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Psychology and Interdisciplinarity: Reflections on a Graduate Seminar

This course was intended to facilitate discussion of the possibilities for psychology’s involvement in interdisciplinary collaboration and to address conceptual and empirical problems posed by the project of interdisciplinarity, including problems specific to psychology. 
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By Lisa M. Osbeck, PhD

Overview

The 21st century flourishing of “interdisciplinarity” as a construct and value interests me for several reasons: (1) for the historical meanings of this development, (2) for the problem-solving potential of new “hybrid” sciences to address complex human challenges, (3) for the creative possibilities entailed in transferring concepts, methods and models from one disciplinary context to another and (4) for the cognitive flexibility honed in acts of disciplinary perspective taking, a vital skill in a time marked by rapid change and uncertainty. My interest has been piqued not only by studying interdisciplinary science as practiced, but by participation on an interdisciplinary team that conducted the investigation of four interdisciplinary laboratories that was led by Nancy Nersessian (e.g., Nersessian, 2017; MacLeod & Nersessian, 2018; Osbeck & Nersessian, 2017; Osbeck, Malone, Nersessian, & Newstetter, 2011). Less clear to me is the framework for understanding psychology’s contribution to interdisciplinary problem-solving – what this might look like and how psychology might contribute to the promise of collaborative innovation.

To explore these questions, I offered a graduate seminar called Psychology and Interdisciplinarity in the spring of 2018. The psychology department at West Georgia is rooted in humanistic and human science approaches to psychology but currently includes critical and social justice perspectives. The setting was right for an exploratory seminar of this kind, and I was delighted that a small group of bright, articulate, engaged students decided to take up the challenge.

Course Description

This course was intended to facilitate discussion of the possibilities for psychology’s involvement in interdisciplinary collaboration and to address conceptual and empirical problems posed by the project of interdisciplinarity, including problems specific to psychology. Objectives were to consider arguments for and against interdisciplinary collaboration, investigate the “boundary land” linking psychology with other disciplines and develop a model for psychology to contribution to the solution of urgent, complex human problems, building on existing strategies or proposing new ones. A final goal was experiential: to explore what is gained and lost by living in the margins or straddling two traditionally distinct disciplinary.

Informed participation in classroom discussion was the principal delivery mode. Classical and contemporary readings were organized around the following themes: (1) psychology, science and technology; (2) psychology and mathematics, (3) psychology and other social sciences, (4) psychology, business and economics, (5) psychology and the humanities and (6) psychology and the arts. Students provided regular updates on projects throughout the semester and offered feedback to others.  

Formal assignments

Disciplinary Boundaries Case Study

Each student selected an academic discipline represented on the University campus with the aim of articulating the “boundary land” between psychology and another discipline (“Discipline X”). Disciplines included computer science, women’s studies, English, anthropology, sociology and art. They collected quasi-ethnographic data on disciplinary practice: at a minimum, a classroom observation, a faculty interview and analysis of a representative text. Students were asked to use thematic analysis as a basis for analyzing three principal questions

  • In what specific ways do psychological concepts influence concepts, methods, models, metaphors, analytic themes, etc. in discipline X? What is the origin story of models or concepts described, how long have they been influential, to what extent do they remain viable and current?
  • In what ways do concepts, methods, models and frameworks from the other discipline influence psychology? How is the disciplinary influence you identify historically situated?
  • Describe to your best ability the normative framework that structures practices in this discipline, as well as any local norms (university or region specific) that seem to guide evaluation and expectations. 

Students also were asked to provide regular updates in class, sharing their experiences and insights and soliciting feedback for new lines of investigation and analysis. They wrote up their procedures and observations into a research report.

Vision Statement: Psychological Engagement in Interdisciplinary Problem Solving

I asked students to select a problem of broad scale and global impact, for which they believe interdisciplinary collaboration and revolutionary strategies are required and about which they feel passionate and personally invested.  Their chosen problems included global poverty, sex trafficking, illiteracy, genocide and racism on college campuses. In addition to researching the problem of choice, students were asked to investigate ways psychology is already offering a contribution to problem solving efforts underway, but also to imagine new possibilities for increased involvement. Although intended to be a statement of possibility, the vision statement needed to be grounded in evidence and other available psychological resources (questions, concepts, models, theories, methods). I encouraged students to aim at being at once idealistic and pragmatic, large in vision but focused on actionable contributions. Students were asked to share their ideas in a formal presentation at the end of the semester to which the psychology department was invited.  

Evaluation and Reflection

Any new seminar brings unanticipated challenges. In this one, students occasionally felt burdened by the nature and extent of reading, especially covering a vast range of topics. Discussion was occasionally overly broad, reflecting the constraints of merely dabbling in other disciplines. Qualitative research was new to some students, so more time than I had intended to apportion was spent discussing basic issues in data collection and analysis. One student felt that the topics were disproportionally Western, and two or three students were hesitant to affirm the value of global problem solving as a goal. Both of these reactions prompted discussions that were helpful to my own development as a teacher and citizen. Yet on balance, formal and informal student comments suggest that the seminar was a very good experience and it certainly was so for me. As a class we repeatedly questioned the essence of psychology and the psychological, probing the identity of the discipline, its values, methods and potential. Students were especially appreciative of the opportunity to study another discipline and learn about its peculiar characteristics and specific overlap with psychology.  hey also honed skills in qualitative research through data collection and analysis. Two students made valuable collaborations with new colleagues through the disciplinary case study. Students’ vision projects were creative and original; there was wonderful energy and camaraderie in our discussion of progress toward them.  Although outside attendance at our final paper presentations was modest, students treated the event like a symposium and offered intriguing reflections on the potential for psychology to extend its reach in new directions through interdisciplinary collaboration. 

About the Author

Lisa Osbeck, of the University of West Georgia, is Div. 1’s president-elect. 

References

MacLeod, M., & Nersessian, N. J. (2018). Modeling complexity: cognitive constraints and computational model-building in integrative systems biology. History and philosophy of the life sciences, 40(1), 17.

Nersessian, N. J. (2017). Systems biology modeling practices: reflections of a philosopher-ethnographer. In Philosophy of Systems Biology (pp. 215-225). Springer, Cham.

Osbeck, L, Malone, K.,  Nersessian, N. & Newstetter, W. (2011). Science as psychology: Sense-making and identity in science practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Osbeck, L. & Nersessian, N.J. (2017). Epistemic identities in interdisciplinary science.  Perspectives on Science, 25 (2), pp. 226-260

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