Mirror, mirror on the wall – interdisciplinarity is the winner after all? Discussing interdisciplinarity in relation to the sport sciences

Leah M. Monsees
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

It is not a secret that we live in a world of growing interconnectedness. The consequences and changes global development carries are not a stranger to academia either. What counts as knowledge and what actually constitutes reliable science, or as Kuhn (1996) likes to call it ‘normal science’ (p. 5), has, if not for a very long time, been challenged. Reason and Bradbury (2006) argue that the positivist approach has lost its usefulness, suggesting that contemporary research paradigms are “systemic, holistic, relational, feminine and experiential” (p. 5). Coming from a non-sport science background and finding myself in this realm has led to different reactions in the past. On the one hand, there is the negative connotation that a non-expert is ‘intruding’ the field, which can cause confusion, or even doubt. On the other hand, it leads to reactions of curiosity, if not even astonishment. Over time, an interdisciplinary researcher learns to have their expertise doubted, but also to interpret the question of “how did you end up here?” depending on the intonation of the person asking. After all, it is a fine line between a curious “what brought you here?” and a hostile “you realize you do not belong, right?”. While to some of us researchers a diverse and interdisciplinary background is an opportunity to grow, learn beyond certain boundaries and develop into well-rounded scientists, it is a red flag to those who believe in specialization as a key component to academic success and valuable contributions to the field. Therefore, the main question I am discussing in this paper reads as follows:

What are possible strengths and weaknesses of having an interdisciplinary academic background in relation to the sports sciences, specifically to its future, but also to my own PhD research project and my academic career post-PhD?

Interdisciplinarity: an introduction

Haag (1979) divides science into two categories: discipline-oriented sciences and theme-oriented sciences (p. 26f.). While discipline-oriented sciences derive from “classical” sciences such as, but not limited to, theology, philosophy, law, or mathematics, theme-oriented disciplines constitute fields with a certain problem or theme (p. 27), for example nutrition sciences, information sciences, or even the relatively new field of sport sciences. One thing the latter usually have in common, is that they tend to be interdisciplinary (Singer et al., 1972). Aboelela et al. (2007) define interdisciplinary research as research

undertaken by scholars from two or more distinct scientific disciplines. The research is based upon a conceptual model that links or integrates theoretical frameworks from those disciplines, uses study design and methodology that is not limited to any one field, and requires the use of perspectives and skills of the involved disciplines throughout multiple phases of the research process. In other words, (…) one needs to look at culture, pedagogy (and), psychology as well as movement science” (p. 341).

However, many interdisciplinary scientists struggle to attain recognition from researchers coming from a discipline-oriented field (Heinemann, 1986:278). The struggle of what counts as valid science thus seems to continue.

We shall, however, not mix up “interdisciplinarity” with concepts such as “multidisciplinarity” or “transdisciplinarity”. Though similar in sound, they all approach the research differently. Klein (1990:56) describes multidisciplinarity as several disciplines coming together to independently investigate and work on the same research problem. Therefore, the disciplines in themselves remain unaltered and non-integrative. Transdisciplinarity requires the integration of “theories, concepts, and approaches from one or more disciplines as an over-arching conceptual framework to address issues in a number of disciplines” (ibid., 31). Whereas interdisciplinarity can be defined as “the interaction among different disciplines to approach a well-defined issue potentially leading to a new discipline” (Fargier et al., 2017:42). Instead of letting the young field of sport science drift further into increasing specialization and fragmentation, its future hopefully may merge seemingly incompatible theories and methods into new and innovative paradigms.

Interdisciplinarity: the cure for a fragmented field?

It is important to keep in mind that scholars like Lawson (1993) or Hellison (1992) have been pointing towards a direction of acceptance for each other’s fields and collaboration with each other for more than 20 years. While Camy et al. (2017) claim that “one of the defining features of the developing field of sport science is its multi- and interdisciplinary nature” (31), Weingart (2000) argues that science seems to go the other way and specialization is expanding. Adding to this, Bastow et al. (2014) point out that increased complexity and fragmentation imply “that new systems will be needed to re-simplify and reconnect what might otherwise become detached or out of sync” (p. 106).

Profiting from having easier access to peers and disciplines worldwide these days, Nissani (1997) emphasizes that interdisciplinary research offers creative breakthroughs and a possibility to dive into and explore gaps between disciplines. The interconnectedness of today’s world is an opportunity for scholars to increasingly engage with global networking and getting in contact with sub-disciplines (Block and Estes, 2011). Therefore, it only makes sense to focus on collaborative research including multiple perspectives when we dive into the pool of social sciences. This does not mean that we should completely lose sight of a specific area of interest. For example, when talking about the future of sport philosophy, Hopsicker and Hochstetler (2016) write that “given the recent interdisciplinary nature of the academy, the time is ripe for sport philosophers to engage in broad ways while still retaining sub-disciplinary ties that continue to advance theoretical knowledge in the field” (p. 248). Park (1998) adds to this statement, arguing that we are in desperate need for research to contribute to the entire field, rather than to just one component. This claim is further supported by Feingold (2013), stating that if we study human beings, we cannot just study one part, but must look at the individual as a whole. While specialization then often leads to expertise in one small part of the discipline, it can mislead the scientist to become blind to what is going on around them, as well as failing to become a well-rounded multi-faceted researcher who can navigate themselves through a variety of disciplines.

