I am working on an interdisciplinary proposal with a really interestingly broad range of colleagues. In the mix are people who do research in computer graphics, user interfaces, child language development, data collection, parallel computation, interactive storytelling and other things besides. All of the pieces fit together, but no one participant knows enough about all of these fields to be able to see the entire picture down to its details.
For example, I may understand perfectly well why parallel computation is useful to me, yet I might not be able to understand the details of a technical paper by one of my colleagues that explains his research results in that field. And that’s the key: I don’t need to understand how his field works to be able to work with my colleague, but I do need to understand what his field accomplishes.
This kind of thing comes up all the time. The people who work together on a movie — actors, director, producer, gaffer, best boy, and so on — don’t all know how the others do their jobs. But they understand enough of the results of that expertise that they can successfully make a movie together. There are similar principles at work in many collaborative endeavors, from building a house to putting out a magazine to running a country.
I think the reason such interdisciplinary links are more elusive in research is that there is no pre-defined driving problem, no movie to make, house to build or magazine to publish. It’s easy to do exploratory research in your own field, but much harder once that research starts to cut across fields with vastly different areas of expertise.
So it occurs to me that it might be interesting to build an interdisciplinary map, on which a field is “located” not according to how it works, but according to what other fields make use of it, and vice versa. Such a map would make it much easier to work out a kind of geography of research, an entire world of potentially fruitful collaborations across disciplines. Deciding where to live in this world (or just to drop by and visit) wouldn’t be so much about what your intellectual neighbors do within their own homes, but about the quality of the discussions you can have with them over the fence.