Experiences in Interdisciplinary Consumer Research

Sarah L. Manning, Purdue University
ABSTRACT - Experience in two inter-regional interdisciplinary research groups brings out two reasons for doing interdisciplinary research: (1) economic, by pooling funds and costs, and (2) talent-complementing talents and abilities. Frequent problems are (1) communication due to different concepts and word meanings; (2) ego problems with calking prima donnas. Also discussed are publication, administrations, attitude, and concepts/ methods problems.
[ to cite ]:
Sarah L. Manning (1978) ,"Experiences in Interdisciplinary Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 756-757.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 756-757


Sarah L. Manning, Purdue University


Experience in two inter-regional interdisciplinary research groups brings out two reasons for doing interdisciplinary research: (1) economic, by pooling funds and costs, and (2) talent-complementing talents and abilities. Frequent problems are (1) communication due to different concepts and word meanings; (2) ego problems with calking prima donnas. Also discussed are publication, administrations, attitude, and concepts/ methods problems.

My experience with interdisciplinary research has come from involvement in two regional projects under the Agricultural Experiment Stations of several states. My own field is family economics and management. Other researchers on the committees have been from child development, family studies, housing, and sociology, with some minor nuances of those more interested in management than in economics, or vice versa, those interested in aesthetics rather than sociological or economic factors of housing, those interested in family processes more than the sociology or psychology of the family.

The first committee I was a member of was NC 90, an interdisciplinary, inter-regional research committee to study "Factors Affecting Patterns of Living in Disadvantaged Areas". As this research area was originally conceived to involve more than one discipline, a call went out to all the Agricultural Experiment Station Directors to send a representative if the director and a researcher was interested in being involved. Support for the project came from the several states and also from federal money channeled through the states. One state director was asked to be our administrative advisor. I will quote from the foreword he wrote for the joint publication or basebook we produced:

"It was a rare privilege for me to watch this project develop from the early stages of overcoming the language barrier of diverse disciplines, through the multiple agonies of preparing a common instrument acceptable to all and coordinating the collection and processing of data, to the triumph of the Committee in presenting these data so painstakingly recorded." - Herbert Kramer, Administrative Advisor

Language barriers, multiple agonies, triumph. Herb Kramer's words capture some of our experience. Several members of that committee, believing that we'd been through the language barrier bit already, volunteered to work on a second interdisciplinary committee: NC 128, "Quality of Life as Influenced by Area of Residence." We are currently in the data collection stage, having come through the conceptualization, the development of the instruments and the sampling procedures. My remarks on interdisciplinary research are based on my experience and observations.

First, and also most important, in home economics we are concerned with the family. However you define "family" and its functions, it is a many sided entity, a system composed of subsystems which interact, and a system which interacts with its environment. An interdisciplinary research approach approximates the family better than any one-sided approach can ever do. This is not to denigrate the one-sided approach; we need researchers going in depth in isolated areas to help develop the building blocks to fit these subsystems together. But the interdisciplinary research offers the best, perhaps the only, way to fit pieces together. As a family economist, I must recognize that, powerful as economics is in shaping family decisions, it is not the only motivating force. My economic analyses may be complete in themselves but they have to take as given tastes, values and social structures. Therefore, as a researcher I welcome the opportunity to work with others who can supply my deficiencies.

Second, on a more practical or personal level, what are our reasons for doing interdisciplinary research?

Economic reasons. We all are constrained by lack of funds. But in NC 90 we were able to obtain thirteen samples totaling 2650 families, with a wealth of detail no one researcher could probably hope to obtain. We decided on central computer processing for our overall analysis. This was done at the University of Missouri for an approximate cost of $5800. Dr. Edward Metzen estimates that the same processing, done at each of the states, would have cost each of us $3500 to $3800 for the computer and other direct costs. We each paid Missouri $300, so Missouri had to pick up the rest of the tab but even so, Ed estimates that the net cost to Missouri was about $2200, less than it would have cost them to go it alone. These figures do not cover faculty time and I am sure there was considerable saving of total faculty time over what it would have been without the central processing.

Talent reasons. We each bring to interdisciplinary research our own bag of tricks, our own talents and abilities. Within the committee we find others who complement us by their differences in abilities. The ones who can develop the best conceptual frameworks may not be the ones who have the deepest understanding of computer analysis. The synergistic results are greater than each working alone could have accomplished.

