Reflections on interdisciplinary life so far

First posted on the Childhood Adversity and Lifetime Resilience Project Website.



Michelle Degli Esposti:

Could you provide a brief introduction

Hi there, my name is Michelle and I’ve just started my DPhil in Experimental Psychology at Oxford.

A bit about me… A couple of years ago I completed my undergraduate degree in Experimental Psychology (which was also at Oxford – I haven’t gone very far!).

Since, I worked as an Assistant Psychologist for Guernsey’s Psychological Services, specialising in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.

I then worked as a Research Assistant for Oxford’s Psychological Medicine Research Group in the Department of Psychiatry looking at mental and physical comorbidity – that is, when and why mental and physical disorders co-occur, and how they interact.

Just before starting my DPhil, I worked (and still work part-time) within Oxford’s Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma, on a project funded by Mind. The project is evaluating an intervention which aims to develop resilience in emergency service personnel.

At this stage how do you conceptualise your DPhil?

My DPhil is about better understanding childhood maltreatment, and how it affects different people in different ways throughout their lives. Hopefully by better understanding these differences, we will be able to better help people who are maltreated in childhood.

What are you doing at the moment?

I am currently conducting a systematic review of the relevant literature, and writing the systematic review protocol for publication.

N.B. a systematic review is just a fancy term for a comprehensive, systematic, transparent, and therefore replicable, literature review. It is just about identifying the relevant literature and making sense of what we already know (or don’t know!) about the field.

What is history (no wiki!)

Mmmm so at the risk of being too obvious, and I’m sure I’m being naive, but: I think (!) history is about studying the past in an attempt to reconstruct and understand things that have already happened.

What do you make of interdisciplinary life?

I like interdisciplinary life! I think I couldn’t have asked for a better person to be ‘interdisciplinary’ with – Jono is academically outstanding (from what I can gather), hard working, enthusiastic, and very amiable.

I also love the idea of broadening my sights, and attempting to understand things from different perspectives, and via different approaches. I think it is very easy to assume that your perspective and discipline is the only one – well at least the only right one. It is therefore refreshing, and keeps me on my toes, to be in regular contact with a different discipline. They really do think differently! They see things different, approach things differently, and ask different questions. All good things to be part of.

In terms of what I make of History specifically… I like it. It is a different world though. I feels like I’ve gone into an old library and dusted a book off from the top shelf, trying to find little treasures in the midst. Well that’s how I see Jono at least. I like the historical perspective, I particularly like how they treat every information, every source, and every occurrence as meaningful. It places value and detail in lots of things that I would otherwise ignore. I think psychologists can be in danger of seeing things in black and white, and therefore lose out on important information.

Between you and me though – I’m still an experimental psychologist at heart, and I wouldn’t change that!

What do you think you can learn (if anything) from Jono?

I think I got carried away and almost answered this question in the previous one!

I think I can learn a wider perspective from Jono. I think I will be able to better place information within the context it belongs, pay attention to detail and consider related information (which I may have otherwise thought of as irrelevant). I think I will learn to value all the information we do have more, rather than discarding things because they don’t reach the ‘gold standard’ that we somewhat arbitrarily set.

I think I will have lots more to learn from Jono, including Twitter… But I’m yet to find out what just yet! Maybe ask me again in a few months time.


Jono Taylor:

Could you provide a brief introduction?

Hi, I’m Jono. I’ve recently arrived in Oxford having spent a year working as a researcher in London. As part of this job, I was involved in evaluating a number of projects that aimed to support people who had faced adversity. This research sparked an interest in how governments and third-sector organisations have historically sought to help children who were considered to be at risk of harm, as well as the impact that these interventions have had.

Before starting my DPhil in Oxford, I completed my MPhil and BA in History at Cambridge University. When I’m not studying history I enjoy playing board games and (very badly!) learning French.

At this stage how do you conceptualise your DPhil?

At this stage I think the DPhil will involve Michelle and I jointly exploring questions relating to resilience and adversity. I’m particularly interested in exploring the experiences of children in receipt of support arising from what were thought to be adverse experiences.

What are you doing at the moment?

I’m currently conducting a series of literature reviews of studies relating to broad themes that my project is likely to encounter: histories of childhood, family, the welfare state, etc.

By considering a wide range of different, but related, themes I’m planning to have a clearer idea of the different debates taking place, as well as possible links between, studies of the past. At this stage, my thematic approach, and a general preference for studies of nineteenth and twentieth century British history, have been the only real restrictions to my reading. As a result, I’ve encountered histories that have explored the political thought informing the formation of the welfare state, and histories of the cultural significance of Care Bears, with a lot in between!

