Integration – Part 1: The “what”

By Julie Thompson Klein

Julie Thompson Klein’s biography

Integration lies at the heart of inter- and transdisciplinarity. Klein & Newell (1996) call it the “acid test” of interdisciplinarity, and Pohl, van Kerkhoff, Hirsch Hadorn, & Bammer (2008) consider it “the core methodology underpinning the transdisciplinary research process.”

What exactly, though, is integration?

This blog post answers that question while identifying key resources. The question of “how”–the process of integration–is the focus of another post. Three terms frame both posts:

Integration: The root of the English word “integration”–the Latin noun integrāre–connotes a process of creating a coherent and comprehensive whole of the parts being brought together. The keywords are combining, synthesizing, and reconciling.

Interdisciplinarity: In contrast to “multidisciplinary” juxtaposing of disciplinary approaches, interdisciplinarity integrates them in order to solve a complex problem or advance understanding of a complex question or topic. The key actions are linking, blending, fusing, and synthesizing.

Transdisciplinarity: Transdisciplinarity generates new overarching frameworks, such as general systems theory and sustainability. It also connotes involving stakeholders in the research process. The key actions are transcending, transforming, and transgressing.

Variations of integration

There is no universal model of integration, because inter- and transdisciplinarity vary in purpose, scale and scope, the problems and questions at hand, and the mix of expertise in any one project or course. Teams also operate in different contexts, including academic, industrial, and governmental settings as well as the public sphere.

Lorrae van Kerkhoff (2005) depicts the scope of integration along two axes depicted in the figure below, whether the context is within or beyond the academy and whether the focus is structures or activities.


A pluralistic view of integration, however, does not obscure patterns of consensus. In a comparative study of literatures on integration, O’Rourke, Crowley, and Gonnerman (2016) identified two major patterns:

  1. Top-down versus bottom-up approaches
  2. Blueprints that organize methods versus repositories that collect resources.

In a philosophical investigation of the nature of integration, Michael O’Rourke (forthcoming 2017) also distinguished methods that are specific and concrete, such as Delphi technique, and ones that are abstract and generic, such as dialogue methods. And, he added, theoretical and methodological approaches constitute an additional set of distinctions:

Theoretical integration focuses on explanatory relations at a global level, with interest in ontological and conceptual relations
Methodological integration focuses on practical interconnections and a problem-based account responsive to local context.

Stage models of integration

Stage models are prominent in discussions of integration, though they run the risk of imposing a top-down algorithmic set of procedures. Two are discussed here.

In a model of team-based research, Stokols, Hall, & Vogel (2013) defined four phases. Some assumptions might be revisited in recursive fashion, making adjustments as needed, but the stages constitute a sequence.

  1. Development establishes conditions for collaboration by forming a team and taking steps toward a joint initiative.
  2. Conceptualization develops a framework for integrating them around research questions or hypotheses and design of the initiative.
  3. Implementation executes the research plan.
  4. Translation applies findings for an innovative solution to a problem.

The striking feature of this model, which emanated from team-based research aimed at generating a transdisciplinary framework for health and wellness, lies in the fourth stage of translating results into new treatment protocols and in partnerships across academic, governmental, and community sectors. Moreover, the model distinguishes:

Horizontal integration linking disciplines at similar levels of analysis–such as integrating genetic perspective in biology with molecular perspective in chemistry–and
Vertical integration bridging knowledge domains at different levels–such as integrating intrapersonal perspective in psychology with societal perspective in urban planning.

In another top-down blueprint, an intricate 10-step model in a textbook for students working on individual projects, Repko & Szostak (2016) also suggest integration may occur across steps but designate it as the 9th step. In Step 7, conflicts between disciplinary insights are identified then reconciled in Step 8 to establish common ground. A number of techniques lay a groundwork for integration:

  • Redefinition modifies or redefines concepts to bring out common meaning.
  • Extension expands the scope of meaning beyond a single discipline.
  • Transformation modifies concepts or assumptions that are opposite into continuous variables.
  • Organization creates common ground by clarifying how phenomena interact and mapping their relationships.

Step 9, then, focuses on constructing a comprehensive understanding that is a new integrative “whole.”

Additional models

In contrast to stage models that tend to position integration at a particular point, Bergmann et al.’s (2012) top-down blueprint emphasizes the back-and-forth of iteration in transdisciplinary research on real-world problems. Their model moves, broadly, from stages of constructing a common research problem to conducting integrative research to bringing results to fruition.

