Published in the Winter 2012 issue of SSA Magazine
Think about all the factors that can influence a young adult’s decisions about risky sexual behavior. There’s the relationship with the partner, parental advice, logistical opportunity, cultural norms, peer standards, psychological needs and fears, an understanding of the possible consequences, and, of course, the underlying biology of desire.
A similar mix of dynamics is woven into almost any issue that social workers confront, from homelessness to early education. Humans are extraordinarily complex, and the social constructs we operate within are as complicated. It’s why social work is naturally an interdisciplinary enterprise. “For social workers there is always a discourse about the need to understand the multiple factors that contribute to complex social problems. As a result, much of our work, in both practice and research, is inherently interdisciplinary,” explains Assistant Professor Alida Bouris.
SSA has long recognized this reality in its scholarship. Professors at the School have backgrounds and training in social work, sociology, psychology, anthropology, public health, political science, economics, geography and more, and SSA researchers routinely draw on a variety of social sciences in their work. For example, Assistant Professor Heather Hill, who studies how parents’ employment impacts their children, says her understanding of the questions she explores would be incomplete if she failed to draw on the work done in multiple disciplines.
“We have a deep understanding here at SSA that bringing together both the theory and the methods of various disciplines offers a more complete picture of why social problems develop and how public policy can resolve those issues,” Hill says. “For example, from economics I get the most complete understanding of the labor market, how jobs are designed and how incentives work to affect individuals’ behaviors about choosing a job. But from developmental psychology I get a much more detailed and nuanced understanding of how children’s development is affected at different ages by the family context, the macro context of the economy and societal-level forces.”
Unfortunately, traditional academic settings are far from conducive in integrating knowledge across fields. Different disciplines have different research paradigms and nomenclature, and there are few structures available to help bridge these divides. Furthermore, a researcher can be discouraged from drawing too much from multiple disciplines out of fear that she might blur her scholarly identity. Recognizing these realities, the University of Chicago has made a commitment to work across fields, including several projects with an interdisciplinary focus, including the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture and the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy, as well as an ongoing series of workshops for graduate students with an interdisciplinary focus.
Building on SSA’s history of scholarship that breaks down academic silos and the University’s interest in interdisciplinary work, SSA Dean and Mose & Sylvia Firestone Professor Neil Guterman launched a new program this year that encourages collaboration at a structural level. The Interdisciplinary Scholar Networks offer research funding and a range of other administrative supports to spur teams of SSA faculty to develop platforms for reaching across disciplinary and institutional boundaries.
The first two new Interdisciplinary Scholar Networks housed within SSA began operating in the fall, each focused on advancing knowledge and contributing to innovative solutions to a specific social problem. One is centered on the causes and consequences of employment instability; the other will explore the disproportionate impact of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) on the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in the U.S. and abroad.
“The concept grew out of the fact that we at SSA deal with such deep problems—poverty, unemployment, homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse, violence—that are all messy, complicated and multiply-caused,” Guterman says. “Therefore one discipline rarely has a corner on an explanation that can generate really robust solutions. So the idea was to bring together the greatest minds across disciplines to generate ideas that are more comprehensive, more integrated and de-siloed.”
Working across disciplines is one of those lofty ideals that is preached more than practiced in many academic settings, according to researchers and administrators alike. Issues like competition for grant funding and determining which conferences to attend or which journals to publish in create disincentives, and it can be challenging for a young tenure-track scholar to contribute depth in their own discipline while also being methodologically ambidextrous.
“The reward and incentive structure in academia is not based on working across disciplines,” says Laurie Garduque, a program director at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. “It’s designed so that individuals become specialists in specific areas with a paradigm that is specific to a particular field. So a sociologist doesn’t necessarily step outside of her research paradigm to think like a psychologist.”
To try to encourage just that sort of scholarly cross-pollination, the MacArthur Foundation has maintained a number of interdisciplinary research networks focused on a wide range of issues, from law to neuroscience, for more than 35 years. Its original interdisciplinary venture was a program devoted to human development and mental health. According to Garduque, the foundation’s board of directors believed that the best way to affect mental health policy and research was to provide a mechanism for convening practitioners, academic researchers, mental health advocates, state commissioners and judges to gather around the table to help frame the issues and ask research questions that inform both policy and practice. “The implication of this kind of collaborative approach is that it’s more transparent and makes the research more immediately accessible and useful,” Garduque says.
Initially, MacArthur tried to foster collaboration by creating centers at universities to bring scholars from various disciplines together. “People said they were going to work together,” Garduque recalls, “but in the end they remained in their silos.” So the MacArthur board shifted gears, creating a new infrastructure to lure individual scholars working in certain problem areas who felt they had reached the limits of their own research, training and background and sincerely wanted to work across disciplines. “We look for the psychologist who feels that he or she needs to work with a sociologist to understand the context or the political scientist or an economist to explain the phenomenon,” Garduque explains.
The MacArthur example, in many ways, is one of the models on which the SSA Interdisciplinary Scholar Networks are based. Guterman had also briefly initiated an interdisciplinary working group before leaving the faculty of Columbia University, where groups of colleagues across the New York-based campus met periodically to discuss the problem of child maltreatment. But the Columbia enterprise yielded no ongoing tangible work. “What we didn’t do much of there was collaborate,” Guterman recalls. “We just talked to each other.
“One of the reasons that I came to the University of Chicago and SSA is that this is such an exciting interdisciplinary environment with a wonderful interdisciplinary ethos,” he says. “People across disciplines do interact frequently and the thinking is enriched rather than polarized by that. But there are rather strong centrifugal forces that pull colleagues away from one another and into their silos. I wanted to develop a vessel through this initiative to bring scholars together deliberately to try to overcome some of that inertia.”
Each of the networks is headed by a team of SSA faculty members who serve as principal or co principal investigators, working with a network of disparate scholars, policy makers and other stakeholders both from within the University of Chicago and from peer institutions. The networks are designed to establish new activities—collaborative empirical studies, new scholarly journals, commissioned volumes or conferences—that reward rather than penalize scholars for interdisciplinary work. The funding used to launch the networks is viewed as seed money for an incubatory phase. Ultimately, it will be incumbent upon the scholars involved in the networks to develop mechanisms to ensure their own long-term sustainability.
“These new scholar networks will connect theory to practice in the highest intellectual tradition of the University,” says University of Chicago Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum, “while at the same time linking some of our most influential social welfare researchers with leading scholars across the nation. I look forward to the creation of a powerful new tradition at SSA.”