A manifesto of interdisciplinarity

Community member post by Rick Szostak

Rick Szostak (biography)

Is there a shared understanding of what interdisciplinarity is and how (and why) it is best pursued that can be used by the international community of scholars of interdisciplinarity, to both advocate for and encourage interdisciplinary scholarship? Is there consensus on what we are trying to achieve and how this is best done that can form the basis of cogent advice to interdisciplinary teachers and researchers regarding strategies that have proven successful in the past?

I propose a ‘Manifesto of Interdisciplinarity’ with nine brief points, as listed below. These are drawn from the original version at: https://sites.google.com/a/ualberta.ca/manifesto-of-interdisciplinarity/manifesto-of-interdisciplinarity, where key points are linked to more extended conversations, which in turn are linked to the wider literature. The nine points address what interdisciplinarity is, why it is important, and how it is best pursued.

The Manifesto

  1. The essential feature of interdisciplinarity is integration: interdisciplinary research and teaching should seek to synthesize the insights generated by the specialized research undertaken within disciplines. This view is now common, though not quite universal, among scholars of interdisciplinarity. It can/should be incorporated in defining interdisciplinarity and reflects the latest thinking in the philosophy of interdisciplinarity.
  2. Interdisciplinarity thus has a symbiotic relationship with disciplines. Though a minority of interdisciplinary scholars may be hostile to disciplines, the vast majority build upon disciplinary insights. Yet interdisciplinary research can also feed back useful advice to disciplines on how these might benefit from greater openness to the ideas of others.
  3. Interdisciplinary researchers face a common set of challenges. A variety of interdisciplinary research strategies have been found useful in transcending these challenges. Many interdisciplinary researchers fail due to ignorance of these challenges and strategies. Others waste valuable time and energy reinventing strategies that others have applied for decades. Interdisciplinary research can be evaluated in terms of the strategies employed in addressing interdisciplinary challenges (of course, disciplinary theories and methods should also be applied correctly).
  4. There are likewise common challenges in interdisciplinary teaching and program administration. Again, a set of strategies have proven useful over the years in addressing these.
  5. The world faces a host of challenges that cannot be addressed by any one discipline in isolation. A proper understanding of interdisciplinarity can greatly enhance our ability to cope with complex public policy problems.
  6. Indeed, much of the contemporary concern with “anti-intellectualism” can be traced to a vague public understanding that interdisciplinarity is of critical importance but that there is intellectual confusion regarding how this should be pursued. A better understanding of interdisciplinarity can be critical in restoring public faith in the scholarly enterprise as a whole.
  7. There are important synergies between the skills and strategies associated with interdisciplinarity and the skills and strategies associated with both creativity and cross-cultural understanding. An interdisciplinary education thus also fosters creativity and understanding.
  8. Interdisciplinary analysis can be performed by individuals or in teams. Both individuals and teams face surmountable challenges.
  9. Universities have for centuries been organized around disciplines. There are important changes that universities must make to university administration in order to foster interdisciplinary research and teaching. It should be obvious that universities will be better prepared to administer interdisciplinarity if they first appreciate what interdisciplinarity is and how it is best pursued.


I am not (quite) naive enough to imagine that the entire international community of interdisciplinary scholars will agree with every point I make. But I do hope that most will agree with most of what I suggest. I hope to encourage a conversation that can lead to an even greater degree of consensus. I am actually much more concerned that we agree on something than that we agree on the precise points that I outline.

In a previous blog post, I argued for the importance of not ignoring interdisciplinarity’s critics and the Manifesto also plays an important role here, especially when critics attack a ‘straw man’ interdisciplinarity that bears no resemblance to that in which I engage.

As just one example, Jerry Jacobs published In Defense of Disciplines in 2013, arguing that interdisciplinary scholars were hostile to disciplines. Yet I think the vast majority of interdisciplinary scholars build upon insights generated within disciplines. We recognize the value of communities of scholars with shared understandings of theories and methods and terminology. Yet we also recognize the limitations and biases inherent in disciplines, and believe that we can achieve more comprehensive understandings on a range of issues by integrating across disciplinary insights. We may disagree about how much the present set of disciplines merit reform but we can agree that there is a place for specialized research and teaching. We can, as a community, better defend ourselves against a misguided critique of interdisciplinarity, like that of Jacobs, if we can point to some clear statement of the principles that guide us as a community.

Do you see value in an attempt to achieve consensus around what interdisciplinarity is, and why and how it is best pursued? Do you think it is feasible to do so? How do you evaluate the precise content of the Manifesto and its supporting documentation?

