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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.

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