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interdisciplinary studies…what, why? – part 1



by Kenneth Rudich

What does interdisciplinary studies actually mean, why have these programs become so pervasive in academia, and what is their connection to the real world?

Academic programs constructed around the concept of interdisciplinary studies have recently gained considerable traction in higher education.  Nor does the trend end there.  Similarly new and equally afoot are terms like multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary studies, with each striving to carve out a niche in its own right.  All three appear poised to have a substantial impact on what we study, how we learn, and how we work.

This does not mean to suggest the age-old practice of engaging in disciplinary studies will go away anytime soon, however.  To be sure, it almost certainly never will.  Instead, it will remain intact and continue to function much as it always has, right alongside these newer approaches.  The underlying expectation is that each form of academic inquiry will make its own unique contribution to our overall understanding of, and knowledge about, the contemporary world in which we live.

what’s the difference between disciplinary and interdisciplinary?

A discipline focuses on burrowing deeper and deeper into a specific area of study, ever trying to extract more information about it, usually while paying little attention to its relationship with anything else.  Like snowflakes, no two disciplines are exactly alike in design.  Each represents a small fragment of the bigger reality that surrounds it.  The goal is to develop a large degree of expertise about a very very small area of specialization.

Harvard Professor Howard Gardner couches it this way: “…disciplines are separate  for a reason; traditionally, at least, one did not need the same skills to study physics that he or she needed to study biology, for example, because the two disciplines were geared to ask and answer different questions, and used different methods.”

As one enters the realm of interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary studies, almost the exact opposite occurs.  In this case, the goal is to actively seek out and explore interrelationships among the disciplines as a way of better understanding the world-at-large.  This trend, reports Robert M. Diamond, President of The National Academy for Academic Leadership, responds to the desirability for “integrating knowledge: synthesizing and reintegrating knowledge, revealing new patterns of meaning and new relationships between the parts and the whole.”  Emeritus professor James Brian Quinn characterizes it as “previously unassociated matrices of thought.”

Though there are some distinctions that differentiate interdisicplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary from one another, all three share the same objective of forging meaningful links across the disciplines, to discover insights that otherwise might not — or probably would not — get noticed.  They collectively represent a significant shift from the detached thinking of disciplinary studies to the connectedness of interdisciplinary studies.

the why of interdisciplinary studies

As the world marches forward into the 21st century, it faces the reality of having to wrestle with challenges that have gone from being difficult to downright complex and intellectually demanding.  Variously described as multi-dimensional, non-linear, unscripted, or non-routine, these challenges will impose themselves upon us, and they themselves will be imposing.

Take, for instance, the present-day embodiment of the sustainability movement.  Arizona State University President Michael Crow defines sustainability as “the intersection of environmental, economic and societal stewardship.”  The aspiration is to create a scenario in which these three become jointly compatible, as opposed to one doing well at the expense of another.

Achieving true sustainability, on a global scale, will require a comprehensive effort to reverse an already wayward progression on many fronts.  No one area of expertise alone can possibly encompass it all.  One idea, for example, is to stop depleting the earth of natural resources by trading the insidious effects of extractive technologies for the kinder, gentler touch of renewable technologies. You may recognize it as “going green.”  Sustainability expert John Crittenden describes this challenge in even broader terms.  He advocates the “development of technologies that are ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just and humane.”

The mosaic-like complexity of dilemmas such as this illustrate exactly why interdisciplinary studies have become so prevalent in recent years: because they provide a method for integrating diverse perspectives that otherwise tend to stand in isolation from each other.

Many universities have developed interdisciplinary programs expressly for this purpose — to give experts from different disciplines a central place for collaborating on commonly held goals.  The hope is to cover all the angles and intricacies associated with a given challenge, and thereby take into account the full sweep of implications that come with any given action or response.  Professor Helga Nowotny notes, “If joint problem solving is the aim, then the means must provide for an integration of perspectives in the identification, formulation and resolution of what has become a shared problem.”  As Professor Francois Tadda points out, “No discipline knows more than all disciplines.”

how well has it been working so far?

In part 2, I’ll share how these concepts have been embraced in both the academic world and the real world.  You might be surprised by the influence they have already had on individuals and organizations alike.


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