Interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity involves the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity (e.g. a research project). It is about creating something new by crossing boundaries, and thinking across them. It is related to an interdiscipline (e.g. Sociolinguistics, Biosemiotics) which is an organizational unit that crosses traditional boundaries between academic disciplines or schools of thought, as new needs and professions have emerged.

Originally, the term interdisciplinary is applied within education and training pedagogies to describe studies that use methods and insights of several established disciplines or traditional fields of study. Interdisciplinarity involves researchers, students, and teachers in the goals of connecting and integrating several academic schools of thought, professions, or technologies – along with their specific perspectives – in the pursuit of a common task.

The epidemiology of AIDS or global warming require understanding of diverse disciplines to solve neglected problems. Interdisciplinary may be applied where the subject is felt to have been neglected or even misrepresented in the traditional disciplinary structure of research institutions, for example, women’s studies or ethnic area studies. The adjective ‘interdisciplinary’ is most often used in educational circles when researchers from two or more disciplines pool their approaches and modify them so that they are better suited to the problem at hand, including the case of the team-taught course where students are required to understand a given subject in terms of multiple traditional disciplines. For example, the subject of land use may appear differently when examined by different disciplines, for instance, biology, chemistry, economics, geography, and politics.

Although interdisciplinary and interdisciplinarity are frequently viewed as twentieth century terms, the concept has historical antecedents, most notably Greek philosophy. Humanities scholar Julie Thompson Klein attests that ‘the roots of the concepts lie in a number of ideas that resonate through modern discourse—the ideas of a unified science, general knowledge, synthesis and the integration of knowledge’ while Professor of English Giles Gunn says that Greek historians and dramatists took elements from other realms of knowledge (such as medicine or philosophy) to further understand their own material.

Interdisciplinary programs sometimes arise from a shared conviction that the traditional disciplines are unable or unwilling to address an important problem. For example, social science disciplines such as anthropology and sociology paid little attention to the social analysis of technology throughout most of the twentieth century. As a result, many social scientists with interests in technology have joined science and technology studies programs, which are typically staffed by scholars drawn from numerous disciplines. They may also arise from new research developments, such as nanotechnology, which cannot be addressed without combining the approaches of two or more disciplines. Examples include quantum information processing, an amalgamation of quantum physics and computer science, and bioinformatics, combining molecular biology with computer science.

Sustainable Development as a research area deals with problems requiring analysis and synthesis across economic, social, and environmental spheres; often an integration of multiple social and natural science disciplines. Some institutions of higher education offer accredited degree programs in Interdisciplinary Studies. Norfolk State University, a historically black institution located in Norfolk, VA, is one such example of this. In some institutions, interdisciplinarity may itself become the focus of study, in a critique of institutionalized disciplines’ ways of segmenting knowledge.

At another level interdisciplinarity is seen as a remedy to the harmful effects of excessive specialization. On some views, however, interdisciplinarity is entirely indebted to those who specialize in one field of study—that is, without specialists, interdisciplinarians would have no information and no leading experts to consult. Others place the focus of interdisciplinarity on the need to transcend disciplines, viewing excessive specialization as problematic both epistemologically and politically. When interdisciplinary collaboration or research results in new solutions to problems, much information is given back to the various disciplines involved. Therefore, both disciplinarians and interdisciplinarians may be seen in complementary relation to one another.

However, because most participants in interdisciplinary ventures were trained in traditional disciplines, they must learn to appreciate differing of perspectives and methods. For example, a discipline that places more emphasis on quantitative ‘rigor’ may produce practitioners who think of themselves (and their discipline) as ‘more scientific’than others; in turn, colleagues in ‘softer’ disciplines may associate quantitative approaches with an inability to grasp the broader dimensions of a problem. An interdisciplinary program may not succeed if its members remain stuck in their disciplines (and in disciplinary attitudes).

On the other hand, and from the disciplinary perspective, much interdisciplinary work may be seen as ‘soft,’ lacking in rigor, or ideologically motivated; these beliefs place barriers in the career paths of those who choose interdisciplinary work. For example, interdisciplinary grant applications are often refereed by peer reviewers drawn from established disciplines; not surprisingly, interdisciplinary researchers may experience difficulty getting funding for their research. In addition, untenured researchers know that, when they seek promotion and tenure, it is likely that some of the evaluators will lack commitment to interdisciplinarity. They may fear that making a commitment to interdisciplinary research will increase the risk of being denied tenure.

Interdisciplinary programs may fail if they are not given sufficient autonomy. For example, interdisciplinary faculty are usually recruited to a joint appointment, with responsibilities in both an interdisciplinary program (such as women’s studies) and a traditional discipline (such as history). If the traditional discipline makes the tenure decisions, new interdisciplinary faculty will be hesitant to commit themselves fully to interdisciplinary work. Other barriers include the generally disciplinary orientation of most scholarly journals, leading to the perception, if not the fact, that interdisciplinary research is hard to publish. In addition, since traditional budgetary practices at most universities channel resources through the disciplines, it becomes difficult to account for a given scholar or teacher’s salary and time.

During periods of budgetary retraction, the natural tendency to serve the primary constituency (i.e., students majoring in the traditional discipline) makes resources scarce for teaching and research comparatively far from the center of the discipline as traditionally understood. For these same reasons, the introduction of new interdisciplinary programs is often perceived as a competition for diminishing funds, and may for this reason meet resistance. Due to these and other barriers, interdisciplinary research areas are strongly motivated to become disciplines themselves. If they succeed, they can establish their own research funding programs and make their own tenure and promotion decisions. In so doing, they lower the risk of entry. Examples of former interdisciplinary research areas that have become disciplines include neuroscience, cybernetics, biochemistry, and biomedical engineering. These new fields are still occasionally referred to as ‘interdisciplines.’

Perhaps the most common complaint regarding interdisciplinary programs, by supporters and detractors alike, is the lack of synthesis—that is, students are provided with multiple disciplinary perspectives, but are not given effective guidance in resolving the conflicts and achieving a coherent view of the subject. Critics of interdisciplinary programs feel that the ambition is simply unrealistic, given the knowledge and intellectual maturity of all but the exceptional undergraduate; some defenders concede the difficulty, but insist that cultivating interdisciplinarity as a habit of mind, even at that level, is both possible and essential to the education of informed and engaged citizens and leaders capable of analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information from multiple sources in order to render reasoned decisions.

There are many examples of when a particular idea, almost on the same period, arises in different disciplines. One case is the shift from the approach of focusing on ‘specialized segments of attention’ (adopting one particular perspective), to the idea of ‘instant sensory awareness of the whole,’ an attention to the ‘total field,’ a ‘sense of the whole pattern, of form and function as a unity,’ an ‘integral idea of structure and configuration.’ This has happened in painting (with cubism), physics, poetry, communication and educational theory. According to Marshall McLuhan, this paradigm shift was due to the passage from an era shaped by mechanization, which brought sequentiality, to the era shaped by the instant speed of electricity, which brought simultaneity.

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