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Interdisciplinarity is a type of academic collaboration in which specialists drawn from two or more academic disciplines work together in pursuit of common goals.
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 (including anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, and women's studies). 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, which amalgamates elements of quantum physics and computer science, and bioinformatics, which combines molecular biology with computer science.
Many scientists believe that the most pressing problems facing humanity, including the AIDS pandemic, global warming, and the loss of biodiversity, can be solved only by developing interdisciplinary approaches.
Varieties[edit | edit source]
There are several types of inquiry that may be referred to as "interdisciplinary." Interdisciplinarity is often used interchangeably with such terms as multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and crossdisciplinarity.
Multidisciplinarity[edit | edit source]
Multidisciplinarity is the act of joining together two or more disciplines without integration. Each discipline yields discipline specific results while any integration would be left to a third party observer. An example of multidisciplinarity would be a panel presentation on the many facts of the AIDS pandemic (medicine, politics, epidemiology) in which each section is given as a stand-alone presentation.
A multidisciplinary community or project is made up of people from different disciplines and professions who are engaged in working together as equal stakeholders in addressing a common challenge. The key question is how well can the challenge be decomposed into nearly separable subparts, and then addressed via the distributed knowledge in the community or project team. The lack of shared vocabulary between people and communication overhead is an additional challenge in these communities and projects. However, if similar challenges of a particular type need to be repeatedly addressed, and each challenge can be properly decomposed, a multidisciplinary community can be exceptionally efficient and effective. A multidisciplinary person is a person with degrees from two or more academic disciplines, so one person can take the place of two or more people in a multidisciplinary community or project team. Over time, multidisciplinary work does not typically lead to an increase nor a decrease in the number of academic disciplines.
Interdisciplinarity[edit | edit source]
"Interdisciplinarity" in referring to an approach to organizing intellectual inquiry is an evolving field, and stable, consensus definitions are not yet established for some subordinate or closely related fields.
An interdisciplinary community or project is made up of people from multiple disciplines and professions who are engaged in creating and applying new knowledge as they work together as equal stakeholders in addressing a common challenge. The key question is what new knowledge (of an academic discipline nature), which is outside the existing disciplines, is required to address the challenge. Aspects of the challenge cannot be addressed easily with existing distributed knowledge, and new knowledge becomes a primary subgoal of addressing the common challenge. The nature of the challenge, either its scale or complexity, requires that many people have interactional expertise to improve their efficiency working across multiple disciplines as well as within the new interdisciplinary area. An interdisciplinarary person is a person with degrees from one or more academic disciplines with additional interactional expertise in one or more additional academic disciplines, and new knowledge that is claimed by more than one discipline. Over time, interdisciplinary work can lead to an increase or a decrease in the number of academic disciplines.
Transdisciplinarity[edit | edit source]
Transdisciplinary, while the term is frequently used, may not yet have a stable, consensus meaning. Usage suggests that a transdisciplinary approach dissolves boundaries between disciplines. Most uses of the term suggest a deliberate and intentionally scandalous or transgressive violation of disciplinary rules, for the purpose of achieving new insight, or of expanding the discipline's resources.
A less polemic view of transdiciplinarity treats it as the act of taking theories and methods which exist independently of several disciplines and applying them to organize and understand different areas or fields. This is based largely on the idea that "knowledge cannot be singularly claimed as belonging to or originating in any one discipline".  An example of transdisciplinarity in this sense would be the application of Marxist philosophies to disciplines such as art history or literature, thus applying philosophies of sociology, economics, politics, et cetera to the study of these areas.
A transdisciplinary community or project is made up of transdisciplinary professionals, which is an ideal that can only be approached and never achieved. A transdisciplinary professional has degrees in all disciplines as well as experience in all professions. In essence, a truly transdisciplinary person contains all the distributed knowledge of the people in the community or project as their individual common knowledge. A transdisciplinary community is one in which common knowledge of individuals and the distributed knowledge of the collective are identical for the purpose of addressing a common challenge.
A postmodernist view of transdisciplinarity sees knowledge production as not confined to academic disciplines, conceived as existing in a horizontal plane. Knowledge is also produced from varieties of organizations and collective entities outside of academia, and these can be conceived of as existing on a vertical plane. Knowledge production outside of academia can range from that generated by complex organized structures through less complex communities, down to that produced spontaneously by groups and individuals. Within any collective entity this knowledge can range from that generated by those in leadership roles to that produced experientially and used by individual members in completing their day-to-day functions. Transdisciplinarity, then, implies the integration or interrelation of disciplinary generated knowledge and non-disciplinary generated knowledge and its application to complex problems and issues.
