In order to examine the complex social, political, economic and environmental challenges of our times, such as climate change, there is an increasing need for sociologists to engage and work with other researchers outside their discipline, in order to understand and address these complex challenges. Researchers bring to each project their own epistemic cultures, disciplinary baggage and research practices. In this blog, I would like to reflect on my research experience to date as a sociologist who has worked on collaborative research projects with emergency clinicians, advanced practice nurses, ophthalmologists, stem cell scientists, engineers, architects, building scientists and legal scholars amongst others. Based upon my experience I wish to offer some guidance for those contemplating or those in the process of working with other disciplines. Working with researchers from other disciplines is often a necessity, due to complex problems facing society and limited science funding. However, within sociology the practice is not as ‘mainstream’ compared to other disciplines, such as medicine or nursing. Although it should be noted that being multidisciplinary may be a feature of medical and health disciplines, they too often find it hard to collaborate with social scientists or to think beyond their epistemic cultures. In this blog, I therefore provide some guidance so that you too might find ways to do this productively and enrich your research experience.
John Law in his book After Method (2004:5) acknowledges the numerous ways in which research methods create and fabricate knowledge. Law (2004:5) notes that the practice of research ‘not only describes but also helps to produce the reality that…[sociologists] understand’. As a discipline, sociology seeks to examine the interaction between how human actors engage with the production and construction of social institutions and power. It is the focus on these interactions that make sociologists well placed to comment about how we should constitute these societal relationships. This can be contrasted with other social science disciplines, such as socio-cultural anthropology that tend to be focused on world making, specifically how people construct their world. I suggest in this blog that through reflexive sociological practice we may understand how sociology can co-exist and facilitate our engagement with other forms of knowledge in order to address pressing social, economic, and environmental issues.
Undertaking research with others
When seeking to collaborate with other researchers it is important to identify what kind of research you are undertaking. There are many terms to describe collaborative research, but these terms are often misunderstood or misrepresented. Collaboration is often grouped under three types of research:
Interdisciplinary research– seeks to analyse, synthesise and harmonize links between disciplines into a coordinated and coherent whole. It is important to emphasise that undertaking interdisciplinary work is not just undertaking research in two or more disciplines, or just adding multiple methodologies from different disciplines. Interdisciplinary research is an ‘integrated approach to answering a question that recognises the limitations inherent in the compartmentalized system of academic research’ (Toomey, et al, 2015:1). One of the most exciting interdisciplinary areas in recent years has been energy humanities by Canadian and American scholars.
Multidisciplinary research draws on knowledge from different disciplines in order to address a shared central concern, such as a particular question or problem. Each discipline brings their point of view to the examination of the problems or question at hand.
Transdisciplinary research is problem based and has a central aim of reform, social good research, social outcomes and impact. Transdisciplinary research seeks to enable solutions to emerge from the research that may be put in place through an action-oriented process built upon a collaboration between researchers, stakeholders and end-users (Toomey, et al, 2015:1). A good example of transdisciplinary within Aotearoa New Zealand is our National Science Challenges.
Much of the discussion about working around inter- multi- and trans- disciplinary approaches is around shared knowledge. However, I would suggest that a key aspect of undertaking research collaboratively is the whole process of creating new ways of thinking and doing that are co-produced over the life of a research project – from its inception, knowledge creation, engagement and dissemination.
Below are some key points to guide sociologists when undertaking collaborative research:
- Be open to being educated about other perspectives and why they are important. Sociology has a lot to offer other disciplines by way of knowledge generated from sociological methods and theories. Some sociologists view themselves as positivists, others are more humanistic in approach (some even post-positivistic). So sociology is made up of sociologies and not one grand Sociology. The key is for sociologists to share their knowledge gained from their experience with other disciplines in collaborative research. It is the sociological view of the world that provides value. However, sociology does not have the answer to everything. Complex problems require complex approaches and therefore there is a need to not only work together, but also respect what each other brings to research projects.
- Question and advocate for the inclusion of sociology. If a sociological perspective is not provided on a topic where it could add value, we should question others and ask why we were not included. This may be a situation in which the researchers from other disciplines do not know any sociologists, rather than any systematic bias against sociology.
