3.7 Ways of working

3.7.1 Research environment

The advent of digital technology and widespread access to the internet have had a transformative effect on how research is conducted, as new technologies continue to facilitate new ways of working. Collaborative working is becoming ever easier thanks to the internet which supports ready sharing of data, and easy communication. Open Access publishing and online databases such as Canmore (Section 3.5.4) are a great boon, although commercialization of data and images remains a barrier to research (see Section 6.2.8). New digital technologies hold out the promise of exciting new techniques and approaches but expectations will be thwarted unless there is effective dialogue between ‘knowledge people’ and ‘techies’ concerning project design and implementation.

Changes in the way in which university research is funded has resulted in a multiplication of schemes, each with specific criteria, which inevitably shape research projects, suiting some better than others. Some funding sources, e.g. HES, are bound by modern national boundaries. Others have specific agendas, e.g. European Union funding requires international cooperation with at least two non-UK partners. Other priorities appear more transient, with preferences at different times for, e.g. database projects, interdisciplinary projects, projects with Knowledge Exchange elements, or the inclusion of Early Career Researchers.

Within UK Universities, institutional concern to score highly in periodical national research assessment exercises (e.g. REF) can result in pressure on academics to prioritize certain kinds of research activity over others. Although one positive by-product of the current REF emphasis on ‘Knowledge Exchange’ between university and non-university sectors, and on the ‘Impact’ of research on society, is the encouragement of academics to give greater attention to community engagement, and collaboration with heritage bodies. There are systemic challenges in achieving the latter as a number of heritage bodies, including HES, shift from a system of relying on in-house experts to out-sourcing academic expertise on the model of freelance contractors.

Reconciling the different timescales to which heritage bodies and the Academy work can be problematic for professional academics who juggle research with teaching and who cannot take research leave at short notice. Another issue is that levels of scholarly rigour required by academic publication may go beyond those required for heritage management purposes. The laudable aim of getting research findings quickly into the public domain may be in conflict with pressures on academics to focus on major outputs and publish in peer-reviewed outlets. Dissemination of new research via the web in advance of full publication (e.g. Iona website) may be in conflict with current conventions regarding academic intellectual property, although rapid changes in digital publication and the use of the internet and social media are challenging norms in this area. While these issues remain to be fully resolved, the challenges are very much worth overcoming as there are many mutual advantages to closer working between heritage bodies and the Academy.

3.7.2 Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary working

By their very nature, carved stones are of interest to scholars from a wide range of academic disciplines, and each of these branches of knowledge brings to the subject its own approaches, techniques and expertise. How best to combine knowledge from different disciplines to gain maximum understanding is an increasing challenge as the growth of knowledge and the introduction of new technologies leads to ever narrower specialisation.

There are several different modes of collaboration between disciplines. The most straightforward is the multi-disciplinary approach whereby researchers work in partnership with others in different disciplines to tackle different aspects of a problem. Researchers remain within their own disciplines and work in parallel. A good example of a multi-disciplinary approach to carved stones research is Edwards’ corpus of early medieval inscribed and sculptured stones in Wales (Edwards 2007; 2013). Co-ordinated by a field-archaeologist/field-epigrapher with art-historical training (who is thus a multidisciplinary researcher herself), it also involved expert contributions from a geologist, a linguist, a palaeographer and an illustrator. Other multi-disciplinary approaches to carved stones might, for instance, involve art historians, genealogists, digital modellers, archaeological illustrators or conservators (see Disciplinary collaborations: Case Study 18).

Multi-disciplinary working can be a highly effective means of pooling expertise but one hazard with this mode is that the experts often work in isolation on separate aspects of the problem contributing a ‘specialist report’ which is seen only by the project leader, and remaining unaware of the findings of the others until after publication. This can result in lost opportunities to share findings in advance of publication and to feedback to one another while research is underway (although, admittedly, such interaction can be challenging to coordinate). In broader terms, working in parallel does not necessarily foster understanding of other disciplines and what they might contribute to specific problems. By working solely along established disciplinary lines, multidisciplinary projects run the risk of merely answering existing questions rather than generating new ones. A particular problem of carved stones research is the extent to which recording (whether that be drawing, photography or digital scanning) is done by technical specialists, who may have limited knowledge and understanding of the material, working separately from the researcher. The costs and logistical challenges of getting the researcher and recorder in the field together may be prohibitive but when they can work closely together, both record and analysis are generally enhanced (see the Irish Ogham in 3D project).

A more intense form of disciplinary collaboration is the interdisciplinary mode, in which participants from different disciplines work together more interactively. With interdisciplinary working, there is a merging of approaches from both disciplines, in contrast to multidisciplinary working in which researchers stay within existing disciplinary boundaries. Interdisciplinary projects are useful in answering questions which cannot be adequately addressed within existing disciplines and tend to emphasise new knowledge that exists between or beyond existing academic disciplines. Working across disciplines in this way can be more challenging and requires greater attention to communication between/among researchers throughout multiple phases of the research process.

Interdisciplinarity is highly relevant to carved stones which demand approaches which, for instance, fall between archaeology and art history. Increasing attention to materiality (see Section 3.2.3) is driving new interdisciplinary consideration of, for example, the ways in which material properties of a particular stone enable and constrain the way in which it has been carved, drawing on understandings derived from geology, archaeology, art history, and a practical understanding of stone-carving. Another example relevant to carved stones is the emerging interdisciplinary field of ‘graphicacy’ that seeks to understand the communication of conceptual information by means of non-figural graphic devices.

Interdisciplinarity is about innovations that integrate and move beyond discipline-specific approaches, whereas transdisciplinarity refers to the transfer of modalities (techniques, theories, approaches) from one discipline to another. Researchers continue to work within their discipline but import innovations from other fields. A number of theoretical approaches developed in prehistoric archaeology have been transferred to the study of carved stones of later periods (Gondek 2007). An example of this is phenomenology, which emphasises the sensory experiences of those interacting with archaeological material (Tilley 1994; Tilley and Bennett 2004), and which originates in philosophy and social theory. An example of transdiscplinarity on a more practical level, would be the transference of techniques and approaches developed on a landscape scale (in connection with LiDAR topographical survey) to surface analysis of carved stones on a much smaller scale (Kitzler Åhfeldt 2013).

Finally, cross-disciplinary working, results in aspects of one discipline being explained in terms of another in order to yield new insights. Thus a researcher in a discipline which does not usually consider carved stones (e.g. mathematics) might apply approaches established in that discipline to explain aspects of it within the terms of that discipline (e.g. geometric ornament, such as interlace). Such approaches can yield insights of interest to carved stones researchers, even if the study is not directed at them. An example of cross-disciplinary work relevant to carved stones is Lee’s application of statistical techniques established in information theory to Pictish symbols (Lee et al. 2010, but see Sproat 2010).

Despite the obvious potential of the kind of multi-disciplinary approaches outlined above, enthusiasm for them should not be at the exclusion of single disciplinary approaches which still have much to contribute to the study of carved stones.

See also Case Study 18: Disciplinary collaborations

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