Jacobs, J. (2013). In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, United States of America

Biography: 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.

Idea tree: A tool for brainstorming ideas in cross-disciplinary teams

Community member post by Dan Stokols, Maritza Salazar, Gary M. Olson, and Judith S. Olson

Dan Stokols (biography)

How can cross-disciplinary research teams increase their capacity for generating and integrating novel research ideas and conceptual frameworks?

A key challenge faced by research teams is harnessing the intellectual synergy that can occur when individuals from different disciplines join together to create novel ideas and conceptual frameworks. Studies of creativity suggest that atypical (and often serendipitous) combinations of dissimilar perspectives can spur novel insights and advances in knowledge. Yet, many cross-disciplinary teams fail to achieve intellectual synergy because they allot insufficient effort to generating new ideas. Here we describe a brainstorming tool that can be used to generate new ideas in cross-disciplinary teams.

Maritza Salazar (biography)

The idea tree exercise

This exercise is straightforward and requires few resources other than pens or pencils, blank sheets of paper, and a table at which eight to ten team members representing two or more disciplines are seated as shown in the image near the bottom of this post. At the start of the exercise, each participant is given a blank piece of paper and asked to work independently and write their initial ideas at the top of the page. Depending on the specific group task, the ideas can relate to a research question or hypothesis, a new concept or method, or outline for a proposed study. The scope of the brainstorming task can be left relatively open-ended, or focused more narrowly on particular topics relevant to the cross-disciplinary team (eg., neuroscience, climate change, health disparities research). During the three to four minutes allotted for this part of the exercise, individuals are encouraged to avoid being too self-critical of their own entries, even when their ideas seem too preliminary or provocative.

Gary M. Olson (biography)

Once all participants have written down their ideas, they each pass their page to the person sitting next to them. Participants are asked to adopt a supportive and inclusive stance toward the ideas they have now received, taking three to four minutes to write a brief reaction. For example, they can elaborate on the original idea or pose a question about it. Each sheet of ideas is then passed on again, making its way to each participant around the table and gathering additional entries extending the thread of ideas triggered by the initial prompt.

Judith S. Olson (biography)

After the pages have been reviewed and annotated by all participants, they are returned to the individuals who wrote the initial entry. Thus, every member of the team receives a page containing several elaborations of his or her initial idea from the respective vantage points of other participants.

Each completed page, in effect, reflects a branch of the overall idea tree created by the group as a whole. The idea tree tool is designed to harvest several new ideas in a relatively short period of time and facilitate serendipitous combinations of disparate views among members of cross-disciplinary teams.

With eight to ten participants, a complete round of this brainstorming exercise can be done in about 45 minutes to an hour.

General insights gleaned from the idea tree exercise

Besides generating several new research ideas among team members, the exercise elicits more general insights about brainstorming processes in team science. After participants have finished commenting on the ideas offered by other team members, they are invited to discuss the results of their collaborative brainstorming, which commonly reveals the following insights:

  • conceptual synergy is unleashed by connecting disparate (and sometimes competing) viewpoints as a basis for discovering new ideas
  • a relatively large number of ideas can be generated when participants adopt a supportive, inclusive stance toward each other’s entries and agree to take only a few minutes to write down each of their own thoughts and reactions to others’ ideas
  • deadlines and time pressure can assist discovery of new ideas
  • using diagrams and drawings to formulate and convey one’s ideas has generative value.


A crucial goal of cross-disciplinary research teams is the creation of new ideas and conceptual frameworks that advance knowledge within and across fields. The idea tree has proven useful as a brainstorming tool in cross-disciplinary training and research settings. The exercise is especially helpful in prompting novel links between disparate ideas, although the processes of prioritizing, refining and integrating insights derived from the idea tree require longer-term collaborative discussion and metacognition, as described in Machiel Keestra’s recent blog post. Not all of the ideas gathered through the exercise will be deemed sufficiently novel and useful to warrant further development. However, the more time and effort allocated by research teams to knowledge creation and integration activities, the better their prospects for achieving cross-disciplinary insights that trigger scientific and societal advances. The idea tree can be used by research teams at repeated intervals to build their capacity for knowledge discovery and integration. The idea tree is one of the methods used in our research and training initiatives at University of California, Irvine’s Team Science Acceleration Lab described in our previous blog post on strengthening the ecosystem for effective team science.

Have you used alternative brainstorming tools in cross-disciplinary research teams? We welcome your thoughts about other idea generation tools and your reactions to the idea tree exercise if you have occasion to use it in an educational or research context.