- Sociologists need to act as boundary crossers. It is critical that sociologists act as boundary crossers by engaging in cross-disciplinary dialogue and knowledge creation whenever possible. Cross-disciplinary dialogue can happen in many ways: attending multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary conferences and workshops; submitting research to journals that are not solely sociological, but to subject specialist journals outside our discipline; for those able to supervise being on PhD committees on projects where your expertise can add value is a good way to promote opportunities for collaborative research.
- Sociology 101 is for everyone. We should not take our sociological knowledge for granted. Elementary sociological principles may not be known to others. When dealing with practitioners and others, they may have experience of the phenomena you are describing in your research, but may not have the words or the knowledge to situate it in its epistemic or sociological context. Using our sociological knowledge to contextualise ideas and experiences is important. Likewise, we need to share the basic principles of sociology, as these ideas can often give people the tools to speak about what they are experiencing in a way that gives them a voice or a way of speaking that was difficult to articulate.
- Sociologists should be advocates for inclusion. As sociologists we need to be the voice for those who may not have a voice. This could be the voice of marginalised communities, but also experiences of others who can shed light into emerging problems not yet understood or examined sociologically. Social justice is at the heart of sociological practice. The focus on social justice within sociology is not about bipartisan political ideologies, but rather about a duty to use our knowledge and skills to make New Zealand society better and address the critical social, political, economic and environmental challenges facing our society. As sociologists we should ensure that indigenous peoples we work with don’t just benefit from the research, but are active research partners. It is also important to emphasise that in working with indigenous peoples, as sociologists we are actively learning from them and working with them. We should advocate for the use of indigenous approaches and perspectives to inform our research.
- Good people make good researchers. Values are needed to guide your approach to research. It may seem a little obvious, but it is important to state that good manners go a long way in collaborative research, as this is not always clear to people. Disciplinary conflicts and disagreements aside, it is important to always challenge yourself and your ideas. Being challenged is good, as it means you are not taking everything at face value, and are willing to question your sociological view of the world. This is how learning and growth takes place. Being a good colleague who is collegial, who is respectful (aka meets deadlines), listens and contributes are essential for successful collaboration in any research project.
- Research needs to be agile to respond to changing contexts and knowledge. Our post COVID-19 world has shown us that we need to be more agile in our thinking and approaches. This is also important when undertaking collaborative research. For example, some branches of science move so fast that as soon as you may understand the topic, new ways of doing things replace old understandings. It is therefore important to keep up to date with things happening in areas you are researching. This can take many forms such as engaging with social media, coffee chats with experts, reading papers and blogs of those with their finger on the pulse.
It can be challenging, just get into it!
Engaging in collaborative research can be challenging, there is no denying it, but for myself and no doubt countless others, the benefits outweigh the challenges. You will find your research is richer from working collaboratively, especially with people of other disciplines. While collaboration is not always appropriate or necessary, the complex nature of the issues facing us often requires alternative or heterogeneous solutions – there is a need to explore how different approaches can be integrated or might work together. For me, a driving motivation is to undertake sociology that can make the world a better place – to do so requires us to engage with others to address the complex and challenging topics that we face. As I mentioned earlier, sociology has a lot of offer other disciplines; if they are unable to see that, it is our job to show them how that is so. When we want to do collaborative research, it might be that this can only happen if we reach out and work with others. Not every collaborative research exercise will be successful. Failure is as inevitable as success. However, as author Elizabeth Day would say, ‘learning how to fail actually means learning how to succeed’; learning from our failures makes us stronger. Giving collaborative research a go could also empower you to undertake new ways of working and creating relationships that can enhance your sociology – so just get into it!
Dr Casimir MacGregor, BRANZ. Contact: email@example.com
 Law, J. (2004).After method: Mess in social science research. London: Routledge Publishers.
 Toomey, A. Markusson, N. Adams, E. & B. Brockett (2015) Inter- and Trans-disciplinary Research: A Critical Perspective. GSDR 2015 Brief. Accessed: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/612558-Inter-%20and%20Trans-disciplinary%20Research%20-%20A%20Critical%20Perspective.pdf
 There is a special issue of the Journal of the Royal Society that examines the relationship between Science and Matauranga Maori: https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/tnzr20/49/sup1?nav=tocList