Many Disciplines, One Goal

In SSA’s new Interdisciplinary Scholar Networks, researchers from disparate fields work together to build a stronger whole

By Charles Whitaker

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


“These new scholar networks will connect theory to practice in the highest intellectual tradition of the University of Chicago,” says Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum.

Group of people in a beehive like formation



Interdisciplinary and cross-field research and collaboration are at the heart of social work research, in large part because of the nature of the issues and treatments that are being studied. Although academic and organizational barriers traditionally make it difficult to pursue true interdisciplinary research in the academic world, SSA has a long history of faculty working across disciplines and issues. Now, with the launch of the new Interdisciplinary Scholar Network program, the School has entered a new stage in promoting this work. The Employment Instability, Family Well-being and Social Policy Network (EINet) and the STI/HIV Intervention Network (SHINE), launched in 2011 are working to connect theory and practice while also linking social welfare researchers with leading scholars.


Published in the Winter 2012 issue of SSA Magazine

Think about all the factors that can influence a young adult’s decisions about risky sexual behavior. There’s the relationship with the partner, parental advice, logistical opportunity, cultural norms, peer standards, psychological needs and fears, an understanding of the possible consequences, and, of course, the underlying biology of desire.

A similar mix of dynamics is woven into almost any issue that social workers confront, from homelessness to early education. Humans are extraordinarily complex, and the social constructs we operate within are as complicated. It’s why social work is naturally an interdisciplinary enterprise. “For social workers there is always a discourse about the need to understand the multiple factors that contribute to complex social problems. As a result, much of our work, in both practice and research, is inherently interdisciplinary,” explains Assistant Professor Alida Bouris.

SSA has long recognized this reality in its scholarship. Professors at the School have backgrounds and training in social work, sociology, psychology, anthropology, public health, political science, economics, geography and more, and SSA researchers routinely draw on a variety of social sciences in their work. For example, Assistant Professor Heather Hill, who studies how parents’ employment impacts their children, says her understanding of the questions she explores would be incomplete if she failed to draw on the work done in multiple disciplines.

“We have a deep understanding here at SSA that bringing together both the theory and the methods of various disciplines offers a more complete picture of why social problems develop and how public policy can resolve those issues,” Hill says. “For example, from economics I get the most complete understanding of the labor market, how jobs are designed and how incentives work to affect individuals’ behaviors about choosing a job. But from developmental psychology I get a much more detailed and nuanced understanding of how children’s development is affected at different ages by the family context, the macro context of the economy and societal-level forces.”

Unfortunately, traditional academic settings are far from conducive in integrating knowledge across fields. Different disciplines have different research paradigms and nomenclature, and there are few structures available to help bridge these divides. Furthermore, a researcher can be discouraged from drawing too much from multiple disciplines out of fear that she might blur her scholarly identity. Recognizing these realities, the University of Chicago has made a commitment to work across fields, including several projects with an interdisciplinary focus, including the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture and the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy, as well as an ongoing series of workshops for graduate students with an interdisciplinary focus.

Building on SSA’s history of scholarship that breaks down academic silos and the University’s interest in interdisciplinary work, SSA Dean and Mose & Sylvia Firestone Professor Neil Guterman launched a new program this year that encourages collaboration at a structural level. The Interdisciplinary Scholar Networks offer research funding and a range of other administrative supports to spur teams of SSA faculty to develop platforms for reaching across disciplinary and institutional boundaries.

The first two new Interdisciplinary Scholar Networks housed within SSA began operating in the fall, each focused on advancing knowledge and contributing to innovative solutions to a specific social problem. One is centered on the causes and consequences of employment instability; the other will explore the disproportionate impact of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) on the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in the U.S. and abroad.

“The concept grew out of the fact that we at SSA deal with such deep problems—poverty, unemployment, homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse, violence—that are all messy, complicated and multiply-caused,” Guterman says. “Therefore one discipline rarely has a corner on an explanation that can generate really robust solutions. So the idea was to bring together the greatest minds across disciplines to generate ideas that are more comprehensive, more integrated and de-siloed.”

Working across disciplines is one of those lofty ideals that is preached more than practiced in many academic settings, according to researchers and administrators alike. Issues like competition for grant funding and determining which conferences to attend or which journals to publish in create disincentives, and it can be challenging for a young tenure-track scholar to contribute depth in their own discipline while also being methodologically ambidextrous.

