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Are Multi-Disciplinary Approaches to Social Sciences Truly Diverse?

The EvoLLLution | Are Multi-Disciplinary Approaches to Social Sciences Truly Diverse?
A former FBI Special Agent argues multi-disciplinary studies can stand to be much more diverse. In terrorism studies, for instance, why not are we not including mathematicians, or scholars of French literature?

Before entering academia, I served for almost 23 years as a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. One of the many enjoyable aspects of the FBI was working with colleagues of diverse backgrounds. Very few employees started their careers at the FBI. The Special Agent population is comprised of individuals with different career backgrounds: law enforcement, military, accounting, engineering, pilots, fitness instruction, and many other professions are all represented. My own New Agent class consisted of former U.S. Marines, secretaries, a florist and even a rocket scientist. Each added a richness to the organization and increased the range of capabilities to draw on for investigations.

The FBI example demonstrates that diversity is a good thing, whether in business, government, or scholarly pursuits. However, while academia may be diverse in some ways, particularly in terms of how we address research topics and questions, we tend to “silo” ourselves into communities of thinkers. We become entrenched in the unique approaches governing our respective disciplines—an approach that can lead to stagnation of ideas or a reluctance to broaden the scope of the investigation to other disciplines outside of our own.

Earlier this year, I enjoyed the opportunity to participate in the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) Educators Workshop. Because my background is in the homeland security and intelligence field, my exposure to international relations is rudimentary. As such, the prospect of incorporating international relations into my teaching and curriculum intrigued me and I looked forward to networking with peers in sociology, business, psychology and Middle Eastern studies. I became even more captivated with being a part of the CFR’s multidisciplinary approach during the panel discussions, as many of the questions my colleagues raised underscored the benefits of incorporating these other disciplines into the broader discussion.

But as I listened to the panels and talked with other attendees and CFR representatives, I wondered if the CFR missed an opportunity to create an even more diverse group of attendees. Where were the mathematicians? Art historians? Literature professors? Why was a conference labeled “multi-disciplinary” limited to the social sciences? Shouldn’t it represent a realdiversity of disciplines? Diversity writ large has become the idea of the decade, with businesses, governments and universities recognizing the benefits of bringing together individuals of disparate backgrounds, ethnicities and genders to help address current issues and problems their organizations face.

Drawing from my early academic experience, the impact of psychology and sociology on terrorism studies was both fascinating and compelling. I knew it would take a multitude of scholarly disciplines to push our knowledge of terrorism forward. Eager to dive into a multi-disciplinary project, at one point I considered examining terrorism groups through the lens of the mathematical principle of fractals, and approached a knowledgeable acquaintance to discuss my idea. He stared at me in disbelief and insisted that while my concept was novel, mathematics “did not apply to terrorism.”

That experience is the proverbial “N of 1,” and while we cannot draw conclusions from one instance, this example coupled with the lack of real diversity at the CFR Educators Workshop suggests this attitude might be more ubiquitous than we would like to think. In my discipline, what is needed to address and understand the terrorism problem is true multidisciplinary approaches. Such solutions cannot come from a group of terrorism experts thinking circles around the issues. Integrating such areas of study as business, mathematics, literature and art could provide fruitful avenues of investigation leading to unusual, yet important, discoveries.

So, what is the path forward? Merely stating that multi-disciplinary approaches are important will not change the status quo. More comprehensive and broader thinking coupled with concrete action is required. Introducing a strong emphasis on incorporating other disciplines consists of both a top-down and bottom-up approach. Faculty need to spend more time and energy incorporating distant disciplines into their classrooms and research. Professors should seek out other faculty from contrasting disciplines to discuss how different ideas might impact their research. When a colleague from an entirely different discipline approaches you, do not dismiss the idea outright. Take a moment to consider the implications and explore their ideas.

Faculty should encourage their deans to support off-beat research ideas and grant proposals. Only by bringing these ideas to administration will they ultimately find traction. Senior administration officials should concurrently seek ways to incentivize research incorporating diverse disciplines. They should think creatively to inspire faculty from different disciplines to collaborate to solve significant, multi-issue problems. Simply continuing with the status quo and supporting singular research agendas will not solve issues the social sciences are tasked with solving. Budgets and departmental politics often hamstring administrators, but the researchers in the field and the classroom need not feel so constrained.

One needs only to think creatively to develop novel ways to incorporate other disciplines into the social sciences. How does an understanding of early French literature impact the study of lone wolf terrorism manifestos? Can something be learned by applying the established critical eye of art historians to the graphics and graffiti of the KKK? Can the study of environmental science inform the movement of nomadic terrorist groups? These are but a few of the examples applied to terrorism studies well within the realm of acceptable scholarly pursuits. Other disciplines can benefit as well.

The CFR Educators Workshop should be commended for encouraging multi-disciplinary approaches to international relations, and as a beacon which other research organizations should follow. I learned a great deal at the workshop and am grateful for the opportunity to expand my horizons concerning international relations. But it is just a beginning. Indeed, let us put some real diversity into multi-disciplinary studies.

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