If there is one trait that unifies scientists across disciplines, it’s probably skepticism. I say “probably”, because, well I’m a scientist. And if you’re a scientist too, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, where’s the data on that?”. This skeptical attitude is a prerequisite; it’s what leads scientists to pursue their careers in the first place. This constant questioning means your research is also subject to the scrutiny of peers in your field. Your findings may be better able to withstand this skepticism if you open yourself up to the possibilities of interdisciplinary research.
Scientists expect substantial evidence behind any claim before they’re willing to consider it. This means before you can proclaim your discoveries to the scientific community, you need extensive data that shows your “thing” is in fact, a “thing”.
This burden of proof may be even more stringent in the social sciences. Studying humans and their complicated social structures is difficult. And for every claim you make, someone can cite a study that already found the opposite. Humans are not like the subjects of “harder” sciences, where a claim can be demonstrated by the push of a button or the mixing of chemicals.
So, if you have a hypothesis, it must be tested over and over in a variety of circumstances with a variety of tools. Doing so allows you to converge toward a complete answer to your research question. Studying people via self-report surveys, behavioral observations, and open ended interviews are all strategies that when used together, draw in different pieces of information that couldn’t be captured by one measure alone. If a hypothesis can withstand this multi-method battery, it may be enough evidence to convince other scientists as well.
The importance of establishing the validity of research ideas and eliminating as much bias as possible has long been understood. As social scientists, we are taught the virtues of mixing methodologies early in our careers, often as undergraduates. But what about mixing fields?
Combining the strengths and insights of another scientific discipline can provide a more holistic understanding of people and the world they live in. For many social scientists, though, our idea of interdisciplinary research often doesn’t reach far. Maybe a psychologist will incorporate research tools from anthropology for a different perspective on human behavior. Or political scientists may turn to principles of sociology to think about ideological relationships in a new way. The idea of reaching beyond these nearby fields to improve our research can be significantly more daunting, though.
Incorporating the insights and tools from fields that seem further away, like biology, is easier than most social scientists might think. And it can have huge payoffs in bringing you closer to your sought after complete answer. If you’re already a scientist, you know that you can become pretty close to an expert on any topic after some reading. All that’s really standing in your way of conducting biological research is jargon and a few supplies.
Tying social processes to physiological ones like stress, immune function, or hormonal changes can provide a more thorough understanding of your phenomenon of interest. It doesn’t hurt that being open to, and unafraid of, biological measures also allows you to ask bigger questions that might not be solvable using the resources of your field alone.
This is what drew me to join the team of researchers at Eos BioAnalytics. I was “brought up” in my academic career as a social psychologist. In my mind, there were social psychologist tools to answer social psychologist questions. The ability to mix my interests in psychology with my lifelong love of biology was something I had never seriously considered. But my eyes were opened when I saw my Eos colleagues has a different, more modern approach to science.
Interdisciplinary research appears to be the next wave in the social sciences. Incorporating these tools into your research is easier than it’s made out to be, and the benefits go beyond getting a complete answer to your current scientific questions. Injecting your research with the knowledge of multiple fields will allow you to answer bigger questions, and set you up to be a significant player in the future of social science.