In his book Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Lessons for School Leaders, Nelson Beaudoin (2005), writes: “Maintaining the status quo or taking the most comfortable route does not often create the necessary stimulus for different outcomes to occur (…). The desired results of improving (…) are more likely to transpire in a climate of innovation” (p. xiv). While innovation can certainly take place within one single discipline, the possibilities for innovation in an interdisciplinary setting certainly multiply the more interdisciplinary one tends to work. Whether one dares and enjoys operating outside of one’s comfort zone is surely up to each individual, and for some might be a question of sacrificing their reputation within their discipline. Since most researchers get socialized within their very own academic bubble (Urbanska et al., 2019), a fairly non-interdisciplinary environment may lead to reinforced ingroup bias (Chiu et al., 2013). A certain sense of belonging to one specific group or discipline is “especially likely to occur when the status hierarchy is perceived as stable and legitimate” (Urbanska et al., 2019:3). As discipline-oriented sciences are often viewed as more valuable in terms of how knowledge is produced than the social sciences, the step towards leaving the comfort zone and increasing interdisciplinary research into their work seems to be especially “risky” for researchers who mainly engage with the more traditional sciences. What then are possible motivations to voluntarily try to bring change to one’s own group that has successfully held hegemonic power in the world of science? And how does this debate relate to my own background, research project and future academic career in the sport sciences?

Interdisciplinarity: a reflection

Mortenson (2012) argues that fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059. Looking at this number, it is even more important for future sport scientists to ensure that their research projects not only add value to themselves and their own institution, but more importantly make sure that the relevance of their research findings is available and understandable to policymakers and wider parts of society (Block & Estes, 2011). Long gone are the times in which academia owns the monopoly on exclusively possessing and distributing knowledge, keeping in mind that we live in a world in which information can be accessed from almost anywhere in the world through the internet (ibid.). Therefore, it is important to my research to not only produce knowledge that will be of interest to the academic world, but rather go beyond a mere publication in a journal and instead be of practical use to, for example, the people in charge of the sports-development programs that I will have a look at for possible adjustments; higher authorities in charge of youth sport development; the ministry of culture and education; and possible other stakeholders. Having been socialized in an interdisciplinary environment throughout my entire upper secondary-education, research has naturally always been a process of exchange, a process in which knowledge can be retrieved and given from and to many directions.

Being a PhD student in the sport sciences at Malmö University, despite only having taken no more than 45 ECTS in sports-related topics, is a good lived example that a lot of knowledge can be transferred and applied to other disciplines if we only dare to look beyond the horizon. Having academic degrees in peace research and gender studies, my education was always heavily concerned with the topics of social justice and social equality. How can we improve society? And how can we increase social justice and equality? Looking back at my academic background, I have dedicated the majority of my higher education to trying to serve the greater good. And while sport can easily be connected to the topic of equality and social justice, justice and equality might not be the first associations coming to mind when one thinks of sport. This does by no means imply that non-social scientists like mathematicians are not contributing to society by teaching their students how to calculate something, or that thousands of engineers are not working to improve everyone’s daily lives by inventing new and handy devices. My point here is that a lot of discipline-oriented research is interpenetrated and informed by theme-oriented disciplines (Bastow et al., 2014:21), and “equally the social sciences themselves incorporate many toolkits and approaches inherited from or first developed in STEM disciplines (…)” (ibid.). Therefore, it seems that there is no sharp contrast between the two after all. The lines between the traditional and non-traditional sciences have blurred, especially since “human societies never stand still, and do they evolve solely in ways that ‘ordinary knowledge’ or ‘common sense’ can analyze” (ibid.:269). If we cannot disconnect the traditional from the non-traditional and the discipline-oriented from the theme-oriented, the fear to mix disciplines and strive towards interdisciplinarity becomes very much irrational.

Using interdisciplinarity as an asset and keeping an open-mind to different resources valuable to my project, regardless of discipline, I am not only committed to build a great foundation for my PhD project, aimed to be useful throughout as well as outside of academia, but most importantly, create an adaptable scientist, shaped from many directions and influences, who is able to navigate and contribute to all kinds of research the future may hold. Whether it be in my comfort zone or far from it. By doing so, I am opening myself up to a future in which curiosity may lead me onto different roads, rather than ever running the risk of getting stuck in an endless cycle in which personal growth and a shift of interests is denied access. By being adaptable and having engaged with disciplines of all kinds, new emerging disciplines and those disappearing as victims of a fast-paced society, will not be something to fear, but a celebration of opportunity.

With that said, the future of sport science is bright, if we continue and increasingly look at all pieces of the puzzle. As Heraclitus of Ephesus c. 500 BC phrased it: “A wonderful harmony arises from joining together the seemingly unconnected” (Balagué et al., 2017:59).


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