Interdisciplinarity: easy but hard; hard but easy.

Interdisciplinarity: easy but hard; hard but easy.

In some ways the concept of interdisciplinarity is easy: when doing research or when learning, follow the problem, not ‘the subject’. That is (on one view) ‘interdisciplinary research’ or ‘interdisciplinary learning’. Karl Popper said it in 1963: ‘We are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline.’

So don’t worry about what ‘discipline’ or ‘subject’ you are meant to be doing; just study what you are interested in, do research; solve, or at least address, the problem. As my colleague Kat Austen says, ‘it’s a no brainer’.

It really is that simple.

Why then, is interdisciplinarity complicated? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is complicated in several ways.

At a conceptual level, it might help to consider that interdisciplinarity, as an abstract concept, is to education what, say, ‘justice’ is to politics or ‘beauty’ is to art. I.e. although the meaning is broadly clear and in wide common usage, the details are notoriously hard to pin down and any attempt at a definitive explanation often gives rise to more debate than simply leaving the question more open.

Just as beauty in the context of art and justice in the context of  politics or ethics have been argued about in Western culture since the Greeks and, in many ways, form a well-source for millions of words and thousands of debates across history, so interdisciplinarity, in its many guises and occasionally by some other names, can be said to have a similar place in relation to the concept of education or research. Thus interdisciplinarity can be linked to liberal arts and sciences, to the 19th century German concept of ‘bildung’, to the 20th century concept of ‘Mode 2’ knowledge production – and so on.

Closer to the experience of interdisciplinary researchers or students on interdisciplinary programmes, another way in which interdisciplinarity is complicated is that no sooner than one tries to carry out interdisciplinary research or learning at universities it becomes clear that ‘following the problem’ is not straightforward. Different epistemological viewpoints take hold: What knowledge can one assume? What counts as new knowledge? How relativistic about the notion of ‘truth’ must one be? How appropriate is a ‘scientific’ approach in this context? What counts as evidence here? etc., etc. Similar methodological differences raise similarly ugly heads. The naive and – I think – obviously healthy idea of following the problem in order to gain better understanding, gets waylaid and then fractured into hundreds of complications one never dreamt of. How could people have such different assumptions? Such different methods? Such different criteria for truth and knowledge?

These differences then manifest themselves in institutional structures. And this breeds tribes and erects walls. How could learning and research become so politicised, so institutionalised? My naive interest in ‘the problem’, be it Climate Change, Human Behaviour, Future of Democracy, Health Policy, Money and Currency, Designing Simulations, Water Engineering, whatever, has been stymied by the many disagreements about what is the correct epistemological or methodological approach. It’s getting complicated.

“But I just want to learn about what I’m interested in – to follow the problem!”

And you’re right: it really is that easy. If you are keen to learn, to do research, just follow the problem, don’t worry about which subject which discipline you are ‘meant’ to be doing. Sure, you will have to negotiate political and institutional difficulties, and these can be no minor matter, but stick to your guns.

How realistic is such an approach? I find it hard to be definitive. Certainly, from the Arts and Sciences BASc degree programme at UCL we now see 100s of students achieve cross-disciplinary syntheses and broad interdisciplinary understanding at final year and postgraduate level. And it will be interesting to see how several of those students now progressing to master’s, PhDs and the possibility of academic careers go on to negotiate some of the issues described above. Further, and perhaps most significantly of all, I think the web (and the wider technological revolution) is changing an enormous amount about research and the way we learn, forcing a restructuring of knowledge and working practices upon most of us.

So let’s be optimistic: in so far as ‘disciplines’ are maintained by purely political, institutional or hegemonic lines they will fall apart. New ways of research and learning, new knowledge communities and groups of citizen scientists, designers, makers and independent researchers may crash through epistemological and methodological concerns – if the latter are just bullshit or silly.

There will be disruption, there may even be a degree of research and learning anarchy, but for sure there will also be a lot of excitement and interesting stuff going on as well.

‘Being interdisciplinary’ may, in fact, become absolutely the norm and ‘following the problem’ as straightforward as it sounds.


4 Responses to “Interdisciplinarity: easy but hard; hard but easy.”

  1. Jason Davies says:

    Cross out ‘problem’ and put ‘dilemma’ — problems are defined by a hegemonic paradigm (eg a discipline). There’s no authoritative discipline-structure to fall back on in interdisciplinary work (if there is, it’s not interdisciplinary, really) so you can’t define the ‘problem’.

    Structures don’t prevent things, essentially they enable them: I like the anthropological idea of institutions (ideas writ large). If they prevent you doing something, then they are actually solving another problem instead (which could be pure survival and repetition, but that’s not to be underrated…).

    Actually ‘interdisciplinary’ is like ‘innovation’: it happens best when you’re not actually thinking about trying to be it, when you’re just puzzling over something. But if you think you can define the problem, it’s probably not interdisciplinary;) If you think you ‘just need to get consensus’ (or something) but find yourself in an infinite regress, then you probably are;)

    • Carl Gombrich - Personal Blog says:

      Hi Jason – interesting distinction between ‘dilemma’ and ‘problem’. I see the dilemma – especially from the way you’ve phrased it – as arising from decisions about how to address the problem, rather than the problem itself. It is thus more a part of the discussion of methodology that surrounds interdisciplinarity, rather than an epistemological concern.

  2. Giles Lane says:

    I think this is written very much from the perspective of an individual carrying out research on their own and trying to be interdisciplinary in themself.

    Often, in my experience, the problem comes when something requires skills or crafts from multiple disciplines. Then it is not so much the individual who needs to be interdisciplinary as the method of collaboration across the individuals embodying the different skills sets. The alternative is the “silo” approach where each discipline does its bit and hands the project along. No one learns from anyone else and the the problem, which may eventually be solved, is just dealt with in the usual way. The issue here is that no discipline develops beyond its own horizon; it doesn’t create the potentials to spawn side or sub-disciplines as a result of cross -fertilisation with other approaches and knowledges.

    I don’t think we should insist that individuals be interdisciplinary in themselves, but that our processes of collaboration need to embrace it to continue to develop and innovate. Great knowledge and skills can come from a lifetime’s intense focus on a single approach – what we need is to be able to wield such focus and skill in ways that enable it to bring value to other approaches, and wherever appropriate, for those other approaches to be able to inform and influence the person who wields it.

    I still think that the type of person who crosses boundaries, who initiates interdisciplinary work, is probably not the norm – but we may be able to shape wider social processes so that taking part in interdisciplinary work is normal and not an eccentricity.

    • Carl Gombrich - Personal Blog says:

      Hi Giles,

      Thanks for checking in and the interesting comment. I certainly don’t think we should insist that all individuals are interdisciplinary in themselves. But there is currently space for more who are. I sometimes quote the number of UCAS undergraduate degrees in this regard. Last time I looked there were about 30,000 single or ‘joint’ honours degrees and about 10-15 that could be regarded as truly interdisciplinary. So I think that given the many shifting boundaries in work, research and education, there is some way to go before we worry about having too many interdisciplinarians.

      There will always be some tension, I think, between multidisciplinary teams and work being done by interdisciplinary individuals (or teams). Again, given the increasing connectedness of many parts of our lives, I think we can use more who are interdisciplinary in themselves to work alone or in these teams. I tried to say how these people might look in

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