What problems occur in this kind of research? And how can we deal with them?

Communication. As I reflect back to our first formative meeting here in Chicago, I recall that each person acted very protectively for his own research area. There were subtle attempts to put the others down in order to enhance one's own position. In the early meetings we often used the same words and only time showed us that we had different meanings attached to them. How did we overcome this? We read each other's papers and references. We fought with each other, in meetings and over dinner. We liked each other and respected each other so we could bring our differences out into the open. We still haven't arrived at that point where I can say we always resolve our differences, because we haven't. But our meetings have been characterized as "lively". Communication is still a problem but much less so than several years ago.

Ego problems. In commenting on Regional Research in the Southern Cooperative Series, Bulletin 212, October 1976, J.D. Jansma wrote "Faculty members are inherently prima donnas convinced that "their approach" is the preferable one." Not only prima donnas but talkative prima donnas, I believe, for the most part. It takes a firm hand of chairman to control some of this, and constant checking and rechecking to make sure someone hasn't gone off in his own direction assuming the rest of us are following him. Or not giving a hoot whether we are or not.

Publication problems. Today the pressure is on as never before (and it wasn't negligible before) to publish research. When each state collects data, every researcher wants to work up his own data and get it published. He also would like to pick pieces from the other states to publish. Who has priority when the data came from several or all states involved? In NC 90 we evolved a simple one page form to be sent to each other state when we wanted to ask permission to use any state's data other than our own. This form indicated what parts of the data we wanted, the objectives of the research to be done, the nature of the use or publication and the anticipated completion date. The state woning the data had 10 days to respond. No response indicated agreement with using the data. Sending to all committee members kept us all informed about what kinds of analyses were being done. If it were something we wanted to do we could either cooperate or shift our emphasis so we didn't have uneconomic duplication. This seemed to solve the problem of individuals publishing by giving them freedom to do so without destroying the unity of the project.

That satisfied the individual researchers, but we still had the obligation to produce a total report from the project. For this purpose we all worked on sections, partially by subcommittees, and then were fortunate to have one committee member who was retiring. She pulled all our parts together into a unified whole. In cooperative research this is a real problem, especially when the committee is large. No one researcher may want to devote so much time to writing the major report when he appears as only one among many authors. Incidentally, one colleague has reported to me that in his university, promotion and tenure committees look at the number of authors and give credit for one third of a refereed article when there are three authors! Not much support for interdisciplinary research evident there.

Administration. This can be either a problem or a help. In general, when interdisciplinary research results from the individual interests of the researchers who see gains to be made either for their field or for themselves, the research will go forward. If it is purely an administrative decision, it seldom works. One administrator several years ago told me that interdisciplinary research did not work because no one took primary responsibility for it; it was always the other fellow's job. This would be less likely to happen if the researchers had initiated it. We have had some people attend our committee meetings who were sent by their Stations. But because there was no time released for them to do research, they dropped out. Or sometimes the administration failed to allocate adequate funds.

Attitude. Any one going into interdisciplinary research would be wise to adopt a cooperative attitude. One must share his ideas, his data, his expertise for the good of the project. This is one of the costs of getting input from others in order that the whole may be greater and that the individual can advance in his field. Compromise is also necessary. Often each of us knows we could go faster or in a deeper direction without all those others we must compromise with. But the synthesizing potential is far greater than going it alone, and without compromise no other researcher worth his salt would be willing to work with you.

Problems of concepts and methods. These differ among various disciplines, and my only advice is to focus on your similarities and your differences until all sides understand. The learning process can sometimes be painful; I hope one of my colleagues from another discipline has forgiven me for messing up one of his sets of questions in NC 90 when I altered the format to agree with the rest of our questions.

One advantage home economists have in interdisciplinary research is the broad base they already have in their education and orientation. The basic disciplines are fine but we do have this edge, if we are good researchers.

What could improve interdisciplinary research? Three suggestions:

1) Money, of course.

2) Time may be more important, however, time to work on the research. Time to interact with one's colleagues on the research team.

3) More WATS lines so we could iron out problems faster when we are apart.