Mind the Discipline Gap

The Interpersonal Entrainment in Music Performance (IEMP) project is an international collaboration between researchers who share a common interest in how musicians play in time together and how aspects of musical timing/coordination vary cross culturally. As the project involves around 20 researchers from various disciplines including ethnomusicology, music psychology, and computer science, it is not only turning out to be a substantial source of research outputs, but also an exercise in learning to collaborate and share ideas between scholars whose backgrounds and training differ substantially.

It’s been one year since I started working as a postdoc on this project, and I write this post as a means of compiling some reflections on what I’ve learned so far from the experience in terms of how to navigate the inherently challenging task of achieving interdisciplinarity.

1. Developing a dialogue

During the first few months of the IEMP project, I sometimes struggled to start meaningful conversations about the research with collaborators from other disciplines. At first I couldn’t quite figure out why colleagues didn’t necessarily get as excited about an idea as I did or didn’t instantly latch on to my line of reasoning. I eventually worked out that I was often assuming certain prerequisite knowledge, or assuming everyone uses the same definitions or jargon as I do, and have realized that making such assumptions can be detrimental and misleading. This has nothing to do with collaborators being less knowledgeable or less informed, and rather results from different disciplines having very different conventions in terms of methods, terminology, thought processes for working through a problem, etc. As a result of this realization, I have worked on developing the ability to be more explicit and meticulous in my wording, without assuming that a subtext can be inferred if I do not make a particular assertion aloud. Such a process may require more words and more time, but ultimately making sure everyone is on the same page from day one can save hours of wasted time in the long run.

Ethnomusicologists and music psychologists engrossed in conversation.

2. Flexibility of approach

A major problem that can arise in interdisciplinary research is the discipline-centric view of “my methods are better than yours”. I can’t claim that I’ve 100% overcome this mode of thinking, but I am trying to take a more flexible outlook. I am fortunate in the IEMP project because careful thought has been put into involving researchers who are leading experts in their respective fields; thus, developing the ability to put my trust in approaches that are not entirely familiar to me has been easier than it might be in some circumstances. I am continuing to work on keeping an open mind and taking the perspective of other disciplines into account when considering how to go about solving a problem.

3. Taking risks

When I was first offered this job, some colleagues suggested that the project seemed a bit “risky”. I am not going to claim here that I entirely disagree with this assessment, but rather have recognized that interdisciplinarity often (always?) involves some calculated risks. Combining methods or ways of working that have not previously been combined always comes with an element of uncertainty as to whether things will work out as intended. In some cases it may also be difficult to publish interdisciplinary research, which might not fit squarely into a ‘pure’ music journal, or ‘pure’ psychology journal, etc. (although there are more and more journals these days that are publishing research purely based on the solidity of the methods, rather than disciplinary classification, whilst others are even acknowledging interdisciplinarity in their titles, such as Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal). In particular, as an early career researcher it might be more precarious to get involved in projects that take risks, since this is a stage when one needs to be developing a solid publication output and, unfortunately, this is often done by sticking to low-risk projects that have a high probability of producing easily publishable results. However, I have found that in general the benefits here have outweighed the costs, in particular in terms of developing new skills, expanding my range of knowledge, and widening my academic network. In addition, “risky” projects that do succeed can lead to far more novel and interesting insights than studies that merely follow the status quo of using standard approaches from a single discipline.

A psychologist, mathematician, and ethnomusicologist design a study at the IEMP workshop.

4. Aligning standards and goals

Researchers from different fields have different ways of working and different goals they want to achieve. This is perhaps an obvious statement, but one that I’ve had to keep in mind constantly during the course of the project. For instance, I’ve had a music colleague ask how one writes a paper with multiple authors involved (something very typical for me, but not common practice to many researchers, particularly in the humanities). Even in fields where multiple authors are common, there are sometimes different standards in terms of what type of contribution is necessitated to merit authorship on a paper. As such, it has been crucial to set some standards and guidelines for authorship on various outputs in the IEMP project, as well as to be able to maintain an open and transparent dialogue about such issues. Different fields also value different types of research outputs, from journal articles to monographs to conference proceedings, whereas others might see a collection of audio/video recordings of musical performances as a major output in and of itself. In such cases it is important to produce a wide range of outputs, so that collaborators from certain disciplines are not benefiting from the project substantially more than others; in the IEMP project in particular we aim to produce most of the aforementioned types of outputs, including both a variety of types of written publications and a cross-cultural corpus of annotated audio and video data.

5. “Make new friends but keep the old”

It’s great getting to know people from a variety of research backgrounds, but at the end of the day it has also been very important to me to be able to fall back on support from colleagues who are on a similar wavelength to myself. This is perhaps quite a salient point to me because as music psychologist, my work inherently sits between two disciplines, which can often lead to feelings of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole: In my previous job, I spent several years feeling like musician disguised as a psychologist; now I have a post where I feel like a psychologist surrounded by humanities scholars. I haven’t entirely decided which is the better situation, but honestly I don’t think it matters as long as one can also maintain connections with colleagues with similar interests and disciplinary backgrounds, including making collaborations in other departments or other universities if needed. I am lucky to have this type of support in the Music & Science Lab at Durham, as well as via various external collaborations.


One thought on “Mind the Discipline Gap

  1. Thanks for this, Kelly! I find myself in a similar situation, starting a new project combining music, psychology, neuroscience, sports science, and the military. I am working at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York. Just trying to clearly define what I am looking for has been a challenge, but I am ok with letting the experts in each field guide the study. Your study looks really great and I look foward to seeing where it takes you and your team.


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