“The reward and incentive structure in academia is not based on working across disciplines,” says Laurie Garduque, a program director at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. “It’s designed so that individuals become specialists in specific areas with a paradigm that is specific to a particular field. So a sociologist doesn’t necessarily step outside of her research paradigm to think like a psychologist.”

To try to encourage just that sort of scholarly cross-pollination, the MacArthur Foundation has maintained a number of interdisciplinary research networks focused on a wide range of issues, from law to neuroscience, for more than 35 years. Its original interdisciplinary venture was a program devoted to human development and mental health. According to Garduque, the foundation’s board of directors believed that the best way to affect mental health policy and research was to provide a mechanism for convening practitioners, academic researchers, mental health advocates, state commissioners and judges to gather around the table to help frame the issues and ask research questions that inform both policy and practice. “The implication of this kind of collaborative approach is that it’s more transparent and makes the research more immediately accessible and useful,” Garduque says.

Initially, MacArthur tried to foster collaboration by creating centers at universities to bring scholars from various disciplines together. “People said they were going to work together,” Garduque recalls, “but in the end they remained in their silos.” So the MacArthur board shifted gears, creating a new infrastructure to lure individual scholars working in certain problem areas who felt they had reached the limits of their own research, training and background and sincerely wanted to work across disciplines. “We look for the psychologist who feels that he or she needs to work with a sociologist to understand the context or the political scientist or an economist to explain the phenomenon,” Garduque explains.

The MacArthur example, in many ways, is one of the models on which the SSA Interdisciplinary Scholar Networks are based. Guterman had also briefly initiated an interdisciplinary working group before leaving the faculty of Columbia University, where groups of colleagues across the New York-based campus met periodically to discuss the problem of child maltreatment. But the Columbia enterprise yielded no ongoing tangible work. “What we didn’t do much of there was collaborate,” Guterman recalls. “We just talked to each other.

“One of the reasons that I came to the University of Chicago and SSA is that this is such an exciting interdisciplinary environment with a wonderful interdisciplinary ethos,” he says. “People across disciplines do interact frequently and the thinking is enriched rather than polarized by that. But there are rather strong centrifugal forces that pull colleagues away from one another and into their silos. I wanted to develop a vessel through this initiative to bring scholars together deliberately to try to overcome some of that inertia.”

Each of the networks is headed by a team of SSA faculty members who serve as principal or co principal investigators, working with a network of disparate scholars, policy makers and other stakeholders both from within the University of Chicago and from peer institutions. The networks are designed to establish new activities—collaborative empirical studies, new scholarly journals, commissioned volumes or conferences—that reward rather than penalize scholars for interdisciplinary work. The funding used to launch the networks is viewed as seed money for an incubatory phase. Ultimately, it will be incumbent upon the scholars involved in the networks to develop mechanisms to ensure their own long-term sustainability.

“These new scholar networks will connect theory to practice in the highest intellectual tradition of the University,” says University of Chicago Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum, “while at the same time linking some of our most influential social welfare researchers with leading scholars across the nation. I look forward to the creation of a powerful new tradition at SSA.”

The Employment Instability, Family Well-being and Social Policy Network (EINet), one of the new Interdisciplinary Scholar Networks, is designed to enhance the capacity of the field to study the causes and consequences of unemployment, underemployment and other forms of employment instability, and to assess interventions that are designed to improve employment conditions and mitigate the effects of instability on families. The topic is ripe for the kind of collaborative approach its members hope to take.

“Employment instability is, by nature, an interdisciplinary problem,” says Susan Lambert, an associate professor at SSA whose research focuses on the “work” side of work-life issues, primarily studying low-skilled, hourly jobs. “You have to be able to understand the broader labor market trends, and you have to understand the decisions and non-decisions that shape what goes on in the labor market. And in order to understand all that, you need a spectrum of scholars.”

SSA’s Lambert and Hill serve as the co-principal investigators of the network, and Associate Professor Julia Henly and Assistant Professor Marci Ybarra sit on a 12-member steering committee that includes scholars from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Congressional Budget Office, CUNY, Penn State, UCLA, the University of Washington School of Social Work, and the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies. The network has three key objectives: examining the nature, sources and ramifications of employment instability; designing and evaluating workplace interventions to decrease employment instability; and furthering knowledge on the design and implementation of policies and programs to effectively buffer families against employment instability.

