additional dimensions to our research and working together with those who have different forms of expertise. But making this actually happen tends to be difficult – particularly when it comes to co-authorship. The structural barriers to the interdisciplinary production of research are formidable. This is true for different fields within social science and within humanities, never mind those like HPE which span the even larger space across them. History journals have very different audiences from those in the social sciences, making it difficult to write across the disciplines. Very few fields recognize publications in other disciplines as significant when it comes to tenure and promotion decisions. And even if those working together are unconcerned about those considerations, there are differences in methodology and the presentation of evidence that can be tough to reconcile within the strict word limits of most journals. (The Journal of Historical Political Economy is a notable exception for anticipating this particular constraint and allowing longer pieces!)

But are these the main obstacles or do differences in disciplinary cultures pose their own challenges to interdisciplinary collaboration? (I use the term “culture” loosely here as it seems likely that “disciplinary culture” would be difficult to extricate entirely from institutional features.) Being in a division (Humanities and Social Sciences) rather than a department has brought me into regular contact with these cultural differences over the years. Social scientists wonder why historians don’t do more collaborative work and historians wonder why social scientists do mainly collaborative work. Such questions are often directed to me, as I’m viewed as having a sort of dual citizenship. But I realized after the latest round that I didn’t have particularly good reasons to give. I decided to turn it around and ask some colleagues (broadly defined – not just those at my own institution) to explain from their own disciplinary vantage points. This led to some interesting discussions. It turns out that many of us have assimilated our disciplinary norms quite thoroughly; it was harder than people expected to articulate why we do things the way we do.

Here are some of the explanations offered. Social scientists noted that it is fairly typical in their fields to have several projects going at once. Given this, collaboration makes it possible to divide the labor on any given paper and keep things moving on multiple fronts. While social scientists do write books, the social sciences are – generally speaking – paper disciplines to a much greater extent than history (or other humanistic fields). Historians, on the other hand, write books. It is not nearly so common for a historian to juggle several different research projects simultaneously. A few articles may be produced while working on a book manuscript, but they tend to be part of the same project, and these projects usually take years. Many of the historians I spoke to had engaged in collaborative work and noted that they’d found it immensely rewarding and valuable, but extremely time consuming. They felt it had set them back considerably on their main research projects. (This notion of a “main” research project that is different from any collaborative projects is in itself an interesting difference.)

Interestingly, very few people mentioned quantitative versus qualitative methods as the main obstacle to interdisciplinary collaboration. On the contrary, it was mentioned as a potential incentive. One of the main attractions of interdisciplinary collaboration, for everyone, seemed to be the prospect of bringing together different forms of expertise to enable researchers to approach a question from more sides than their own tools allow. But when pressed on the nature of obstacles (beyond tenure considerations), the points made did often come back to the quantitative/qualitative divide. Research involving data and questions that were clearly quantitative seemed the best candidates for interdisciplinary collaboration (in the form of coauthored work). (Indeed most of the examples mentioned in these conversations did involve shared databases.) But historians work with textual evidence just as often, if not more so, and it is harder to find opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration in those contexts. (Though it is possible. And book-length interdisciplinary collaborations can accommodate both textual and quantitative approaches.) One of the main reasons we historians rarely use research assistants (relative to researchers in other fields) is that we have to read the archive ourselves anyway! Even the mechanics of research in these cases don’t lend themselves readily to collaboration and/or division of labor.

Of course, collaboration does not need to result in publication. Less formal approaches to collaboration are common in both history and the social sciences, and those I spoke to on both sides stressed their importance: circulating work among colleagues with relevant knowledge and expertise, small conferences and workshops on specific themes, sharing ideas about sources and navigating archives. Increased specialization in recent decades means that people working in one field are often unaware of relevant research being done in another. Among the most productive forms of collaboration (in my experience) are those that bring together people from different disciplines working on similar questions so they can engage with each other’s work and share knowledge. I’m familiar with two initiatives of this sort – related to Russian HPE – and I’ve found both extremely valuable. The first has involved the creation of several interdisciplinary panels at the annual ASEEES conference: at least one where the social scientists present and the historians are discussants and another where the roles are reversed. I think this will be the fourth or fifth year for this tradition; we all keep going back. The other is Scott Gehlbach’s annual interdisciplinary workshop for research in Russian HPE.  In this case a group of historians, economists, and political scientists get together and discuss one another’s work. Everyone reads all the papers in advance. There is lots of time built in to socialize and converse informally.  Jeff Jenkins, too, hosts a regular forum for interdisciplinary collaboration of a similar sort.  And then there are projects like Broadstreet, which works in a different way to foster connections and conversations across fields.

While specific experiences and impressions varied across the people I spoke with (neither a particularly large nor representative sample!), all expressed interest in and enthusiasm for interdisciplinary engagement. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to making that happen on a larger scale has been in the assumptions we’ve made about what the challenges are and about the specific forms that collaboration should take.


  • Tracy Dennison

    I am Professor of Social Science History at the California Institute of Technology. I am interested primarily in the character and role of institutions in premodern societies, and how they affected the decisions ordinary people made in their everyday lives. To date, my work has focused on the role of entities like states, landlords, communities, and households in central and Eastern Europe before 1900. My current research project examines the relationship between state capacity and the rise and decline of serfdom in Europe, in particular the cases of Prussia and Russia.

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