The adventures of doing an interdisciplinary literature review

A key priority of EU research and innovation policy is the sponsoring of a wide range of initiatives and programs that foster interdisciplinarity. Intersecting varying scientific approaches, methods, skills and cultural perspectives is understood to generate understanding in complex contexts, and work outside of constructing departmental and academic tribes. It is thus considered a valuable tool that renders creativity and troubles ‘business as usual’ within academia.

Yet, as noted by the European Commission themselves (Allmendinger 2015), there are a lot of unknowns in effectively implementing research across disciplinary lines. What more, rather than seeking to designate some form of best practice model to conduct interdisciplinarity, its strength is in its non-prescription – to ensure interdisciplinarity does not become its own epistemic community, embraced with particular norms, rules and theories. Interdisciplinarity, therefore, has become something easily called for and proposed in project proposals – yet, much remains unknown regarding how research teams actually move into this complex and unknown space.

This is the dilemma, we, the Gastrocert research team encountered in attempting to implement Work Package One of our research project, ‘an exhaustive literature review’. A literature review. Straightforward enough? Yes – we thought the same. Initially. That was until we began working together, over time realizing that this was to be a long, ongoing multi-way learning process, which would deconstruct as much as it constructed. Requiring extended deadlines that moved well belong the initial expected completion date. This blog post will tell the tale of what was learnt, constructed and reconsidered from this interdisciplinary adventure.

Figure 1: Some members of the research team: Pete, Nadia, Annelie, Claudio, Wilhelm and coffee.

First a little background on the project and research team. Gastrocert, broadly, is a JPI Heritage Plus project examining creativity and creative entrepreneurship in rural tourism. Members of the research team span anthropology, sociology, geography, urbanism, business and economics, as well as geographically dispersed positionalities across Spain, Sweden, Italy and the United Kingdom. Gender diversity on the team of nine is close to equal – four males, five females. Gender is evenly spread across career status with a female Associate Professor leading the team.

Interdisciplinarity has become something easily called for and proposed in project proposal.

Despite commitment to work together, we found European collaborative projects are not always the easiest way through which to enact interdisciplinary research. After all, we were geographically dispersed across Europe, spending little time together; while many on the research team managed multiple projects, teaching and administration commitments, that existed well beyond those from Gastrocert. Moreover, there were the stringent demands of the initially proposed timeline, enforced through annual reporting, that strictly delineated work packages and project months in ways that overlooked the multiple stops, starts, and turns encountered. All of these issues resulted in a required dedication to Work Package One that moved well beyond our own output and career plans, and compatibility with each researcher’s disciplinary impact and national research excellence frameworks.

Gastrocert’s other work packages were a little more straightforward than the literature review in enabling each partner to independently conduct research at their own case study sites – Catalonia in Spain, Östersund in Sweden, Calabria in Italy and the Scottish highlands. In this sense, the other work packages were reliant on a form of multidisciplinarity – where researchers from different disciplinary homes worked together, but very much continued drawing on their own disciplinary knowledge. The literature review, in contrast, aimed to be ‘exhaustive’ in analyzing scholarship at the intersection of gastronomy and tourism – rather than approaching the review from any one disciplinary framework that would surely align the method and discussion towards a particular framework; potentially influencing findings. Now of course we recognized the impossibility to work outside a constructed lens. However, we felt that working collaboratively and non-hierarchically (to the extent that this is possible) would assist in troubling certain assumptions arising from anyone of our disciplinary corners.

Figure 2: An example of how to plan a collaborative interdisciplinary literature review.

Our review commenced as many do: a database search on key terms, followed by a scanning by all team members to remove articles identified as not specifically relating to gastronomy and tourism. While slow, and at times contested, we moved through this step in a way that felt rigorous and transparent. It was at the proceeding step where we became stuck, and faced the most difficulty in the enactment of interdisciplinarity. How were we now to analyse our data: that is, the remaining 231 articles? Some of us were content with undertaking a discursive analysis, reading and rereading articles in smaller research teams to identify emerging themes and trends before meeting to discuss as a larger group. For others this was too subjective – calling for a need to introduce some form of criteria in which to categorize articles, such as number of citations, year of publication and so on. Others again went further in feeling that a statistical analysis tool was required to ensure objective analysis. Yet, many on the team lacked knowledge and experience regarding how such programs worked.

These meetings became influenced by broader theoretical discussions relating to the fluid and diverse disciplinary framings of objectivity and subjectivity.

All three suggestions were trialed, each in turn. Some of us, felt however, that more was needed, reflected in many meetings. Attended by most team members, these meetings, while pragmatic, became therefore influenced by broader theoretical discussions relating to the fluid and diverse disciplinary framings of objectivity and subjectivity – and what it even means to analyse something, in this context. Such a process required many on the team to possess patience, support and trust in the expertise of others, becoming vulnerable in our move away from our own understandings of research and analysis as we eventually decided to utilize network analysis software. There were of course limitations with this approach, but for our purposes, we decided that such software best incorporated all of our analytic approaches and interests – including qualitative thematic insights, through to more statistical findings.

There was no ‘efficiency’ here. From the beginning, there was limited knowledge of outcome. We went against normative expectations of how long a literature review publication should take. At times we were frustrated. We were anxious. Concerned. But, in following this process, what resulted through the collaborative analysis was a learning process that transgressed disciplinary boundaries, troubled normative practice and rendered a rigorous methodology. This ‘extra’ work will not be counted in metrics. Nor will it be recognized as a Gastrocert research output. It will not be noted in any ‘pathways to impact’ report.

It has changed the way those on the research team work with others and forced us to question the fundamentals of our own disciplinary frameworks.

The skills developed will, most likely, not be recognized formally. Nevertheless, attending to the frictions of our interdisciplinary collaboration – ‘the awkward, unequal, unstable and creative qualities of interconnection across difference’ (Tsing 2005, 4) – has not only resulted in an analysis that will hopefully serve as useful within the emerging area of gastronomy tourism. More than this, it has changed the way those on the research team work with others and forced us to question the fundamentals of our own disciplinary frameworks and what it means to be a qualitative researcher in the fields of human geography, business administration or social anthropology, or a quantitative researcher in fields like agricultural economy and urban planning. Such questioning is something that moves well beyond this work package, and even this research project and team. It is now part of our political understanding relating to how we conduct rigorous interdisciplinary analysis.

References

Allmendinger, J. (2015). Quests for Interdisiplinarity: A Challenge for the ERA and Horizon 2020: Policy Brief by the Research, Innovation and Science Policy Experts (RISE). Accessed: 21/04/2017 from https://ec.europa.eu/research/innovation-union/pdf/expert-groups/rise/allmendinger-interdisciplinarity.pdf.

Tsing, A. (2004). Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

 
Annelie Sjölander Lindqvist    Anna De Jong

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