“Public policy has focused on trying to get people into work. We haven’t focused very much on trying to increase the stability of work or the stability of income,” Hill says.

One overarching issue that EINet PIs have identified as central to their mission is the development of better research tools: National data aim to get a snapshot of the state of employment in the country but fail to fully capture the unpredictable and variable work schedules experienced by many low-wage workers.

“For many purposes, what the existing surveys measure makes perfect sense,” Henley says. “But national surveys tend not to capture what worklife is like for people in non-standard jobs, where they may work four hours one day and six hours the next, and where start times aren’t based on a traditional 9 – 5 schedule. So one of the things we hope to accomplish with the Network is to develop a new set of survey questions for capturing this kind of unpredictability. That will give us a much clearer understanding of the reality for many low-wage workers.”

The other new network, the STI/HIV Intervention Network (SHINE), seeks to establish a sustainable network of scholars and community partners who will develop and disseminate multi-level interventions that will help stop the spread of HIV/STIs among racial and ethnic minorities and reduce the existing disparities in the incidence and prevalence of HIV in the fourth decade of the pandemic. SSA Associate Professor Dexter Voisin is SHINE’s principal investigator, and Bouris and Assistant Professor Matt Epperson are co-principal investigators.

As with the employment instability network, SHINE’s network of 10 scholars from social work, psychology, public health, nursing and medicine bring different perspectives and their own active networks of research partners and collaborators to the table. Even within SSA, that dynamic is on display: Voisin’s work has focused on HIV prevention among minority youth and the intersection between community violence and HIV risk. Bouris’ research has focused on the development of family-based interventions to prevent HIV and STIs among adolescents and young men who have sex with men. And Epperson’s work has targeted the spread of HIV in populations involved in the criminal justice system.

In the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the PIs in this network maintain, much of the research and preventative work done to stem the disease was concentrated in the public health or biomedical spheres. SHINE will attempt to bring the variety of disciplines together— including social work, a relatively recent entry in this arena—to address the many factors that contribute to the behaviors that facilitate the spread of HIV and other STIs. “The focus is to not just take a unilateral approach to HIV prevention,” Epperson says, “but to incorporate three approaches to intervention: behavioral, biomedical and structural, meaning looking at ways to develop interventions that have greater impact among high-risk subpopulations.”

Epperson knew early on in his career that to gain a fuller understanding of those who are in the criminal justice system and their travails he would need to draw on the research of variety of disciplines, from sociology to epidemiology. He finds the disciplinary sampling enriching. “I am energized by the interdisciplinary approach,” he says. “Sometimes what seems innovative and different to people in one discipline is actually well known in another discipline. That type of exposure can really enrich one’s research.”

SHINE’s integrated approach will draw upon social work’s examination of the behavioral and structural issues that have made communities of ethnic and racial minorities more susceptible to HIV while also working with prevention scientists and public health professionals to examine how behavioral and structural approaches can support the adoption and appropriate use of biomedical interventions. “A lot of the prior work in this area focused mostly on the individual, so environmental factors have not been sufficiently attended to,” Voisin says.

Forging community partnerships is also central to the vision that the PIs have for the SHINE network. “In terms of HIV prevention, the chasm between research and practice is large,” Voisin says. “[SHINE] presents us with a real opportunity as a school and an institution to pull together the best of biomedical research, the best of social work and the community partners to take a more integrated approach to addressing this issue.”

In this and many other ways, the launch of SSA’s new Interdisciplinary Scholar Networks merely formalizes and adds resources to the School’s already vigorous collaborative climate. “Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not what social work research and certainly not what SSA is about,” Guterman says. “We’re about knowledge for bettering human life and solving deep social problems like poverty and violence.”

Though still in their infancy, the two networks are already generating a level of excitement among their participants about the opportunities they afford. “I’m looking forward to connecting with people in the field whose papers I might read but who otherwise I might not get to meet,” says Henly, who adds that the networks also provide a vehicle for SSA to proselytize about the collaborative nature of the work that goes on at the School.

“SSA has been interdisciplinary for a long time, but not necessarily on the radar,” Henly says. “This is a great opportunity to promote that aspect of our work in a way that will benefit our students, our faculty and the populations we serve.”

Ralph DiClemente, Candler Professor at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health, member of the SHINE network.