Idea tree brainstorming group (photograph by Dan Stokols)

Some additional resources for collaborative brainstorming:
Adams, J. L. (2001). Conceptual blockbusting: A guide to better ideas. 4th edn, Basic Books: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America

Gordon, W. J. J. (1974). Some source material in discovery-by-analogy. Journal of Creative Behaviour, 8: 239-257

McKim, R. H. (1980). Thinking visually: A strategy manual for problem solving. Wadsworth: Belmont, California United States of America

Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination (Appendix: On intellectual craftsmanship, pp.195-226). Oxford University Press, New York, United States of America

Uzzi, B., Mukherjee, S., Stringer, M., and Jones, B. (2013). Atypical combinations and scientific impact. Science, 342, 6157: 468-472

Wicker, A. W. (1985). Getting out of our conceptual ruts. American Psychologist, 40: 1094-1103

We thank the Office of Research and the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine, USA for their support of this work.

Biography: Dan Stokols is Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, USA and served as founding Dean of the university’s School of Social Ecology. His research spans the fields of social ecology, environmental and ecological psychology, public health, and transdisciplinary team science. He is author of Social Ecology in the Digital Age and co-author of Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science.

Biography: Maritza Salazar is an assistant professor at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, USA. Her research focuses on learning and innovation in teams and organizations, especially enhancing the competitiveness of firms, the effectiveness of teams, and the quality of the work experience for individuals. She serves as President of the International Network for the Science of Team Science (INSciTS).

Biography: Gary M. Olson is Professor Emeritus and formerly Donald Bren Professor of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, USA. The focus of his work has been on how to support small groups of people working on difficult intellectual tasks, particularly when the members of the group are geographically distributed. He co-edited (with Ann Zimmerman and Nathan Bos) Scientific Collaboration on the Internet.

Biography: Judith S. Olson is the Donald Bren Professor of Information and Computer Sciences Emerita in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, USA. For over 20 years, she has researched teams whose members are not collocated. She co-authored (with Gary Olson) Working Together Apart: Collaboration over the Internet.


Achieving transformational change

Community member post by Steve Waddell

Steve Waddell (biography)

Realizing the Sustainable Development Goals presents probably the most audacious human organizing challenge ever. Their number, global scale, range of issues, timeline, and number of actors involved is surely unparalleled. They require transformational change. But what is transformational change? How does it differ from other forms of change? What’s required to achieve it?

Colleagues and I have created the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Transformations Forum to address these questions. In this blog post I first explore three types of change: incremental, reform and transformation, summarized in the figure below. I then briefly explore how they interact and their roles in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals. To tip the balance towards transformational change, I introduce the idea of social-ecological transformations systems and seven emerging guidelines for designing them. Continue reading

Knowledge asymmetry in interdisciplinary collaborations and how to reduce it

Community member post by Max Kemman

Max Kemman (biography)

How can tasks and goals among partners in a collaboration be effectively negotiated, especially when one party is dependent on the deliverables of another party? How does knowledge asymmetry affect such negotiations? What is knowledge asymmetry anyway and how can it be dealt with?

What is knowledge asymmetry? 

My PhD research involves historians who are dependent on computational experts to develop an algorithm or user interface for historical research. They therefore needed to be aware of what the computational experts were doing. Continue reading

Strengthening the ecosystem for effective team science: A case study from University of California, Irvine, USA

Community member post by Dan Stokols, Judith S. Olson, Maritza Salazar and Gary M. Olson

Dan Stokols (biography)

How can an ecosystem approach help in understanding and improving team science? How can this work in practice?

An Ecosystem Approach

Collaborations among scholars from different fields and their community partners are embedded in a multi-layered ecosystem ranging from micro to macro scales, and from local to more remote regions. Ecosystem levels include: Continue reading

Tracking stakeholder engagement and research impact

Community member post by Cathy Day

Cathy Day (biography)

Is there an easy and efficient way to keep track of stakeholder engagement and research impact?

My colleagues and I have developed a system with two components: (1) noting engagement and impact soon after they occur and (2) recording them in a way that enables the information to be extracted for whatever purpose is required. I describe the tracking spreadsheet, the recording process we use and then how the spreadsheet is used for reporting.

Tracking spreadsheet

The Microsoft Excel tracking spreadsheet has two parts: (1) the engagement or impact and (2) the research to which these are related. These are arranged in columns, which can be adapted for the needs of any particular group. Continue reading