What is psychology (no wiki!)

think psychology, at least the sort that Michelle is up to, is concerned with trying to understand human behaviour. It seems to be a subject keen on generalising from findings believed to have been acquired in a systematic way – perhaps history can be guilty of generalising from findings acquired in an unsystematic way!

What do you make of interdisciplinary life?

I’ve really enjoyed regularly catching up with Michelle and learning what she has been up to. I’ve found it particularly helpful trying to explain my thought process to someone from a related, but distinct discipline. Michelle has been exceptionally patient, kindly listening as I describe historical arguments, for which the sample size must seem shockingly small to a psychologist!

It’s been great to see parallels emerging in some of areas of interest; catching up as also involved some funny moments as we try and wrack our brains for a way of explaining terms that seem unique to our respective disciplines.

Through Michelle I’ve become aware of lots of interesting sounding talks being run out of the psychology department – although I’ve not been as good as I’d want at attending them. There’s always next week…

What do you think you can learn (if anything) from Michelle?

What seems really good about Michelle’s approach is its transparency, her thought process is clearly set out at the start, allowing future researchers to replicate her research process. I was struck, however, by the tendency of psychologists to discount studies that don’t directly speak to one another. While this seems to have arisen from a desire to ensure consistency across projects, from a historian’s perspective it also seem to risk overlooking potentially important findings that can arise when comparing projects drawing upon different research methodologies. Many of the best histories I have encountered have made imaginative use of a wide range of sources.

As we have both started our DPhils by reading through existing works to try and gain a better understanding the questions and themes that researchers have been grappling with. While our motivations are similar, ways in which we carrying out our reviews are very different!


Michelle Degli Esposti:

How do you go about reviewing the existing literature.

I have started by formulating and outlining a systematic review protocol, which primarily sets out:

  • a specific research or review question(s)
  • the rationale for this review question(s)
  • the search strategy (including the specific search terms) for identifying relevant studies and sources in relevant databases
  • the eligibility criteria to determine, a priori, which studies will be included in the review
  • the quality criteria to help critically appraise the included studies
  • what information I am interested in and will extract from the included studies
  • how I will synthesize the information and answer the review questions

Very dry I’m afraid, but it is systematic, and systematic reviews are all the range in the sciences at the moment.

Things we’ve had to think about.

I’ve had lots of things to think about, I feel like I’ve almost done too much thinking…

Writing my research question was perhaps the hardest and involved the most tooing and frooing in my head. After all, it is the research question that frames all of the systematic review. You kind of have to know exactly what you are going to do and why, before you can clearly formulate research questions, and break these research questions down. I initially struggled with the research question as after you immerse yourself in the literature, it is so hard to narrow your focus in on one main research question, because it inevitably means ignoring some aspects of the literature and making crude generalisations on other parts. I found this quite hard to do. I guess it is about striking a balance, and that balance took a lot of circular thought before I could decide on it. I’m sure though, that people are a lot clearer in thought and more efficient in thinking than me.


Jono Taylor:

How do you go about reviewing the existing literature.

As mentioned above, I’m currently interested in trying to understand the questions being debated by historians, as well as trying to identify gaps in the current research.

As I’m particularly interested in studying the experiences of children, I’ve been keen to learn about the different sources of information that historians have used.

Compared to psychologists, historians seem far more comfortable using a range of different sources, looking at both contemporary accounts and later reflections. These difference seem to have arisen because of our disciplines different starting points. Historians studies are strongly shaped by the type of material that has survived. Contrasting sources of information (diaries and newspaper articles, for example) help to fill in gaps that would arise by using type of information alone. Considering many types of sources also allows scholars to appreciate events from different perspectives, thereby enabling us to develop a more accurate understanding of the past. While this concern for accuracy seems to be shared by psychologists, it results in a very different approach.

Things we’ve had to think about.

I think the most interesting, but perhaps the most challenging, issue I’ve faced so far is coming to terms with the changes that took place over the period I plan to study (1945, perhaps before, through to the 1970s).

Historian love to talk about degrees of continuity and change, what is more difficult is providing an accurate assessment of developments involving so many different actors. Charting change in legislation is relatively straightforward, fully understand the subquest results of these legal innovations is more difficult – social workers, parents, and children will all have experienced changed differently. This presents a really exciting opportunity for researchers, but also a challenge to try and move beyond Hansard Reports and into the (Children’s) homes of those whose lives were under scrutiny.


Please feel free to get in touch with us at:
Michelle: @Michelle_Degli ‏
Jono: @JTaylor_001

Childhood Adversity and Lifetime Resilience

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