Interdisciplinary research through the lens of emotion studies

Interdisciplinary has become a buzz word, especially within the Arts and Human Sciences. The number of interdisciplinary journal articles in philosophy with interdisciplinary in the title has risen from 14 in 1987 to 1570 in 2014. However, there remains a lot of confusion as to what exactly interdisciplinary entails, how it is best pursued or what kind of research best represents interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity often refers to a field of enquiry that goes beyond distinct disciplinary boundaries and combines two or more academic disciplines in order to provide an understanding/explanation of certain subjects/phenomena – an approach that fluidly crosses disciplinary boundaries and relates to more than one branch of knowledge. 

The definition of what is an emotion is immensely varied and controversial. In fact, most of the controversies in the study of emotions can be said to arise partly due to the definition one adopts. This is evident in the literature as it is possible to find studies on emotion that address different phenomenon but claim to address emotion.This is not to say each approach makes a valid argument within its own framework and contributes in its own way. However, the lack of consensus and the immense disagreement surrounding the study of emotions, makes an interdisciplinary approach towards the study of emotions seem perplexing. How should we synthesize and find a middle ground when faced with a variety of competing and at times incommensurable perspectives? Such questions are often left to the philosopher. 

Interdisciplinarity, within the human sciences at least, is heavily tied to philosophy. Fuller (2013), for example, places a great emphasis on the philosopher as someone serving as an architect who designs the blueprint for the independent disciplines to fill in with empirical evidence or as an alchemist who makes something remarkable out of the ordinary elements taken from the distinct disciplines. The philosopher, it seems, is often seen as the synthesizer. Such assessment is valid to some extent, given philosophy’s role as provider of conceptual analysis. It is nonetheless not without question.

One not only needs the tools and skills to philosophically analyse ontological and methodological assumptions to find a middle ground and synthesise disciplinary research, but also needs the skills and knowledge to read, interpret, and critically analyse what has been presented from a given discipline. Not only are the skills to philosophically analyse essential here, but also the disciplinary expert knowledge such as reading and interpreting empirical evidence, critical engagement, and examination of theoretical as well as methodological issues in a given discipline’s approach to a certain subject.

Take emotions, for example, which profoundly colour our everyday experience. Emotions are investigated across a variety of distinct disciplines ranging from neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, biology, social sciences, and even within the arena of cognitive modeling. It would appear that to get the fullest picture of emotion studies, an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates philosophical analysis of what emotions are/aren’t, empirical evidence from neuroscience and biological studies, as well as recognition of the social and cultural subjectiveness of emotions supported by a computational model would be the ultimate – although this would without doubt require a great deal of work.

However, although these distinct disciplines seem focused on their investigations of emotions (and are mostly fruitful from their own perspective), it gets messy and difficult when attempts are made to synthesize such a variety of approaches. Not least because each discipline’s definition of what is an emotion is varied, but also because there exists methodological differences in the way emotions are investigated as well as the varied ontological assumptions each discipline adopts. These differences can be extremely varied to the extent that they become incompatible. The biological approach which typically focuses on bodily and facial markers of emotion aspires to provide a universal theory, compared to the social and cultural centred approach that sees emotions as inextricably linked to a given society’s culture and language. For these two approaches, emotions are framed in a fundamentally different manner which influences what follows, the kind of questions considered worth asking, and subsequently the research methods developed as well as the way data are interpreted.

The point I want to highlight here through the example of emotion studies in an interdisciplinary manner is that, it becomes difficult and sometimes problematic to practice an all encountering interdisciplinarity contrary to how it appears at first. At least not if one wants to do interdisciplinary research in a manner that considers and scrutinises all the deep issues while attempting to synthesize miscellaneous and sometimes incompatible methodological and ontological assumptions. Depending on the view point, certain aspects might be seen as crucial by one discipline while ignored by the other, even when dealing with a similar subject matter. If one is not mindful of all the subtle issues – how a certain research question is framed to suit a given methodology for example – affects the kind of empirical evidence obtained, and, gone unnoticed, may contribute to a confused interdisciplinarity.

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