The Practice of Interdisciplinarity

By Janet Stephenson, Rob Lawson, Gerry Carrington, Barry Barton, Paul Thorsnes and Miranda Mirosa.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

There is a rocky chasm between the promise of interdisciplinary research and successful interdisciplinary research practice. As a group of researchers from New Zealand, based in five different disciplines (consumer psychology, economics, sociology, law, engineering), we share an interest in the behaviour of energy consumers, but understand behaviour through very different lenses. Initially we were mutually baffled by our discipline-specific languages and diverse theoretical stances. Over a period of time, however, we developed ways of working together to realise the benefits of collaboration. In this paper we reflect on the differences between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, and discuss the practices we have adopted that support interdisciplinarity. These include the importance of trust, focusing on a problem, being aware of limits, sharing a common intellectual framework, testing ideas across the disciplines, and practicing interdisciplinarity at every level of the research project. We suggest that not all people are comfortable with interdisciplinary work, and draw parallels with Kohlberg’s ‘stages of moral development’, in that interdisciplinarians need to be ‘post-conventional’ in the sense that they do not feel bound by the conventions of their own discipline and recognise the legitimacy and value of other perspectives and methods of inquiry.

Keywords: Interdisciplinary Research, Research Practice, Post-conventional, Peer Review, Energy Cultures

International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 5, Issue 7, pp.271-282. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 661.728KB).

Dr. Janet Stephenson

Senior Reseach Fellow, Centre for the Study of Agriculture, Food and Environment, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

Dr. Stephenson has a background in sociology, planning and geography. Her research interests are in socio-cultural interactions with the environment, particularly in response to changes and challenges. She co-leads two 3-year interdisciplinary research projects. ‘Energy Cultures’ examines drivers of household energy behaviours and barriers to behavioural change, and Tirohia he Huarahi (Plans Power Partnerships) is a cross-cultural research project on Māori resource management. She also has a particular research interest in perceptions of landscapes, and in how to reconcile the multiple interpretations of landscape qualities as expressed by different disciplines and by communities.

Prof. Rob Lawson

Professor, Marketing Department, Commerce Division, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

Prof. Lawson’s special area of expertise is in the study of consumer behaviour, though he also has interests in the development of marketing theory. Within consumer behaviour his research has been concentrated into two broad areas: tourist behaviour, and the values and lifestyles of NZ consumers. In the latter area he is co-leader with Sarah Todd of the New Zealand consumer lifestyles project and Rob has been involved with four out of the five major surveys since the project was first run in 1979. The latest data was collected at the end of 2005. Other recent and current projects have involved work on fruit and vegetable consumption, levels of physical activity and the growth and development of farmers’ markets. He is co-leader of the Energy Cultures project.

Prof. Gerry Carrington

Professor, Physics Department, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

Prof. Carrington’s research interests in energy and energy efficiency have resulted in over 94 research publications, two patents, 30 industry reports and one text book. His contributions to engineering were recently recognised by his election as fellow of the Institution of Professional Engineers, NZ. Since 1998 he has had a key role in the development of an Applied Science degree programme at the University of Otago. He was also Head of the Department of Physics from January 2003 to December 2007.

Prof. Barry Barton

Professor, School of Law, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand

Professor Barry Barton’s field of research is energy, natural resources and environmental law. Climate change, energy policy and energy security hold a growing importance, and present special legal challenges. Barry analyzes the theory of regulation, industry self-regulation, and the relationship between regulation and effective markets. Professor Barry Barton is Chairperson of the Academic Advisory Group of the Section on Energy, Environment, Natural Resources and Infrastructure Law of the International Bar Association, a Director of the Environmental Defence Society, and Editor of the Australian Resources and Energy Law Journal.

Dr. Paul Thorsnes

Senior Lecturer, Department of Economics, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

Dr. Thorsnes’ research interests are primarily in the areas of urban/regional and environmental economics and policy. Recent research includes estimates of the effect on housing prices of environmental amenities, such as proximity to natural areas and the clean-up of industrial sites, and analyses of mechanisms with which to allocate resources to the production of urban amenities. Paul’s teaching interests are in microeconomics, urban/regional economics, and environmental economics. He has taught previously at the University of Oregon and Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Dr. Miranda Mirosa

Co-ordinator, Energy Cultures Project, Centre for the Study of Agriculture, Food and Environment, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

Miranda Mirosa is currently the Project Co-ordinator for the Energy Cultures project. She also lectures in the Food Science Department at the University of Otago. Miranda is a consumer behaviour researcher and her research includes anti-consumption, sustainable consumption (especially in the context of food and energy), consumer movements and activism. She finished her PhD at the end of 2009 which was entitled: Dynamic ideologies: Insights from the Slow Food Movement. Using a qualitative research methodology, the thesis explored the interaction between consumer movements and ideological change.

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