“Interdisciplinary” is a trendy term at the moment. There have been increased calls for interdisciplinary research to solve complex global problems, and the journal Nature devoted a special issue to the subject last year (note the superheroes above). It’s common sense that difficult problems have many facets, and a diverse grouping of specialists, each with their own perspectives and tools, would be better equipped to tackle such problems than any single discipline alone. While I agree wholeheartedly with this conclusion, there is more to be said.
To the dictionary!
First, let’s unpick the differences between multi-, inter-, trans-, and post- disciplinarity, because these words get bandied about a lot and I have found them confusing. I have been sitting in on a skunkworks group of both science- and humanities-oriented academics who meet periodically to explore new ideas and discuss interdisciplinary collaboration, and complexity. The official definitions of these terms are unclear and inconsistently used, so I will report what the skunkworks have concluded.
In any collaborative group, each person has the opportunity to contribute to and receive from the rest of the group. The level of conceptual feedback loops and the outcome of the collaboration determine the label we assign.
Multidisciplinary interaction can be understood as having no feedback. Each individual contributes their specialist knowledge, tool or method to a problem, but takes nothing back from the group interaction. For example, a large-scale epidemiological study might enlist the help of a statistician and a bioinformatician without those individuals absorbing the perspectives of epidemiology.
Interdisciplinary collaboration happens when there are feedback loops, when individuals take back insights from other disciplines into their individual disciplinary research, or work together on a project that overlaps multiple disciplines. When that work crosses the fuzzy boundary between overlapping and meshing, you end up with new disciplines like mathematical biology, with their own established sets of tools, techniques and concepts.
I think transdisciplinary is the hardest term to understand, unless you are familiar with the concept of emergence as a property of complex systems. When the feedback and collaboration between individuals and the group leads to the creation of something totally new, that is transdisciplinary – an emergent property of interdisciplinary collaboration. I don’t have an example of this, but if you do please chime in. I suspect that working with complex systems in a way that truly engages with and embraces complexity rather than trying to simplify it could lead to transdisciplinarity. Note that there should be no value judgement assigned to this outcome. Academics are practically hardwired to think that novelty is inherently good because it is a requisite for publication and prestige. However, to say that something is different does not mean it is good or bad, better or worse.
Postdisciplinary has more to do with the institutional structures of academia, specifically the organisational division of disciplines. Some argue that the problems we seek to address are not disciplinary in nature. Treating cancer, for example, is not just a medical problem. Availability of health care, economic situation, lifestyle choices linked to behaviour and psychology, and development of novel treatments and diagnostic tools all play a role in how an individual experiences and is treated for cancer. Those in favour of a postdisciplinary arrangement argue that by organising institutions around themes or specific problems, abandoning disciplinary boundaries, would be a more effective method of tackling difficult issues.
Now that I’ve put forward these definitions, I want to challenge their usefulness. Does labelling these different types of interaction serve a purpose? I suggest that the value comes from thinking about the different ways people can interact and the types of outcomes that arise from those interactions – the names are ultimately unimportant. I will continue to use the word “interdisciplinary” as a catch-all that includes the research of individuals (like myself) who are working across disciplinary boundaries.
Some challenges are barriers, some are opportunities
A few weeks ago I attended the symposium Exploring the Frontiers of Interdisciplinarity, where speakers discussed the challenges and benefits of interdisciplinary research. Several difficulties arise as a consequence of the institutional structures of academia. For PhD students, the need to identify with a single department inherently inhibits interdisciplinary research. Universities are modular, split by discipline into self-contained and separately administered units that struggle to coordinate with each other. For a PhD student, there is also the question of legitimacy. If one is doing something new, there is no benchmark against which to measure output. Finding examiners with the necessary background knowledge to evaluate your work is difficult. This problem extends beyond the PhD to every stage of the research career when one considers the difficulty of publishing interdisciplinary research. Finding a relevant journal, willing reviewers, an interested audience are challenging because the current system is so tightly structured around distinct fields of study.
The most memorable theme from the symposium, which resonated strongly with my own experience, was how frequently the benefits of interdisciplinarity emerge from tackling the problems head-on. Many challenges have to do with interpersonal relations during collaboration. One of the main problems is communication, especially the use of specialised jargon. Certain words are simply unknown to anyone outside a specific discipline – for example specific cells or molecules that are familiar to an immunologist may not be known to a molecular biologist, much less a historian or sociologist. In this case, those unfamiliar with the words are aware that they don’t understand the meaning. The more confusing situations arise, however, when words that are used in everyday language take on additional specific meaning in a disciplinary context. For example, the word “significant” means something very specific in a scientific context, reflecting the outcome of a statistical analysis of data, however the word is commonly used as a synonym for “noteworthy” or simply “having meaning”. If one is unaware of the specific usage of a familiar word, it may not even be recognised as jargon.
One way to approach communication in an interdisciplinary setting is to intentionally avoid jargon, or to use it sparingly and explain it clearly, thereby building a shared vocabulary over time. Another strategy, and one that I have observed to be very powerful and was discussed with enthusiasm at the symposium, is the creation of new and shared metaphors. The use of metaphor is incredibly powerful. Choosing a focal point that is removed from each individual’s specialty but familiar enough to be played with encourages the group to create a shared understanding and common language. The resulting metaphors can also influence the way researchers view a problem or theory, and can be taken back to their individual work.
The process of discussion and exposure to the perspectives and modes of thought of other disciplines has another excellent effect on the individual. It highlights one’s own thought patterns, assumptions, and perspectives. It can be incredibly useful to analyse and question the “rules” of your discipline, as it can lead us to ask new questions and form new ideas.
Similarly, the combined perspectives of multiple disciplines can be very effective in thinking about specific problems in a new light, or creating new projects. That is becoming more important as we face “wicked” problems – those which are difficult or impossible to resolve due to interconnectedness, lack of knowledge or contradictory information, and the number of actors involved. Recognising that these problems arise out of complex systems means we need complex approaches to solving them – and interdisciplinary research works towards that, because different perspective provide different affordances. Affordances are “the properties of the world that we perceive that enable us to control our actions” (source). For example, when we perceive a handle on a mug it suggests to us that we can pick it up. A doorknob on a door can be turned, and the door can either be pushed or pulled. A panel on a door shows that the door can be pushed. Because specialists are trained to view objects and problems in a very specific way, they each perceive different affordances, and therefore different available actions. The very nature of a wicked problem suggests that we may never fully understand it, but the more perspectives we apply to it and the more affordances we reveal, the better we’re able to take informed action.
If you look at the superheroes on the cover of Nature, you’ll notice that they are all representing the sciences. The symposium I attended was focused on the humanities – my supervisor and I were the only scientists there. Projects that bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences are rare, and I think this is an unfortunate testament to how entrenched our disciplinary perspectives are. There is enormous untapped potential in these collaborations. I hope that in the future, as interdisciplinary research becomes more common and widely appreciated, we can forge new connections between the sciences and the humanities. And, as a final thought, I think the nature of the wicked problem also dictates a need to reach outside of academia, not just for outreach or public engagement, but for active collaboration with individuals, groups, institutions and populations.
If you are considering interdisciplinary research or collaboration I hope that these thoughts are of use, and hopefully encouraging. Despite the struggles there is great value that comes out of it. For those of you already on the interdisciplinary bandwagon, how have you approached it, and what have you gained?