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Negotiating difference in an interdisciplinary collaboration

Working papers

Written by Ajoy Datta

Interdisciplinary work requires individuals to embrace, explore and negotiate their disciplinary and personal differences, in pursuit of innovative policy solutions. To do this effectively, it is important to understand the reality of how interdisciplinary projects work, and how to best navigate differences and negotiate conflict.

Yet, despite increasing trends toward interdisciplinarity, there are relatively few accounts or reports reflecting on researchers’ efforts to work across disciplines. This paper seeks to redress this, by reflecting on the collaborative practices of a group of researchers convened to undertake an interdisciplinary project on the drivers of risk in small island developing states. 

Key lessons

  • One’s ability to get on with others is as important as one’s expertise. 
  • Interdisciplinary work requires an experimental approach, giving individuals time and space to explore differences.
  • Those who emerge as key leaders or managers need the skills to bring people together to explore their differences, often in challenging circumstances, bring out the best in individuals and broker relationships between sub-groups – skills that are acquired through much experience working in interdisciplinary contexts.
  • Organisation and coordination work should not be underestimated – it must be valued, adequately compensated and clearly assigned to individuals.
  • Prioritising interdisciplinary fieldwork can go a long way to helping identify and negotiate differences. 
  • Regular collective reflection on how the group is getting on, and paying attention to people’s experiences, can be productive and therapeutic, helping to improve working relationships. 
Ajoy Datta