Key Terms for Interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity: We need to craft a definition that explores PURPOSE, PROCESS, and OUTCOME.  Why do we do it? How do we do it? What results when we do it?  Scholars like Harvey Graff suggest that we oversimplify this at our own peril.  Disciplines and interdisciplines have specific histories and those histories have bred distinct purposes, processes, and results.  We may need to craft one overarching definition as well as multiple specific definitions that acknowledge the differences in how various configurations of fields come together to work.

Multidisciplinarity: Does all interdisciplinary collaboration generate integration? Sometimes “multidisciplinary” can be used to describe a process by which disciplines pool information and skills without ultimately integrating knowledge.

Transdisciplinary: Interdisciplinary study has had a very close relationship to applied learning, service learning, and partnerships between the academy and outside stakeholders.  We should try to explain WHY this is, and explore the many shades of distinction that characterize how our students and faculty and staff can collaborate with those outside of our university.

Instrumental (strategic, pragmatic, opportunistic) and Critical (reflexive) interdisciplinarity: while some interdisciplinarity can focus on problem-solving, this kind of “instrumental” interdisciplinarity is only one approach.  “Critical” interdisciplinarity tends to be more interested in critiquing the forms of knowledge, thinking about how structures confine and control meaning, and offering new models for organizing learning and scholarship.  We should develop a framework that allows us to work in both interdisciplinary approaches.

Disciplinarity: while all of us faculty have them, we don’t all spend a lot of time thinking about what a “discipline” is.  As a result, if we come together from many disciplines, we may not always be able to forecast or understand the ways in which we our approaches will conflict.  A discipline is made up of multiple levels of characteristics (for example: phenomena it studies; its epistemology; assumptions it makes about the world; basic concepts; theories about causes/behaviors of phenomena; methods; kind of data collected).  We should not expect faculty to work easily across disciplines; we should provide real discussion of the kinds of places where disciplines will overlap and conflict so we can capitalize on common ground and acknowledge and address tensions.

Models for research and integrating knowledge: The field of Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS) offers some helpful models for how we can bring diverging/converging fields together in a scholarly or creative pursuit.  For example, we can look to CONTEXTUALIZATION (popular in the Humanities), CONCEPTUALIZATION (popular in the hard sciences and in the arts), and PROBLEM-SOLVING (popular in the social sciences and engineering) as distinct and different ways to work together across disciplines.  We can use rubrics to help us recognize disciplinary insights and name disciplinary conflicts.  This is real work, and there are diverse models that, once named, we could study and adapt to our projects.

For this list of terms, I am indebted to Allen F. Repko, Rick Szostak, and Michelle Phillips Buchberger in particular.  (See INTRODUCTION TO INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDIES, Sage, 2014.)

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