7.5Situating and assessing interdisciplinarity involving the social sciences and humanities

By Joshua Eykens, Raf Guns and Hongyu Zhou (University of Antwerp).

Interdisciplinary research or IDR is gaining a lot of attention both in science studies and higher education policy. Research policy makers, in particular, attach a lot of importance to IDR, because it is commonly believed that interdisciplinarity is a necessary condition to solve some of the most complex societal problems, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Large research funding organizations, like the European Commission and the European Research Council, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), all share this idea and give high priority to interdisciplinarity, for example by developing specific financing opportunities for IDR. As Bonnie Wolff-Boenisch, head of research affairs at Science Europe, stated, “interdisciplinarity is not new, but [in Europe] it has gained increasing traction in the context of the global transformation of societies, the SDG’s, and the ‘Mission-oriented research’ concept of the European Commission” (Europe, 2019). The growing importance of IDR has led to changes to research assessment. New assessment procedures are being developed to better account for the interdisciplinarity of research projects, teams, and output. Among other things, new indicators have been developed to measure different facets of IDR (Wang & Schneider, 2020).

For all the attention directed towards IDR, relatively little is known about interdisciplinarity in the social sciences and humanities (SSH). As a result, the potential contribution of SSH to IDR may be neglected or overlooked, or IDR projects involving the SSH may be evaluated without taking the specificity of SSH into consideration. In the current dossier, we, therefore, discuss what is specific about SSH research and IDR involving SSH.

The dossier is structured as follows.

  • Part 1 introduces the concept of disciplines: we discuss how disciplines can be operationalized, what sets SSH apart, and the internal heterogeneity of SSH.
  • Part 2 considers how these aspects affect interdisciplinarity involving the SSH.
  • This leads us to formulate seven principles for research assessment of IDR in the SSH, in part 3.
  • The final part 4 contains some conclusions.

Parts of this dossier are based on a forthcoming chapter (Eykens, 2022).

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