Distinguishing between multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinarity – ‘theological’ hair-splitting or essential categorisation?

By Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

In a recent special issue of the journal Nature on interdisciplinarity (17 September 2015, p313-315), Rick Rylance criticised “arcane debates about whether research is inter-, multi-, trans-, cross- or post-discipli­nary”, opining “I find this faintly theological hair-splitting unhelpful.” Does he have a point?

Rylance was discussing these distinctions in the context of research funding, especially relating to effective funding and evaluation of… well, what are we talking about and what are we going to call it? That’s the nub of the problem. For now, let’s stick with the term used by Rylance, namely “interdisciplinarity”.

Rylance also introduced a current project of the Global Research Council, which is comprised of the heads of science and engineering funding agencies from around the world. The Global Research Council has selected interdisciplinarity as one of its two annual themes for an in-depth report, debate and statement between now and mid-2016.

The Council is responding to national and international discussion about 1) the value and quality of interdisciplinary versus disciplinary research and 2) the perception of many interdisciplinary researchers that they are poorly treated in the research system. As Rylance points out, there is a dearth of data to test these claims. A major contributor to the lack of data is poor definition of what “interdisciplinarity” means.

One problem is that interdisciplinarity has become a catch-all term, used loosely by a wide range of researchers to cover an array of very different research practices. For example, interdisciplinary research ranges from a single practitioner of fine art borrowing ideas from medicine to think in new ways about a particular creative undertaking; to a team of ecologists, hydrologists, soil scientists, economists and sociologists working together with policy makers and citizens on a problem such as the sustainability of cities under global environmental change; to multiple research projects in the new inter-discipline of quantum biology which combines insights from molecular biology and quantum physics.

…interdisciplinarity has now become a catch-all term, used loosely by a wide range of researchers to cover an array of very different research practices.

It seems self-evident that lumping these different practices together prohibits an effective evaluation of how interdisciplinary research is faring. Like Rick Rylance, I do not think that trying to differentiate practices into multi-, inter-, trans- and the like, is the way forward. As well as the fact that most researchers use the terms sloppily, the precise definitions are contested. At this stage at least, much more intuitive ways are needed to distinguish different kinds of interdisciplinarity.

Rylance suggested a starting point in his article, writing “But there are areas in which discrimination is impor­tant. One is the difference between ‘near-neighbour’ or ‘distant’ disciplines.” This relates to one of the classification criteria I suggested in a report to the Australian Council of Learned Academies:

  • Are the disciplines encompassed few or many, and are they closely aligned or disparate?

Others are:

  • Is the interdisciplinary research undertaken by an individual or a team?
  • Is the problem tackled straightforward or ‘wicked’?
  • Does the research involve or eschew engagement with policy and practice end-users?
  • Are all disciplinary and end-user contributions equal?
  • Is the integration a loose coupling or transcendence or somewhere in between?

To be effective, criteria need to be easy for the researchers to understand and use when describing their research. They should categorise all the major bodies of interdisciplinary research. They must also be significant. An easy test of significance is asking whether a peer-reviewer experienced in one category can effectively assess research in another. For example, can someone who has only ever undertaken interdisciplinary research which does not engage end-users effectively assess research that plans to work with policy makers or business?

How can valid and useful categories be developed? Examples from existing disciplines can provide lessons. Chemistry, for example, is divided into analytical, inorganic, organic, physical, theoretical and computational, macromolecular and materials, medicinal and biomolecular, and ‘other’ in the Australian Field of Research codes. These criteria reflect convergence of bottom-up and top-down activities. Research practices provide the essential foundations. Professional associations and other influential organisations work from the top to develop agreed ways of organizing the practices. And the classification is solidified through research funding arrangements.

In comparison, interdisciplinarity has only just reached first base. There is a foundation of diverse research practices, but the top down structures to provide the organizing force for interdisciplinarity are missing. Existing professional associations are small, attracting only a tiny proportion of interdisciplinary practitioners. Consequently, they currently have neither the power nor the intellectual heft to effectively organize or lobby for interdisciplinarity. Developing effective professional organisations is a key task for interdisciplinary researchers. It is also essential that the Global Research Council recognizes this vacuum and, despite it, finds ways to significantly move thinking on interdisciplinarity forward. If it catalyses research to develop an effective parsimonious classification system, that would be a valuable foundational step.

…the top down structures to provide the organizing force for interdisciplinarity are missing. Existing professional associations are small …[and] have neither the power nor the intellectual heft to effectively organize or lobby for interdisciplinarity.

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She leads the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” at the US National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center.

1 thought on “Distinguishing between multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinarity – ‘theological’ hair-splitting or essential categorisation?”

  1. That this is finally one of the top two priorities of the Global Research Council is encouraging. Sadly, regardless of what terms are used, “lip service” is the generic reality — going through the motions. Most academics are mono-lingual and severely ignorant of information technology possibilities including citation analytics and geospatial registry of all data. What would be helpful is a global conference and distributed discussion on the imperative of embracing a holistic analytic model that puts nature and people first; true cost economics that holds organizations accountable; and open source everything engineering so as to create a prosperous world at peace with technologies that are affordable, interoperable, and scalable.


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