Interdisciplinarity factors involves researchers, students, and teachers in the goals of connecting and integrating several academic disciplines, professions, or technologies, along with their specific perspectives, in the pursuit of a common task. Interdisciplinary approaches typically focus on problems felt by the investigators to be too complex or vast to be dealt with the knowledge and tools of a single discipline, for example, the epidemiology of AIDS or global warming. The term 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.
In a sense, interdisciplinary involves attacking a subject from various angles and methods, eventually cutting across disciplines and forming a new method for understanding the subject. A common goal of understanding unites the various methods and acknowledges a common or shared subject or problem, even if it spreads to other disciplines.
Although interdisciplinary and interdisciplinarity are frequently viewed as twentieth century terms, the concept has historical antecedents, most notably Greek philosophy. 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 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.
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.
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 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 facets 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" 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.
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 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.
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" 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, once disciplinary ascendancy threatened their dominance in academe.
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.