Crossdisciplinarity[edit | edit source]
Crossdisciplinarity is the act of crossing disciplinary boundaries to explain one subject in the terms of another, foreign subject or method. Common examples of crossdisciplinary approaches are studies of the physics of music or the politics of literature.
Barriers[edit | edit source]
Because most participants in interdisciplinary ventures were trained in traditional disciplines, they must learn to appreciate differing 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).
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 occasionally referred to as "interdisciplines."
Interdisciplinary studies[edit | edit source]
"Interdisciplinary studies" is an academic program or process seeking to synthesize broad perspectives, knowledge, skills, interconnections, and epistemology in an educational setting. Interdisciplinary programs may be founded in order to facilitate the study of subjects which have some coherence, but which cannot be adequately understood from a single disciplinary perspective (for example, women's studies or medieval studies). More rarely, and at a more advanced level, interdisciplinarity may itself become the focus of study, in a critique of institutionalized disciplines' ways of segmenting knowledge.
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.
The Politics of Interdisciplinary Studies
Since 1998 there has been an ascendancy in the value of the concept and practice of interdisciplinary research and teaching and a growth in the number of bachelors degrees awarded at U.S. universities classified as multi- or interdisciplinary studies. The number of interdisciplinary bachelors degrees awarded annually rose from 7,000 in 1973 to 30,000 a year by 2005 according to data from the National Center of Educational Statistics (NECS). In addition, educational leaders from the Boyer Commission to Carnegie's President Vartan Gregorian to Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science have advocated for interdisciplinary rather than disciplinary approaches to problem solving in the 21st Century. This has been echoed by federal funding agencies, particularly the NIH under the Direction of Elias Zerhouni, who have advocated that grant proposals be framed more as interdisciplinary collaborative projects than single researcher, single discipline ones. At the same time, longstanding bachelors in interdisciplinary studies programs many existing and thriving for 30 or more years, have been closed down, in spite of healthy enrollment. Examples include Arizona International (formerly part of the University of Arizona), The School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Miami University, and the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Wayne State University; others such as the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Appalachian State University, and George Mason University's New Century College, have been cut back. Stuart Henry has seen this trend as part of the hegemony of the disciplines in their attempt to recolonize the experimental knowledge production of otherwise marginalized fields of inquiry. This is due to threat perceptions seemingly based on the ascendancy of interdisciplinary studies against traditional academia.
Barriers to interdisciplinarity[edit | edit source]
Because most participants in interdisciplinary ventures were trained in traditional disciplines, they must learn to appreciate differing perspectives and approaches. 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).
From the disciplinary perspective, much interdisciplinary work is "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, it is a common practice to recruit new interdisciplinary faculty 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.
Due to the existence of 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, biochemistry, and biomedical engineering.
New interdisciplinary programs[edit | edit source]
Universities worldwide recognize that, in order to address the problems facing humanity today, they must increase their commitment to interdisciplinarity. For example, a grass-roots effort by faculty and students at Stanford University resulted in a new program called Bio-X, which explores the intersections among biology, computer science, medicine, and engineering. The program is housed in the Clark Center, which opened in 2003. Situated along the pathways between the university and the medical center, the Clark Center is designed to both express and facilitate the concept of interdisciplinarity. Each lab is equipped with at least two scientists from each of the participating disciplines, but they are by no means fixed: for example, walls can be moved (or eliminated), and all equipment is on wheels. The entire building is designed to facilitate interdisciplinary communication and to accommodate new, rapid, and unexpected growth as it occurs.
A similar program has recently been instituted at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. Undergraduate students must apply for acceptance into the program, and in the process design their own major using available courses in disciplinary programs. The major requires students take only two courses: an introductory course to interdisciplinary studies (focusing on the theory of interdisciplinarity) and a senior capstone (focusing on synthesis/praxis). The first class of IDSM majors at the school were: Rhetoric and Power, Philosophy in Literature, and Gender in Politics, though recently Biochemistry, Medieval Studies, and East Asian Studies were proposed.
Relation to holism[edit | edit source]
Interdisciplinarity is a typical trait of holistic approaches in science. Not all scientists that are committed to interdisciplinarity consider themselves holists, however, as the term "holism" can carry negative connotations.
- Further information: Holism in science
See also[edit | edit source]
Highly interdisciplinary fields (see also: Category:Interdisciplinary fields)
[edit | edit source]
- Awbrey, S. and Awbrey, J. (1999), "Integrative Universities", 2nd International Conference of the Journal "Organization", UMASS, Amherst, 17-19 September 1999.
- Johnston, R. (2003). Integrating methodologists into teams of substantive experts. Studies in Intelligence 47(1).
- Siskin, L.S. & Little, J.W. (1995). The Subjects in Question. Teachers College Press. about the departmental organization of high schools and efforts to change that.
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