Amidst the push from universities and funding agencies for increased interdisciplinary research, interdisciplinarity has also been the subject of a number of critiques in recent years. Rick Szostak believes many such critiques to be misguided and focused on research that is at best multidisciplinary and at worst produces no useful results; work that should not be taken as representative of interdisciplinarity. However, it’s important to recognise areas in interdisciplinarity that do need improvement, such as its literature being so widely dispersed or the absence of an international organisation to speak authoritatively on the subject. If we do not trumpet the existence of interdisciplinary best practices we cannot be surprised when interdisciplinarity is identified by its worst practices.

A handful of recent books have made surprising and misguided critiques of interdisciplinarity. How should interdisciplinarians respond? It is tempting simply to ignore such works. As academics, we too often encounter publications that are sadly ignorant of relevant literatures. Yet it seems to me that there are a couple of key reasons not to ignore them.

First, there is clearly an audience for these works, or they would not be published. The fact that university presidents and granting agencies regularly sing the praises of interdisciplinarity can too easily comfort us. There is clearly a constituency that sees interdisciplinarity as a threat to disciplines. If we do not try to speak to that constituency, they may seek to reassert disciplinary hegemony within universities and granting agencies.

Second, it is all too easy to misunderstand the nature of interdisciplinarity.

Jacobs (2013), for example, identifies interdisciplinarity with adisciplinarity, arguing that interdisciplinarians are hostile to disciplines. The literature on interdisciplinarity instead generally advocates a symbiotic relationship with disciplines, where interdisciplinary scholars integrate across ideas generated within disciplines, and then feed back to disciplines ideas about how they might usefully broaden their approach.

Frickel and colleagues (2016) suggest that interdisciplinary scholars see themselves as superior to disciplinary scholars. At the same time they also argue that interdisciplinarians seem oblivious to ongoing interactions among disciplines, as well as disciplinary status hierarchies.

Graff (2015) suggests that scholars of interdisciplinarity have never performed historical or comparative studies, recognised synergies between disciplines and interdisciplinarity, identified relationships across disciplines, identified institutional impediments, criticised multidisciplinarity, recognised conflicting definitions of interdisciplinarity, or articulated the importance of guiding questions or problems for interdisciplinary research (see also Klein (2015) – PDF, 1.7mb).

Sadly, many who should be our friends also misunderstand us. Granting agencies often have a limited understanding of interdisciplinarity and thus reward research that is at best multidisciplinary and at worst produces no useful results. University administrators, too, often have limited understanding of how to translate fine talk into institutional support.

As a consequence, the quality of what is called interdisciplinary research is highly variable. Many scholars who self-define as interdisciplinary seem unaware of the literature on interdisciplinarity.

There is an irony here in that poor policies and practices that have been criticised by interdisciplinary scholars (e.g. Lyall et al. (2011) on granting agencies and administrative practices) may then be taken as representative of interdisciplinarity. Multiple chapters in the book by Frickel and colleagues do precisely that.

What do interdisciplinary scholars need to do?

Many of us became interdisciplinary because we did not like being disciplined. There is thus an understandable hesitance to place limits on interdisciplinary scholarship. Yet if we do not attempt to distinguish excellent interdiscipinarity scholarship and distance ourselves both from poor scholarship and misguided administrative practices, then the last two will define us. We do not want to discipline interdisciplinarity the way that disciplines constrain scholarship: we must celebrate openness to diverse theories, methods, and phenomena. But that does not mean that researchers should be free to ignore either the literature on interdisciplinary best practices or relevant disciplinary scholarship.

We also need to recognise areas in interdisciplinarity that need improvement. In particular:

  • The literature is widely dispersed across different fields, journals, and organisations.
  • There is no one international organisation that can speak authoritatively about the nature of interdisciplinarity.

Collaboration between existing associations and networks – such as the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies, td-Net (Network for Transdisciplinary Research), and Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) – can form the basis for an authoritative international organisation. The challenge is to avoid being bogged down in disagreements about minutiae and recognise the large areas of agreement, especially growing consensus about best practices. If we do not trumpet the existence of interdisciplinary best practices we cannot be surprised when interdisciplinarity is identified by worst practices.

Who should be involved in identifying common ground around the meaning of interdisciplinarity? How can we effectively advertise the efforts of many groups and scholars over the last decades to identify best practices? What could be the criteria for deciding international and inter-organisational agreement on best practices? I hope I have inspired some reflections around questions that I see as critical.

This blog post originally appeared on the Integration and Implementation Insights blog and is based on Rick Szostak’s contribution to a panel entitled “Beyond rhetoric: constructive dialogue on interdisciplinary futures” at the International Conference on Transdisciplinarity at Leuphana University, Luneburg, Germany in September 2017. It is reposted here with permission.

Featured image credit: Fisherman boats parked under the Penang Bridge by Fahrul Azmi, via Unsplash (licensed under a CC0 1.0 license).

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the author

Rick Szostak is Professor and Chair of Economics at the University of Alberta, Canada and past President of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS). He is the co-author of Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory and Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies, and coordinated the development of the About Interdisciplinary and Interdisciplinary General Education pages listed under resources on the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies website.

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