Spotlight on Interdisciplinary Research: Cultural History of the Nineteenth Century

Anna Maria Barry is a PhD candidate at Oxford Brookes University, where she is a member of the OBERTO opera research unit. Her work focuses on male opera singers of the nineteenth century and examines their relationship with issues of masculinity, nationalism and celebrity. She has a particular interest in operatic portraits, novels and autobiographies. Anna blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter at @AnnaMariaB87Anna introduces our new Spotlight on Interdisciplinary Research series by considering the interdisciplinary nature of her own research, as well as the potential benefits and downsides of crossing disciplinary boundaries for PhD students and academics in general.


“Interdisciplinarity is fashionable in academia right now” claimed PhD student Sarah Byrne in a recent article for the Guardian. It is true that interdisciplinary work has been a hot topic in recent years, with scholars from a range of disciplines extolling both the virtues and the risks of such research. I am passionate about interdisciplinary work and my own research combines approaches from the fields of Musicology, History, Art History and Literature. In this post I will share my own experiences of crossing disciplinary boundaries, in the hope that they might be useful to those who are considering taking a similar approach to their own work. I will also offer a consideration of both the advantages and difficulties that are associated with this sort of research.

Moving into a new academic discipline can be a daunting prospect. Every discipline has its own methodologies, its own vocabulary and its own literature. When jumping into a new area of study, how does one get up to speed with a subject that is brand new? This is something I have no little experience of; after completing a BA in English Literature I studied for an MA in Victorian Art History and Literature before moving to a Music department for my PhD, which concerns male opera singers of the nineteenth century. I consider these men as cultural figures, exploring their representations in a wide range of sources including portraits, reviews, letters, novels and autobiographies. For me, ‘cultural history’ seems to be the label that best encapsulates my approach.

Each time I have moved into a new discipline I have found the transition to be surprisingly organic and natural. I believe this is for two main reasons. Firstly, my background in Literature provided me with a set of analytical tools that prepared me well for working with visual sources. After researching, analysing and writing about literature, working with visual sources felt to me a natural and, indeed, exciting progression. Similarly, when I moved into the study of music history I felt that the analytical and theoretical skills that I already possessed set me in good stead for tackling yet another new disciplinary approach.

While these universal academic skills have allowed me to move into new disciplines with a certain amount of ease, there is a second factor which I believe made these transitions feel natural. This is the fact that, while moving between disciplines, I have maintained a consistent focus: my work has always concerned nineteenth-century culture. Keeping this focus on a particular period made it far easier to work between disciplines, as many wider contexts remained fixed regardless of whether I was working on novels, portraits or operatic culture. I have been constantly surprised at just how close the ties between disciplines actually are. In the nineteenth century the worlds of literature, art and music were inextricably tied together; the Pre Raphaelites were poets as well as artists, literary figures such as Lord Byron and Charles Dickens collaborated with singers and musicians, while famous artists painted writers and musicians alike. Nineteenth-century culture was interdisciplinary, so I firmly believe that approaching it in an interdisciplinary way gives us the best chance of understanding it.

Most of those who are considering taking an interdisciplinary approach will, I imagine, be in a similar position to me – with a solid grounding in a particular discipline and an expertise in a particular area of research. I believe that these two factors make it far easier to move into a new discipline. Of course, this is not to say that moving into a new subject area is easy. Indeed, I have had to do a lot of reading to get up to speed with the vocabulary, methodologies and key literature of each new field. The methodologies of art historians and the vocabulary of musicologists were, at times, a challenge. The support of my university has been important here, making these challenges far easier to tackle. I am lucky to be a student in the OBERTO research unit at Oxford Brookes, which is dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of opera and has fully supported my approach. I also have a supervisor from both Music and Art History, meaning that I have input from both disciplines. This support and guidance has made it far easier to work across subject areas, as I am given new perspectives from each supervisor.

While I am a strong advocate of interdisciplinary research, I do have concerns about the impact that this will have on my career. I hope to pursue a career in academia after my PhD, yet several worrying recent articles have suggested that prospects are far from bright for interdisciplinarians. Sarah Byrne’s recent article in the Guardian argued that interdisciplinary work is a “risky route” for young academics, making for an “uncertain future”. Byrne explains that, while young academics are encouraged to pursue interdisciplinary research and rewarded with funding for such work, “Academia at the higher levels looks worryingly resistant to interdisciplinary research.” She cites reports of interdisciplinary work being considered too risky to submit to the REF and claims that high-impact journals are especially resistant to work that crosses disciplinary boundaries. These factors, she argues, can make it especially difficult for young interdisciplinarians to progress up the academic ladder. Additionally, she rightly recognises that it is difficult to prove your credentials in any one subject area when you work across many, arguing that “you can’t prove yourself experienced in any single subject area.” These are all issues that concern me and I am trying to prepare myself for the future as best I can; I have been able to collect small amounts of teaching experience in Music, Art History and History and I am also aiming to get an article published in a well-respected interdisciplinary journal, such as the Journal of Victorian Culture.

The outlook isn’t all so worrying, however. A recent conference at the Open University, supported by the British Academy, dealt with the theme of ‘Early Career Research and Interdisciplinarity’ and was dedicated to discussing the issues and problems that this sort of research presents for young academics within the humanities. There are also many thriving groups of academics who work in an interdisciplinary way; the RMA’s Music and Visual Arts Study Group is just one example of this. New publications are also encouraging, such as The Routledge Companion to Music and Visual Culture, which offers an overdue consideration of the burgeoning field of Art and Music studies. Interdisciplinarity is also flourishing in certain academic fields, such as that of Victorian Studies. The British Association for Victorian Studies is an organisation which supports the study of the Victorian period across disciplines as diverse as performance studies and the history of science. Interdisciplinary working is not just confined to the humanities, either. In all fields of research, from the social sciences to technology and medicine, academics are increasingly recognising the need for closer working and sharing. I hope that the next few years will see greater attention turned towards the crucial question of interdisciplinary research, with real change ensuring that young academics are fully supported to pursue interdisciplinary careers. I believe that, if this is done, we will see a great deal of exciting and groundbreaking new research that will greatly benefit all of us. As the great interdisciplinarian George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change”!


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