#InterdisciplinaryConversations with Dr. Isabel Fletcher

In this #InterdisciplinaryConversations with Dr. Isabel Fletcher we discuss her experiences and identity as an interdisciplinary researcher, and some of the challenges of working in interdisciplinary collaborations as a social scientist.

Isabel is a senior research fellow in Science Technology and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh, with a background as a qualitative social scientist and a research focus on the interactions between nutrition research and public health policy, and how these influence everyday eating.

Identity and labels

When asked about her research identity, Isabel spoke about how she’d always been interdisciplinary, but has only recently applied the interdisciplinary label to herself for an approach that she’s always had. When asked how she describes herself to others, Isabel says “that totally depends on context”. She has described herself variably as a social scientist, a medical sociologist, a medical historian and expert in food policy. She says she has a “peculiar overlapping set of identities”, but primarily describes herself as a social scientist with an interest in food and diet, using her empirical grounding to describe what she’s interested in rather than a particular disciplinary home.

A “fragmented” research record

I ask whether having a flexible identity that depends on context affects her ability to find the common thread that links all her research together. “Sometimes” she says, though she thinks that the nature of working on short term contracts on different projects has perhaps had a bigger impact on her disparate collection of publications. She says she’s not alone in this, but perhaps being interdisciplinary has made her publication record seem slightly more fragmented to others.

I ask how having a slightly more complicated research record has affected her. Isabel says that in terms of her career progression, it has made it a bit slower, as it’s taken a while to figure out what her research interests are. She says that if you can’t stay in one small specialised place then you have to do the work to find out how your work hangs together, which makes it more complicated for interdisciplinary researchers. She goes on to say that though she works in an institute where researchers have a shared empirical research interests, there aren’t other researchers who share her specific interest in food, so she couldn’t point to a group of people and go “I’m like them”. This makes it much harder to describe yourself to others.

DIY research communities

I ask if she’s had to find or develop her own academic community. Isabel says “partly, yes”. She co-convenes a network of other Food Researchers in Edinburgh (FRIED). “I felt the need to go out and find other people working in the same area”, she says.  “Though it’s useful to speak to others who share a similar empirical or methodological approach, you want to talk to people who work in similar areas”, she says. “I like dialogue with other researchers, making connections with them, and finding out what’s going on in a research field”. She says it’s a bit more of a DIY approach to what most researchers do anyway to find their communities. “We [interdisciplinary researchers] have to actually sometimes build the infrastructure for our communities as well. You can’t just go to existing forums or publications and find them there”, she adds.

Social sciences as an “add-on”

Interdisciplinary research can sometimes be described or perceived as a risky choice in academia. I ask Isabel if she thinks it has been risky for her and what particular challenges she has encountered. She says that in her area there is a lot of top down demand for interdisciplinary research to solve complex societal problems, and a lot of impetus from funders to generate new knowledge and effective solutions to these significant issues. She says that this seems quite rhetorical, as the answers are largely still seen to be based in the sciences, and the social sciences as kind of an add-on. She says that it feels like something that people know should be included in proposals, but they don’t necessarily understand what it is or what you do, adding “Some scientists, not all scientists, convey [that they are] very dismissive of social science”. She says that when she starts talking more sociologically, that you can see you’re losing people. It takes time to learn to speak someone else’s [academic] language, she says, and not everyone will be motivated or interested in learning new terminologies or understand how others think about things.

I ask how she’s overcome these communication barriers. She says it’s hard because if she makes it too accessible, then people think its just common sense. But if she uses too much jargon, then people will just switch off. I ask if it makes a difference if others in an interdisciplinary collaboration are already aware of these communication issues. She says “I’m not sure how much people think about them”. Isabel says that sometimes we can use the same vocabulary, but they mean different things, so it can take a long time to realise that you mean different things. She says that “it’s often the social scientists, in a non-social science context, who is expected to learn the language. It is not reciprocal”. There are power structures between disciplines, and it’s hard when you are the one expected to put in the effort to learn about someone else’s discipline, she says.

We discuss being researchers on interdisciplinary teams, and how easy it is to be misunderstood when even the basic foundational concepts of our disciplines are not understood by the other. This all introduces extra time and effort by all to accomplish even the most basic shared understanding. “It’s hard work”, Isabel says.

Interdisciplinary going forward

I ask if she sees herself continuing as an interdisciplinary researcher. Isabel says that she will continue in her field of interest, which is inherently interdisciplinary, but whether she will continue to describe herself as interdisciplinary is not sure. She thinks that the model where interdisciplinary research solves societal problems is going to remain, and the top-down calls for large collaborative projects will continue. She would like to see more bottom up forms of interdisciplinarity, with appropriate structures in place to allow for more time to build the necessary relationships to do it properly.

Watch clips of the conversation here

To view clips for each section of the conversation scroll down through the videos to the right of the main image


Further resources


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