By Theresa Sawicka, PhD
Interdisciplinary research has been in vogue in academic circles and among funding agencies for some years with varying degrees of success in achieving and promoting it. In the past, it has been uncommon for scholars and researchers to stray out of the disciplines in which they were trained, organised as they often are in socially isolated tertiary departments and faculties. Thus the social organisation of academic life has led to ‘silos’ of learning in higher education in many places.
Theresa Sawicka PhD. Prior to my recent retirement from formal academic life I was a university administrator: I worked in two universities in New Zealand as both a Director of a Graduate School and as an Associate Director of a Research Office. Originally trained as a Cultural Anthropologist I worked as a Research Fellow on various research projects and prior to that on my PhD. I graduated as a Feldenkrais practitioner in 2010.
It takes a long time to train an academic researcher, even post-PhD, to a level of expertise where a research programme based on a significant research question(s) can really develop. So it is hardly surprising that many researchers after years in training choose to stick to research areas that they have been trained within.
There are a number of other barriers too. To maintain scholarly expertise in several disciplines requires particular and uncommon intellects. The current rate of increase in academic publication alone is staggering, brought about partly by the ‘publish or perish’ conundrum as scholars and researchers are pushed to demonstrate they are actively engaged in research in the tenure system of academic promotion.
Globally there have been various attempts to break out of isolated and stagnating pools of learning that have resulted from a high degree of investment in academic careers. Some have been highly creative, like placing artists in science labs. Then there’s more run of the mill examples, like instituting novel projects for PhDs, or offering grants for innovative research.
Pre-COVID, globalisation and the internationalisation of tertiary education, along with cheap travel, produced an explosion of of conferences where researchers could present new research. You might think this could only be good for the cross-fertilisation of ideas but on return home, the immediate pressures of academic life often mean that the fertilisation never takes root.
In today’s world, funding for research is approached very much like any other financial investment; it is governed by funding bodies each with their own agenda and biases and assessment of risk. Thus, mounting an interdisciplinary project requires a number of additional skills on the part of researchers: an ability to sell the outcomes to a potentially unfamiliar audience; an ability to argue your case in layperson’s terms and to spell out why your research is more valuable than other academic competitors. This sounds daunting, and it is.
Interdisciplinarity has been seen by some as a solution to so-called ‘wicked problems’ of the contemporary world such as climate change and the global public health crisis driven by COVID. Recognising that we cannot solve these problems within single disciplinary approaches, or even within cognate disciplines that share similar epistemologies, has led to a greater emphasis on collaboration and building teams of researchers. Working in teams adds a whole other layer of complexity since disciplines have their own sub-cultures and languages, sometimes recognised by their speakers and sometimes not. Communication across disciplines may become another obstacle for teams. And this without the added complexity of working across national and cultural boundaries.
Managing and co-ordinating groups are skills which researchers have not often needed on their pathway to becoming established researchers. Some disciplines are long-used to working in teams while in others the lone scholar is still the norm.
Hence, interdisciplinary research while being regarded as exciting and highly innovative, is not undertaken as successfully as might be expected.
Even though the barriers listed above seem discouraging, it is the integration of different perspectives that makes interdisciplinary research so valuable when it is done well. It is not simply offering a cross- or multi-disciplinary perspective. An integrative understanding, synthesising a number of approaches to a research question from very different perspectives, is a necessary skill. Those with this skill are often great minds, and when they are also public intellectuals, truly inspiring. (You will probably have your own list of scholars who can do this.)
Of course, none of this would matter a jot to Feldenkrais practitioners were it not for the fact that the Method needs more scholarly research.
Feldenkrais himself embodied the pursuit of interdisciplinary scholarship unafraid to step beyond the boundaries where he had most expertise. He had great facility with language and his knowledge of several languages, meant he was not limited by a single national or cultural perspective. Despite Feldenkrais’ own academic credentials, his outstanding intellectual ability and his many friends in the Academy, the Feldenkrais Method seems to have rarely been taken seriously by international academia. Puzzlingly it has remained a fringe activity for the cognoscenti who know its power to change lives for the better. It is a formidable task to establish the academic credibility of the Method in all the domains in which it is relevant and it requires access to researchers and grants to support high quality research, as well as its dissemination.
However, the Feldenkrais Method is in a unique position as regards research, in that it is by its very nature interdisciplinary, addressing the whole person in its approach to learning and somatics. Human beings are matter conscious of itself – the Method straddling these twin aspects of our existence. Much of the power of ‘western knowledge’ has come from its reductionist approach best exemplified by the scientific method. The wholism demanded by Feldenkrais makes it challenging to integrate into research programmes supported by tertiary organisations.
The Method lends itself to a range of disciplines that work synergistically to provide the kinds of evidence needed to ensure that it rightfully contributes to an increasing body of knowledge about what it means to be human. As with all research in the end it is the quality and intellectual audacity of the research questions that generate great research and new knowledge: What do we want to know? What does our public need to know about our work?
A grand vision would be to see an international research project involving the whole range of scholarly disciplines that the Feldenkrais Method rests on. What we need is a collective effort for understanding how we could make it happen.