Transdisciplinarity in policing research: the horizontal nexus

Professor Alexander Dunlop Lindsay, once Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, was vocal about the limitations of academic disciplines digging themselves into vertical furrows, in the pursuance of ‘more and more about less and less’. It is that very single-track partisanship of the specificity of individual disciplines that EMPAC challenges here; whilst pointing to the need for a re-balance towards more horizontal interconnectivity: more transdisciplinarity.

What do we mean by trandisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity? They’re closely related terms but, without being tautological, are subtly different. In our context, interdisciplinarity is about linking between disciplines into an integrated whole. Transdisciplinarity pulls together all sciences in order to integrate them, and in turn transcends their traditional boundaries (Choi, 2006).

Where did academic disciplines come from in the first place? If you thought they’d always been around, you’d be wrong. From the time of Aristotle, all was regarded as ‘philosophy’, and is was really only in the nineteenth century that Germanic academic disciplines started to become formalised structures through secularisation. There followed an emergence of ‘new’ labelling as disciplines, such as economics and sociology. In the twentieth century along came other new constructions of education and psychology, with an increasing focus on the alignment of funding to teaching into narrowing, specialist streams; it was a form of business model.

Eventually, ‘new’ kids on the block arrived, aligned to professional need, such as nursing, and of course in very recent times we can now add policing to that list. All of the constructs eventually become the ‘new normal’ convention, but it is still possible to find traces of snobbery over what is, and is not, a ‘proper’ subject, according to when and where of the particular academic pedigree. It’s a little like the ‘true heritage’ discourse, which in reality is more about a hybrid of various influences over time. Take criminology as a subject, for example. The approximate term is reputed to have first being deployed around 1885 by Raffaele Garofalo. Even then, the discipline was a multidisciplinary mix of a number of previously decided social scientific topics, including sociology, psychology, biology and economics. But it didn’t arrive in British universities as a defined subject discipline for nearly another hundred years, meaning it hasn’t been around ‘proper’ for that long.

Perhaps the creation of these disciplines, each with an epistemological root, was about the focus they took, with an application on a specific context. There are interpretations about this ‘great dividing’ about defining what could not be ‘in’, thereby emphasising boundaries via the labels.

Foucault (1975) commented that this change signified a classification and specialisation of hierarchies, that performed a function to disqualify what was not legitimate within that new construction. In other words, you can interpret the new structures as ‘coralling’ power, whilst conversely, transciplinarity being about breaking down those same power structures and divisions.

Whether the disciplines construction was about power or not, there is an argument now that the divides themselves are being less fit for purpose, in a time when connectivity and holistic focus is often marred by academic tribalism. Transdisciplinarity seeks to bring back the horizontal connectivity – a nexus point – across thinking and research areas, to focus on holistic outcomes. For example, in policing.

Putting things back together again when they have been split up is not as easy as you might think. Some cling vehemently to their identities; some don’t see the connectivity or application beyond the conventional label. This is where the new drive for transdisciplinarity offers a new way through. Thankfully, new multidisciplinary communities of practice are starting to forge hybrid identities, focussing on innovation.

EMPAC has been supporting several universities to enable a cross-university engagement in order to deliver a greater focus on policing improvement. The core stages we have identified in such a process are:-

·       Acknowledgement of pre-existing barriers

·       Open and active communication to reach out across disciplines

·       Co-problematisation, as an important precursor to co-production

·       A focus on possible applications, that emphasise lateral thinking beyond previous convention

·       Over-mapping of the complementary, rather than the competing

·       Blended teaching and research teams

The spirit of such development in this context, with a clear focus on application opportunity and goals, benefits enormously by working closely with the industrial setting – in this case, policing. The approach needs to be non-threatening, even though it is stretching. Identity origins do not need to be destroyed in the process, but the focus on working together on common problem outcomes does metaphorically allow the cake to be made whilst all the various ingredients remain individually important.

Whilst knowledge exchange partnerships and knowledge exchange have also made a positive impact, we may also see a wider paradigm shift away from Lindsay’s concerns over ‘more and more of less and less’ specialisms, towards more a joined-up, and richer, future.

So, all of this shows it is just about being more collegiate: it’s team work.

EMPAC is all about research and innovation for professional policing, and for that reason is more than willing to help further the benefits of transdisciplinarity. Get in touch!


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