In praise of multidisciplinarity

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

gabriele-bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What characterizes multidisciplinary research? When is it most appropriate? What does it take to do it well? Multidisciplinarity often gets a bad rap, being seen as less sophisticated than interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. But does it have its own important role in dealing with complex social and environmental problems?

Multidisciplinary research has two primary characteristics:

  1. different disciplines independently shine their light on a particular problem, and
  2. synthesis happens at the end and can be undertaken by anyone.

Unlike interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, there is no attempt to agree upfront on either a problem definition or on how the different perspectives will be brought together.

The major advantages of a multidisciplinary approach are, therefore, that it a) allows more diverse perspectives to be engaged, b) enables the richness of different perspectives to be more fully explored, and c) provides the opportunity to synthesise the perspectives in a range of different ways. To illustrate these points, I draw on two multidisciplinary projects that I have led or co-led on uncertainty and on change.

Diverse and rich perspectives

In both projects there were three kinds of participants:

  • academics providing either an overview based on their discipline or a perspective based on research about a particular problem
  • practitioners drawing on their experience
  • individuals who had worked on the issue in both academic and practice settings.

The uncertainty project involved:

  • academics covering art history, complexity science, economics, emergency management, environmental management, history, illicit drug policy, law, philosophy, physics, psychology and statistics
  • practitioners with experience in futures, intelligence, law enforcement, public policy and politics
  • individuals with both academic and practice-based experience in communicable disease outbreak response, music and theology.

In the change project, those involved were:

  • academics covering anthropology, demography, economics, education, evolutionary biology, global environmental change, philosophy and sociology
  • practitioners with experience in advertising, industrial innovation, organizational change and politics
  • individuals with both academic and practice-based experience in art, international relations, materials conservation, media advocacy, psychiatry and security-based intelligence.

As is common in multidisciplinary research, each person wrote a book chapter based on their perspective, responding to a general question such as “how does your discipline or practice area think about uncertainty/change?”. Each person approached the topic as they saw fit, with both their approach and their specific insights providing rich information about the problem.

Tailor-made synthesis

Once a variety of perspectives about the problem have been documented, anyone can tailor-make their own synthesis by selecting the points that are meaningful and useful to the aspect of the problem they are interested in. Indeed many multi-disciplinary projects end with the production of a book, leaving the synthesis to be undertaken by individual readers according to their interests. Reader-synthesis is an option for both the uncertainty and change projects. In addition, I (and the co-leader of the uncertainty project) also undertook syntheses.

The uncertainty project was co-led by Michael Smithson, with the synthesis focusing on expanding a body of work he had undertaken in the general field of ignorance. This led to three additional book chapters covering: ‘the nature of uncertainty’; ‘uncertainty metaphors, motives and morals’; and ‘coping and managing under uncertainty’.

For the change project, I drew together the perspectives to focus on a topic I was specifically interested in, namely research impact.

In multidisciplinary syntheses, it is rare for all perspectives to be drawn on equally. Further, there are many valuable insights provided by the disciplinary and practice experts that are not used because they are not directly relevant to the synthesis topic. A synthesis does not therefore absorb or replace the multidisciplinary perspectives; instead it draws on them selectively to illuminate a particular topic.

In both the uncertainty and change projects, there was an additional step between the production of the chapters and the synthesis. This was a two day symposium, at which participants (each of whom had authored a chapter) presented reflections after reading two assigned chapters by other participants. The wide-ranging discussion that followed also provided material for the synthesis.

Strengths and weaknesses

Multidisciplinary research works well for projects that are broad and relatively unconstrained, rather than those that have a specific focus. It can also be helpful in moving thinking on a topic away from conventional lines in order to generate fresh approaches.

The strengths of multidisciplinarity also contain the seeds of it weaknesses. The main challenge with multidisciplinary research comes in synthesising the contributions, as it is not certain what the points of intersection will be with the interests of the person undertaking the synthesis, or even if there will be any. Often those in charge of the multidisciplinary investigation do not attempt their own synthesis, leaving it entirely to the readers. There is generally no evaluation of whether reader-synthesis occurred or how useful readers found the chapters for their own interests. Certainly the area of multidisciplinary synthesis is ripe for further development.

What’s your experience?

What’s your experience in conducting and using multidisciplinary research? When have you found it to be useful? What methods and processes have you used? How have you gone about synthesis? Have you been reader-synthesiser of someone else’s multidisciplinary research and how well did that work?

References and further reading:

Uncertainty project

Bammer, G. and M. Smithson (eds) (2008). Uncertainty and Risk: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, London: Earthscan, 382pp.

Bammer G., M. Smithson and the Goolabri Group (2008). ‘The nature of uncertainty’, in Bammer, G. and M. Smithson (eds) Uncertainty and Risk: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives, London: Earthscan, 289-303.
A shorter, open-access version is available at:
Bammer, G. and Smithson, M. (2008). ‘Understanding uncertainty’. Integration Insights #7, May. Available at http://i2s.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/integration-insights/integration-insight_7.pdf.

Smithson, M., G. Bammer and the Goolabri Group (2008). ‘Uncertainty metaphors, motives and morals’, in Bammer, G. and M. Smithson (eds) Uncertainty and Risk: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives, London: Earthscan, 305-320.
A shorter, open-access version is available at:
Smithson, M and Bammer, G. (2008). ‘Uncertainty: Metaphor, Motives and Morals’. Integration Insights #8, June. Available at http://i2s.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/integration-insights/integration-insight_8.pdf.

Smithson, M., G. Bammer and the Goolabri Group (2008). ‘Coping and managing under uncertainty’, in Bammer, G. and M. Smithson (eds) Uncertainty and Risk: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives, London: Earthscan, 321-333.

Change project

Bammer, G. (ed) (2015). Change! Combining analytic approaches with street wisdom. ANU Press; http://press.anu.edu.au?p=319221.

Bammer, G. (2015). ‘Improving research impact by better understanding change: A case study of multidisciplinary synthesis’ In Bammer, G. (ed) Change! Combining analytic approaches with street wisdom. ANU Press, 289- 323; http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p319221/pdf/ch20.pdf.

Establishing a multidisciplinary process

Bammer, G. (2015). ‘An approach to understanding change’ In Bammer, G. (ed) Change! Combining analytic approaches with street wisdom. ANU Press, 3-16; http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p319221/pdf/ch012.pdf.

Comparing multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity

Chapter 33 ‘The relationship of integrative applied research and I2S to multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity’ in Bammer, G. (2013). Disciplining Interdisciplinarity: Integration and Implementation Sciences for Researching Complex Real-World Problems. ANU Press. http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p222171/pdf/ch33.pdf or http://press.anu.edu.au?p=222171

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.

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