Interdisciplinarity involves the coming together of two or more disciplines. Oxford Living Dictionaries (2018) define interdisciplinarity as ‘[t]he quality or fact of involving or drawing on two or more branches of knowledge.’ This is quite a broad definition and covers the range of ways in which the term is often used loosely in common parlance. However, it misses a key element of interdisciplinarity that is underlined by many respected scholars in the field – that concerning integrationor synergy (Klein, 1990; Spelt et al., 2009; Newell and Schultz, 2012).
Interdisciplinarity therefore creates something new and unique beyond the sum of its parts. It can thereby generate excitement as a potential means for promoting innovation and creativity in research and in learning and teaching, or beyond.
How is interdisciplinarity distinguished from multidisciplinarity and crossdisciplinarity?
Interdisciplinarity can be distinguished from multidisciplinarity because multidisciplinarity does not necessarily involve synergy and is simply additive. Multidisciplinarity allows individual disciplines to remain in their particular silos. For example, a multidisciplinary study on climate change might include economic, sociological or meteorological analysis, without the disciplines being integrated in any of the analysis.
Interdisciplinarity is also distinct from crossdisciplinarity, which is taken to involve the consideration of one discipline from the perspective of another – such as ‘the physics of music’. However, this tends to lead to the domination of the one discipline that is used to analyse the other (Davies and Devlin, 2007: 3).
Therefore, many programmes and modules that label themselves as interdisciplinary are actually more multidisciplinary or crossdisciplinary. In contrast, interdisciplinarity is a genuine fusion of previously independent elements.
If interdisciplinarity refers to disciplines, what is a discipline?
If we are to consider how interdisciplinarity generates integration, we need to ask – what constitutes an academic discipline? Davies and Devlin (2007:1) propose that a discipline is characterised by a particular ‘mode of enquiry that defines how data is collected and interpreted’. This would include both its methodological approach relating to research tools, and its epistemological approach relating to knowledge, interpretation and meaning making.
Davies and Devlin (2007:1) add that academic disciplines consist of a ‘community of scholars’ with a ‘communications network’. This could be related to the ‘Communities of Practice’ literature (Lave and Wenger, 1991). And following a ‘Communities of Practice’ approach, the practice, the culture, and the social construction of disciplines becomes relevant, as do the identities surrounding them. Recognising the transient aspects of disciplines and therefore their interrelated and fluid nature is significant. It underlines the importance of flexibility and an openness to engage with other disciplines and new approaches. This is particularly important if disciplines are to maintain their relevancy in the fast-changing world of the 21stcentury.
So what is transdisciplinarity?
Transdisciplinarity can be taken to mean viewing a problem with no specific disciplinary lens (Hauke and Pope, 2017). Indeed, Davies and Devlin (2007: 4) describe a transdisciplinary approach as ‘dissolving academic boundaries’ – but, they express concern about the potential for this to lead to the loss of established methods and techniques. Nonetheless, such a transdisciplinary approach can facilitate innovation and boundary crossing and even the creation of new disciplines. Furthermore, and crucially, a transdisciplinary approach does not preclude students or scholars from returning to established academic disciplines as and when it is appropriate.
For more information about how education can use an interdisciplinary approach, see here for our recent contribution to a new textbook on this topic, Designing Interdisciplinary Education: A practical handbook for university teachers.
Davies, M. and Devlin, M. (2007) Interdisciplinary higher education: Implications for teaching and learning,Centre for the Study of Higher Education: University of Melbourne.
Hauke, E. and Pope, M. (2017) Global Challenges Handbook, URL: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/media/imperial-college/administration-and-support-services/centre-for-languages-culture-and-communications/horizons/public/Global-Challenges-Handbook-2017_18.pdf Accessed: 28thJune 2018.
Klein, J. (2005). Integrative learning and interdisciplinary studies. Peer Review.7(4): 8-10.
Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.
Newell, W. and Schulz, G. (2012) Editors’ Introduction.Issues in Integrative Studies. 30: I-IV.
Oxford Living Dictionaries (2018) Definition of Interdisciplinarity, URL https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/interdisciplinarityAccessed: 25th June 2018
Spelt, E., Biemans, H., Tobi, H., Luning, P. and Mulder, M. (2009)Teaching and Learning in Interdisciplinary Higher Education: A Systematic Review.Educational Psychology Review. 21:365–378.
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