Output Education

Education Blog



21 August, 2016

Interdisciplinarity is the act of drawing from two or more academic disciplines and assimilating their insights to work together in pursuit of a common goal. “Interdisciplinary Studies“, as they are called, use interdisciplinarity to develop a greater understanding of a problem that is too complicated or wide-ranging (i.e. AIDS pandemic, global warming) to be dealt with using the knowledge and approach of just one discipline.

Interdisciplinary programs sometimes arise from a shared conviction that the traditional disciplines are not able or not willing to address an important issue. 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 many 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. In a sense, those who pursue Interdisciplinary Studies degrees or practice interdisciplinarity in their lives are seen as pioneers (and even risk-takers) at the cutting edge of scholarship, science, and technology. In this way, interdisciplinarians are capable of acknowledging and combat the present and future problems of humanity.

At another level, interdisciplinarity is seen as a cure to the intellectually deadening effects of excessive specialization. On some views, however, interdisciplinarity is entirely indebted to those who specialize in one field of study–that without specialists, interdisciplinarians would have no information and no leading experts to consult. Others place the focus of interdisciplinarity on the necessity 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 must work complementary to each other in order to solve problems


Because most partakers in interdisciplinary ventures were taught in traditional disciplines, they must learn to appreciate various 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 do well 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 challenges 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 enough autonomy. For example, it is a common practice to recruit new interdisciplinary faculty to a joint appointment, with duties 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 tough 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 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 budget, and may for this reason meet resistance.

Due to these and other barriers, interdisciplinary research areas are strongly encouraged 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 reduce the risk of entry. Examples of former interdisciplinary research areas that have become disciplines include neuroscience, biochemistry and biomedical engineering. These new fields are occasionally referred to as “interdisciplines.”