From the Editor: Transdisciplinarity
Tara S. Behrend
I recently joined a university effort to build a new, interdisciplinary PhD program in Applied Analytics. The team consists of faculty from medicine, health, nursing, education, physics, engineering, and me, from psychology. The experience has been mostly very positive; it’s a chance to learn about what scholars from other disciplines think about I-O and how we can work together to build something. It makes me wonder why this sort of collaboration isn’t more common at my university. I imagine it isn’t very common in most settings. I wonder, too, about whether this thing we are building is better than any of us or in fact worse than any of us. By compromising with others, do we lose all the valuable bits of our own approach?
Disciplines differ from each other partly in the kinds of assumptions they make about the world. Sociologists and psychologists, for example, are often interested in the same kinds of problems. They disagree about the explanations but agree about the observations. Take the example of a plane crash. A number of scientists studying the cause of the crash would come up with different answers for what “caused” the crash. I-Os might focus on individual and small-group factors, such as pilot training and selection, or flight crew communication. An engineer might instead focus on better hardware design. Both of these researchers would feel strongly that their approach was “right.” Both would feel frustrated that the other side ignored their input.
It generally feels very uncomfortable to work with people from other disciplines. It’s easy to slip into defensiveness. It’s much easier to work with people who have the same assumptions you do—and not spend time arguing about (for example) whether person or situation factors are more important or whether emotional intelligence is real. But by opting out of these difficult experiences, we all ensure that those questions will never be answered.
In my opinion, the best science happens when two people who disagree about something come together and design a study that resolves the disagreement. There are some great examples of this happening within I-O psychology. But if we want to make serious contributions to improving society, we should also engage in this kind of behavior across disciplines. We should do so in the way we teach, and conduct research, and work with clients.
It’s also worth noting that not all questions are scientific questions and that we, as scientists, should be open minded (but not so open minded that our brains fall out). Not all questions are scientific, but many questions are, and when we see pseudoscience or grandstanding masquerading as science, we should call it out. Part of working with nonscientists should include communication about what science does and why it is actually superior to other methods of answering certain questions.
This issue of TIP has a few good examples of multidisciplinarity. Check out “I-O Outside I-O” from Mark Smith and Alex Alonso for an overview of how workplace bullying research might intersect with childhood bullying research. Updates from the GREAT Committee and the HWP Network have advice and examples about how to share I-O with nonprofits and government agencies. Crash Course and the Modern App show us how to interface with the world of technology. These articles are a great start to a goal we should all adopt, as thinkers and as doers.