Yet, they emphasize dynamics of integration in an evolutionary process that highlights recursion, reflexivity, and adaptation. Results of subprojects need to be tested throughout with the main project, not delayed until a final stage. Like Stokols, Hall, & Vogel, they also recognize integration is both a cognitive and a social process, while adding a third (communicative) dimension. They suggest:

  • Communicative dimension is key to achieving mutual understanding and dialogue.
  • Social and organization dimension differentiates and correlates team members’ interests.
  • Cognitive-Epistemic dimension links expert/disciplinary knowledge bases.

In contrast to models emphasizing integration of existing approaches, Gabriele Bammer (2013) treats integration as a combination of disciplinary elements “bringing together” knowns and unknowns. Beyond synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge that are “harnessing” differences in their perspectives, unknowns about a problem are taken into consideration.

Bammer’s blueprint is part of a larger initiative aimed at establishing “integrative applied research” as the foundation of Integration and Implementation Sciences, with the aim of influencing both practice and policy. Moreover, it combines top-down approaches, such as the domain of unknowns, and bottom-up approaches, such as the interests of participants, including stakeholders in society, and the importance of context for selecting particular methods of integration (described in the second blog post on “how”).

Historical transitions

Viewed on a broad scale the concept of integration appears widely, from finding the integral of a function in mathematics or mixing chemical compounds to achieving theoretical synthesis in biology or making a digital mashup of images, texts, and sounds. Integration has also been a topic of wide discussion. O’Rourke, Crowley, and Gonnerman (2016) noted, for instance, literatures of cross-disciplinarity, philosophy, communication studies, management, education, science of team science, and the field of science, technology, and society.

When situating the topic in contexts of inter- and transdisciplinarity, two shifts in definition stand out:

  1. Moving beyond integration as the synthesis of accepted postulates to integrative construction of new conceptual modes capable of producing a holistic experience.
  2. Increasing attention to process integration, not just content.

In looking more closely at process, the Part II blog post describes the “how” of integration while factoring in the role of repositories.

References and other resources

Bammer, G. (2013). Disciplining interdisciplinarity, integration and implementation sciences for researching complex real-world problems. ANU E-Press: Canberra: Australia.

Bergmann, M., Jahn, T., Knobloch, T., Krohn, W., Pohl C. and Schramm. E. (2012). Transdisciplinary research methods, a primer for practice.  Campus Verlag: Frankfurt, Germany.

Klein, J. T. (2005). Interdisciplinary teamwork: The dynamics of collaboration and integration. In: S. J. Derry, C. D. Schunn, M. A. Gernsbacher (Eds.), Interdisciplinary Collaboration: An Emerging Cognitive Science.  Psychology Press: New York, United States of America, pp: 23-50.

Klein, J. T. (2011). Research integration, a comparative knowledge base. In: A. Repko, W. Newell and R. Szostak (Eds.), Case studies in interdisciplinary research. Sage: Thousand Oaks, California, United States of America.

Klein, J. T. and Newell, W. (1996). Advancing interdisciplinary studies. In: J. Gaff and J. Ratcliffe (Eds.), Handbook on the undergraduate curriculum. Jossey Bass: San Francisco, United States of America, pp: 393-415.

O’Rourke, M. (forthcoming 2017). Comparing methods for cross-disciplinary research. In: R. Frodeman, J. T. Klein and R. C. S. Pacheco (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of interdisciplinarity, 2nd edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom.

O’Rourke, M., Crowley, S. and Gonnerman, C. (2016). On the nature of interdisciplinary integration, a philosophical framework. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 56: 62-70.

Pohl. C., van Kerkhoff, L., Hirsch Hadorn, G., and Bammer, G. (2008). Integration. In: G. Hirsch Hadorn, H. Hoffmann-Riem, S. Biber-Klemm, W. Grossenbacher-Mansuy, D. Joye, C. Pohl, U. Wiesmann and E. Zemp (Eds.), Handbook of transdisciplinary research. Springer: New York, United States of America, pp: 411-24.

Pohl, C. and Hirsch Hadorn, G. (2007). Principles for designing transdisciplinary research. Oekom Verlag: Munich, Germany.

