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Before I begin my defense of interdisciplinary research, I’m assuming—I’m hoping—that your are in academia for the following two reasons:

  • You are interested in exploring big questions.
  • You are interested in discovering (or at least coming closer) to the truth as you seek to answer those questions.

In your pursuit of answers, you are focused on becoming a specialist in a particular field of study. Part of understanding your discipline involves understanding how it relates to other disciplines. This results in several immediate benefits to your research.

A Wider Audience as the Result of Interdisciplinary Research 

A philosopher who can think like an economist is more likely to produce work that economists want to read. An economist who can think like a philosopher is more likely to appeal to philosophers.

The same goes with other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Each field of study has its own lens on the world and its own toolkit for interpreting observations. None, however, have a monopoly on which questions are most important as they relate to other disciplines.

Putting your work in front of an audience which does not specialize in your discipline or field can help provide you with perspectives those within your field of study don’t emphasize. The wider audience can, of course, benefit from exposure to your insights as well.

Better Explanatory and Predictive Work

Siloing your methodology usually will not to help you appreciate the human world’s institutional and psychological complexity. It certainly will not help you explain the world more accurately.

Knowing the limits of your data set or methodology is key to knowing its strengths as well. For instance, modeling assumptions about axioms of rationality likely depart significantly in places from our best current understanding of real people’s psychology.

Analysis of political institutions benefits from knowledge of psychology and public choice theory. If your work tries to assess or defend the efficiency of democratic institutions, knowledge of their limitations will help you make a compelling case to larger, possibly skeptical audiences.

Better Normative Work

Scholars who do normative ethics and political philosophy stand to benefit by inquiring into the trade offs for any principles or proposals they advocate for as real-world policy. Does giving massive aid transfers to poor nations tend to benefit the poor in those countries or tend to perpetuate institutions that keep people stuck in poverty? That requires some knowledge of comparative politics.

Economists who defend markets as being efficient can benefit by looking at efficiency and economic growth against moral values such as justice, equality, and respect for liberty. Questions about how to deal with climate change require us to look at the nature of harm, a perennial philosophical question.

Without looking across the aisle at other disciplines, ethics without economics can be empty. Economics without ethics can be blind.

Inspiration to Confront Questions That May Not Otherwise Occur to You

Say you are a philosopher arguing against the prevalence of criminal drug laws. You may want to appeal to economic observations to provide evidence for your case. You could note, for instance, how such prohibitions can lead to Alchian and Allen effects where increased costs of transportation in a black market encourage participants to travel with more potent (and possibly more dangerous) substances. History can inform us of how these effects operated during Prohibition.

Or perhaps you are a philosopher arguing against the prevalence of safety regulations. You can draw upon Economics to show how some regulations lead to Peltzman effects (such as seat belt laws that motivate drivers to be less cautious).

A Response to the Hyper-specialization That Is Taking Over Many Academic Quarters

Circumstances may require that your dissertation focus on a very specialized topic. Don’t let that put you in the habit of making your life’s work not look at the bigger picture.

The “big questions,” after all, are what presumably got you into academia in the first place.

All questions are ultimately interrelated. Asking the questions that neighbor one’s discipline, or simply exposing one’s work to other disciplines can pay dividends in strengthening your research methods or your arguments.

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