The Interdisciplinary Scholar

by Chris Porter

Coming to biblical studies from prior research in the social sciences I am often asked what makes for good interdisciplinary research. While a valid question, I think the more interesting question is what makes a good interdisciplinary researcher. Here I will try to answer a modest version, what makes for a reasonable interdisciplinary scholar.

Intellectual Humility

Perhaps the highest quality for an interdisciplinary scholar to practice is a continual intellectual humility. In any academic discipline the expanse of unknown material presents an ever-growing challenge to maintain humility with regard to what the scholar knows (see the Dunning-Kruger effect). However, for an interdisciplinary scholar the breadth of that field of ‘known unknowns’ expands with every discipline that is drawn into the research scope. This means that intellectual humility must come to the fore within interdisciplinary research. Inevitably there will be aspects of research that appear obtuse or presumed, until—for example—it comes to light that these are building blocks that are primarily examined in first year text books. Inversely, for any interdisciplinary scholar moving into a new field, there will be aspects of research that appear new and intriguing until it is revealed that the reason it is not being investigated is due to decades of questioning that lead to an apparent dead end. A robust intellectual humility is required for interdisciplinary research.

Insatiable Curiosity

If humility is the first quality, then this must be constantly backed up by an insatiable curiosity. One of the great benefits of interdisciplinary research is the new light that it sheds on what at first appear to be old and well-trod areas. However, for this light to be shed a researcher must maintain a curiosity in their research—often well past that of ‘traditional’ scholars in the field. Ideas and angles will often be dismissed as ‘a new thing,’ or as breaching the pre-determined bounds of the scholarly endeavour, or even simply as merely addressing an area that has already been mined to the full extent. An interdisciplinary researcher must therefore maintain a curiosity that allows them to forge into the field again and again, despite rebuffs or discouragement. Furthermore, an interdisciplinary scholar must be curious enough to not settle for the status quo, but to repeatedly come to the field brimming with new insights that may illuminate new facets of knowledge. Interdisciplinary research requires a humble and curious spirit.

Indefatigable Generosity

Finally, the first two qualities of humility and curiosity must be bed on a foundation of constant generosity. Because interdisciplinary research often challenges the status quo the researcher will commonly find a persistent gentle—and occasionally less gentle—push back. This may come from those within the field who see certain matters as settled and not requiring revisiting and challenging, some who desire to maintain the ‘purity’ of a field, or even those within the interdisciplinary effort that solely wish for novelty in research. In engaging with research peers, the interdisciplinary scholar must maintain a persistent generosity to the interpretation of positions and responses, especially when the novel approach to research may be misconstrued or sidelined due to novelty of method. Overall, interdisciplinary research should be conducted in a generous, humble and curious mode.

Of course, these three traits are not the only traits for an interdisciplinary researcher, nor are they restricted to interdisciplinary research. However, I think that exemplifying these will at least make for a reasonable interdisciplinary researcher.

Christopher Porter is—now—a New Testament scholar, focusing on socio-cognitive aspects in narrative, especially within the Fourth Gospel. Previously, he was a Research Fellow in human decision making, social impacts of discourse (Psychology), and telecommunications (Engineering).

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