Repko, A. and Szostak, R. (2016). Interdisciplinary research process and theory. Sage: Thousand Oaks, California, United States of America.

Stokols, D., Hall, K. L. and Vogel, A. L. (2013). Transdisciplinary public health, definitions, core characteristics, and strategies for success. In: D. Haire-Joshu and T. D. McBride (Eds.), Transdisciplinary public health, research, education, and practice. Wiley: San Francisco: United States of America.

van Kerkhoff, L. (2005). Integrated research, concepts of connection in environmental science and policy. Environmental Science and Policy, 8: 452-463.

Biography: Julie Thompson Klein is Professor of Humanities Emerita and Faculty Fellow for Interdisciplinary Development at Wayne State University (USA). She is also an Associate member of the TdLab in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH-Zurich. She has diverse interests in and publications on interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and digital humanities. She is a recipient of the Kenneth Boulding Award for outstanding scholarship, the Yamamoorthy & Yeh Distinguished Transdisciplinary Achievement Award, the Joseph Katz Award for Distinguished Contributions to General and Liberal Education, and a Science of Team Science Recognition Award.

7 thoughts on “Integration – Part 1: The “what””

    • Thanks Britt for reblogging, as well as for your comments and the link to your paper, which it was good to re-read. Most discussion about interdisciplinarity is based on bringing together what we know, but research is based on what we don’t know. A focus on unknowns in interdisciplinarity may therefore provide a useful way forward into the ‘other things going on’. I’ve documented the unkowns I dealt with in a major interdisciplinary project that I led – see

      Would be most interested in your thoughts.

    • Thanks, Britt, for reposting this article. It was very helpful to me when I was writing a chapter for a book on interdisciplinary communication, especially your sorting through different philosophical conceptions. I think it important to also acknowledge critique of integration in forms of interdisciplinarity forged in critical theory. That position is tricky, though. While rejecting integration in the sense of unity, advocates are still engaged in a process of negotiating how different disciplinary approaches are brought together around a common question or problem. Some degree of integration does occur, though as your article reminds us (and michael O’Rourke’s important work as well) there is no universal method or theoretical framework.

  1. Thank you, Heiner, for all of your links. The other parts you call for including (the 4 “Ws”) underscore the importance of context. I’m glad you also hearkened back to the earlier conception of harmonization, since “harmonizing” is one of the traits being associated with research integration today. I also share your call for more attention to the co-existence of multiple models and modes, making informed choice for the nature and context of a particular problem crucial. Julie T. Klein

  2. Thank you both for your comments. I am resending my replies because there was a problem with transmission yesterday. Anil – Your example is such an important one, affirmed in many td-net publications on North-South partnerships and growing attention to the importance of cross-cultural understanding in health care research and practices. Julie T. Klein

  3. For me it looks like ​there is much more needed. The other PARTS needed might include: where, why, who, when, … There is much on multi-modal Conceptual Superstructures and Supersigns…. concrete in embodied immesive scale-models….. but before….

    I am eager to read part 2 and I wonder how you include languages, cultures and times and if you heard about the EEES harmonization efforts in the 80ies/90ies where we ….

    Maybe you also like 1) my definitions of “Cognitive Spaces” or “Cognitive Panorama” from the IESC (Charles Francois): [Moderator note; in October 2021, the following URL was found to be unresponse and was deleted: benking[dot]de… systems… encyclopedia… newterms] 2) how they “evolved” for the GLOBAL CHANGE exhibition in 1990: based on: spatial vs. spacial: and how this in now “hitting the streets” with Taylor and Francis 2016: Glocalization: A Critical Introduction. maybe with this “roots”: I hope we can discuss here the coexistence of many models and modes in “common frames of references” to ease integration:

  4. Very interesting and intriguing model, is it possible to have a dynamic model that incorporates all the directionalities and absorbs interplay among various interactive engagements on different planes and phases spanning a broad spectrum of bottom-up and top-down unifying approaches?

    The ultimate goal of the trans-disciplinary approach ought to bring together multi-disciplinary approaches under the broader common thematic vision to address a common goal and objective of big picture. This all should lead to breaking down silos and unifying differing view points, perspectives, methodologies towards achieving a common goal, mission and vision. The reason we make only incremental progress is because we work on different planes and figure out things based on trial and error rather than consulting or working out the kinks during the planning phase.


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