When we’re using the same words but mean different things

Oct 12, 2022 | General

Autumn leaves on grass. Large vibrant leaves of yellow, orange and red

One of the well-known challenges to working across disciplines is the different terminologies and the unfamiliar terms.  Each discipline will have words and phrases which it relies on.  For example to describe the methods it uses or the analysis commonly conducted. 

As we learn a discipline, we become comfortable to using those words which are specific to that subject.  The more time we spend in that discipline, and the more people we interact with who are familiar with that discipline, the more embedded those terms and their meanings become. 

Sometimes, as we step across the disciplinary boundary we encounter terms we’ve never heard of.  When I studied my Masters I did my first every lab based project exploring marine virology.  Prior to that project, I’d done most of my studying in intertidal ecology  – think rocky shores, sandy beaches and biota which you could see with the naked eye!  Being immersed in a world of microbiology and laboratory terms was a steep learning curve.  There were a lot of terms in those early weeks that I just had no idea about! 

But there is a sneakier challenge when it comes to language barriers in interdisciplinarity.  This is when the same word is used in different disciplines, but each discipline means something very different. 

Let’s say you and I are working together on a conservation project.  One of us is a social scientist, one of us is a natural scientist.  The project is taking place in a town with an adjacent forest.  The project is assessing the biodiversity and human use of the forest. 

You say community.  I say community.  One of us means the people that live in the town and use the forest.  One of us means the non-human animals and plants which are found in the forest.

You say survey.  I say survey.  One of us thinks of being out in the forest measuring factors such as invertebrate diversity whilst the other one is thinking about questionnaires or interviews to gather information from residents of the town.

You say research ethics.  I say research ethics.  One of us is thinking about applying for licenses from the Home Office to tag vertebrates living in the forest.  One of us is thinking about informed consent and data protection processes for speaking to residents of the town.

You get the idea.  These are just a few examples.

The words appear shared but have different meanings, different interpretations, and different consequences for the project.  Our default understanding of these “shared” words shows the biases in our thinking.  Whether we first think about the people, the biota, or – if you’re used to working in interdisciplinary teams – to clarify the meaning!

This isn’t a criticism of how people interpret words, or a statement that there is a right or wrong definition of these terms. 

However, it’s just as important in interdisciplinary working to be aware of the words we use with different meanings, as it is to be aware of unfamiliar words. 

How do you get past this challenge?

As a postdoctoral researcher I worked on a cross Channel project.  Partners from the north of France and the south of England worked together to enhance connections across sectors and the marine space.  We produced a lot of bilingual documents.  Early on, the project team agreed that we would invest time in making sure our meaning was clear.  We would discuss the nuance of words and the intended meaning in both French and English.  We worked with translators when we needed them.  And we were committed to making sure that documents in each language had the same meaning. 

That project was about translating across obviously different languages, rather than different disciplinary terms.  But the process we used applies to both.  Having an agreement, from early in the project, of how people work together when using different languages.  Recognising, from the outset, that project partners may use “jargon” which is unfamiliar to other partners, AND may use words which don’t seem at all like jargon but can lead to confusion.  Having an agreement in the project that investing time to decipher intended meanings is an asset to the project and will strengthen team communication.

Have you encountered this challenge?  What words or phrases are difficult for your interdisciplinary teams?  How did you get past it?   I’d love to hear you experiences. 


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