- Sustaining Interdisciplinary Collaboration: A Guide for the Academy by Regina F. Bendix, Kilian Bizer, and Dorothy Noyes
In this engaging work, Regina Bendix, Kilian Bizer, and Dorothy Noyes offer a personally inflected ethnographic window onto the complexities of sustaining a large, multinational, multi-year collaborative project. Although these types of projects are somewhat foreign to the American university experience, particularly in the humanities and qualitative social sciences, they form the backbone of the modern European research environment. Five-to six-year funded projects that span multiple universities, include international researchers, and rely on the domain expertise of colleagues from multiple disciplines are becoming the coin of the European research university realm. These projects provide long-term support for PhD students and postdocs alike and sustain the research endeavors of faculty investigators. The three co-authors were members of one such interdisciplinary team funded by the German Research Foundation. The project, with the overarching title “Interdisciplinary Research Group on Cultural Property,” consisted of six sub-projects, with titles as diverse as “New Challenges for the International Law on Culture” and “Geographic Indications: Culinary Heritage as Cultural Property.” The group, which included researchers in the fields of law, economics, anthropology, ethnology, and folklore, created a website that serves as an excellent companion as one reads through the book (http://cultural-property.uni-goettingen.de/).
Bendix, Bizer, and Noyes write with a humorous and light touch, outlining the pitfalls in constituting the group, developing the research proposal, and, once funded, developing the productive rhythms of a long-term research project with the waxing and waning engagement of senior researchers coupled to the comings and goings of PhD students and junior researchers. Over the course of seven chapters, all framed by a broad range of ethnographic, economic, and cultural theories, the authors provide a multifaceted view of the complexities of this type of research project and the difficulties of aligning work where there is at times little agreement on the questions driving the research. The ongoing negotiation of research problems and the challenges of community-building emerge as leitmotifs of the book.
The first chapter, “The Interdisciplinary Project as Social Form,” makes clear the challenges confronting humanities researchers who, in the authors’ formulation, are “expected to elucidate rather than reduce complexity” (p. 1). They note that the demands of the grant-writing process force these qualitative researchers into a position of “translating their idiom, distorting their paradigms, and misrepresenting the logic of their procedures” to align with the goals of the funding agencies (p. 7). The authors conclude that this process ultimately leads to inefficiencies, resulting in a “surcharge of time and effort on those researchers least able to pay it,” namely, those from the humanities and qualitative social sciences (p. 7). The chapter ends with a series of “layered” challenges confronting researchers as they engage with funding mechanisms primarily constituted for the hard sciences. These four challenges, broadly conceived as interpersonal, intellectual, professional, and institutional, form the basis for the ensuing chapters, where the interdependence of these challenges is explored in greater detail. As the authors note, their exploration of these challenges is based largely on participant-observation and “approaches the persistent challenges of interdisciplinarity from the ground level . . . draw[ing] on particular experience [End Page 79] rather than rigorous survey research” (p. 11). Consequently, the book represents a theoretically grounded case study of the dynamics of a research community, and thus it will appeal to folklorists on two levels: first, it stands as an ethnography of a particular community of practice, and, second, it offers experiential insight into community life inside a complex research project.
The title of the second chapter, “Zones, Exchanges, Boundaries, Communities: Thick and Thin Interdisciplinarity,” gestures toward the ethnographic theories of Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz, while the authors’ discussions are deeply informed by economic anthropology and Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of cultural capital. The authors explore the implications of various modes of engagement across and through disciplinary boundaries and recognize the unevenness in distributions that...