Goal: When is interdisciplinarity necessary or of added value?

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

‘Interdisciplinarity’ has become a ubiquitous academic buzzword or, as one of our interviewees put it, a rarely scrutinized ‘hooray term’. Research institutes proudly advertise their ‘interdisciplinary orientation’; grant applications routinely mention the ‘cross-disciplinary’ scope of the proposed research. Given this often unquestioned enthusiasm, one should ask a set of basic questions: Why is interdisciplinary research to be welcomed? Which research objects or problems require an interdisciplinary approach? Which of these might best be addressed via the in-depth expertise of one discipline? However, as disciplines are hardly ever a single unified ‘thing’, these questions may themselves be oversimplifying the current situation at universities and research institutes.

Real-world ‘interdisciplinary crises’

Let us note that the increasing diversity within disciplines, as well as the fuzzier borderlines between them, does not automatically result in truly interdisciplinary (or transdisciplinary) work. Some of our interviewees distinguished two modes of interdisciplinarity. Physicist and journal editor Dario Corradini, for instance, identified ‘two kinds of interdisciplinary research. One is the type of research that stays mainly within its core discipline, but takes inspiration from another. An example would be biology-inspired physics, where one innovates in the methods of physics, or finds new results in physics, by taking inspiration from a problem in biology. The second kind is more complicated to achieve. This concerns research that really makes an impact on both (or more) disciplines involved. In the example given above, this would mean that by using newly developed methods, theories or experiments from physics, the biologist also becomes able to understand their problem better or in a wholly different way. This type of fusion really brings together the best of both fields and creates something new. Corradini made a strong case for the latter approach, arguing that the most significantly groundbreaking outcomes are typically realized through the mutual exchange and input offered by researchers from disparate traditions. Thus we arrive at a first answer to the ‘why’ question: cooperation across disparate disciplines spurs academic innovation.

These considerations introduce a second perspective on the ‘why’ question. Our interviewees kept reminding us that the challenges of our era cannot be addressed through the expertise of one research field alone. They necessitate work across disciplines. As Caroline Nevejan cogently put it, ‘real-world problems are always interdisciplinary’. Peter Sloot, in a similar vein, invoked climate change as an obvious example of a multifaceted problem that cannot be relegated to (let alone ‘solved’ by) a single discipline. Annoesjka Nienhuis and Else Veldman added insights regarding the practical dimensions of such collaborative work, emphasizing that energy transition requires intensive cooperation, not only amongst researchers but also with commercial and governmental parties. What’s more, in their work for the Energy Lab Zuidoost (an initiative of the City of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions), technical solutions have to be constantly assessed in light of their social, legal, and economic implications.

Our interviewees were aware that scientific and social responses to such comprehensive crises hardly ever come down to a simple assemblage of different disciplinary ‘pieces of the puzzle’ designed to create a ‘complete picture’. Hanneke Hulst emphasized the importance of integrating perspectives in ways that create new understandings of ‘what we’re looking at’. Her sentiments were echoed by Philipp Tuertscher, who explained that the integration of knowledge forms an essential part of the work: ‘Knowledge integration is not just adding … different data and aggregating [them]. [It] is a synthesis where you have two different ideas that somehow are incommensurate and you are integrating those ideas into a solution that’s essentially more than the sum of its parts.’

Curiosity, humility and self-reflection

Alongside the pressing need to understand and respond to current crises, many researchers underlined the intrinsic value of intra- or interdisciplinary diversity in research projects and institutions. On a fundamental level, the confrontation with other paradigms of knowledge spurs curiosity and inspires humility about the limitations of one’s own expertise. Cross-disciplinary encounters introduce new types of questions and tend to provoke self-reflection on our disciplines’ habits and histories. Thus, interdisciplinary encounters can be valuable even when not (yet) oriented towards a predetermined problem or a coordinated goal. These encounters take place (or should take place) within a research climate that keeps recalibrating our understanding of the reality we’re looking at, the questions it raises and the scientific responses it elicits.

Unfortunately, the institutional organization of research means that there is hardly ever such a climate. Peter Sloot reminded us that the organization of academic funding, teaching and evaluation are still predominantly monodisciplinary, which creates feedback loops that further cement the boundaries between different paradigms of knowledge. This dissonance – between the disciplinary organization of universities and the multidisciplinary nature of real-world situations – lies at the heart of the ‘why’ question. The current status quo makes working across traditional borders exceedingly tough, even though it is urgently necessary.

‘Different research styles all deserve to be accorded space to continue along their own paths, without having to submit either to the object definitions or the criteria for good research of any other discipline. It means that diversity deserves to be fostered in academic ecosystems just as much as it does in biological ecosystems. It means that the virtues of inquisitiveness, tenaciousness and modesty should be advocated simultaneously.’

In the introduction we asked what interdisciplinarity is and what it is good for. Now we need to delve deeper into these questions, and raise further issues: What happens, or what should happen, when different disciplines meet? As Annemarie Mol and Anita Hardon observe, interdisciplinarity is often imagined as an unproblematic process whereby various researchers each add a ‘piece of the puzzle’, creating an ever more complete picture of reality (Mol & Hardon, 2020).

Yet, contrary to what the puzzle metaphor suggests, researchers working in different disciplinary paradigms ‘handle reality in different ways’. They rely on different techniques, address different concerns, and variously define the given object of inquiry. Their insights can hardly ever be smoothly aligned and pieced together. Some researchers are working on a jigsaw puzzle, so to speak, while others are solving a Rubik’s cube. They disagree about which ‘game’ they are playing, which picture they’re composing, and which rules apply.

Recent engagements with COVID-19 illustrate the sort of clashes and miscommunications that can occur. Mol and Hardon remind us that ‘even when, say, virologists, clinicians, physicists, epidemiologists, immunologists, economists and sociologists all use the term “COVID-19”, what they actually grapple with is not the same entity’. For Mol and Hardon this situation is problematic only if we cling to the idea that science is a singular ‘thing’. Instead, we should accept that interdisciplinarity is not a framework for ‘adding’ information but rather involves the negotiating of perspectives, goals and interventions. This sort of orientation requires modesty, curiosity and an openness to scientific diversity.

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Interdisciplinarity Beyond the Buzzword

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

Tips & Tricks

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

There’s nothing more useful than a listicle to end this interdisciplinarity guide. We have condensed the top 10 tips and tricks from our many interviews.

System: What is the influence of funding, publishing and promotion?

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

All academics are embedded within an academic landscape. Unfortunately, most of our interviewees are concerned the current academic landscape prompts most researchers to shy away from interdisciplinary research.

Education: How and why should we train students and researchers in interdisciplinary ways?

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

Integrating interdisciplinary aspects into teaching – or even offering a fully interdisciplinary programme – has the potential to bring several benefits to students. It also brings with it a set of challenges.

Community: How do interdisciplinary communities and collaborations succeed?

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

This article underlines the importance of selecting team members based on their willingness to be vulnerable regarding (the limits of) their knowledge; their genuine interest in other fields can hardly be underestimated.