Two types of interdisciplinary scholarship

By Andi Hess

Andi Hess (biography)

Would it be helpful to identify two distinct forms of interdisciplinary scholarship ― 1) individual interdisciplinarity and 2) interdisciplinary dialogue and team science ― and to make this distinction explicit in the literature? What are the benefits and challenges of each? Are a different set of resources and methods required to achieve effective interdisciplinary scholarship?

As integration scientists are aware, there are many analyses of appropriate methods for conducting interdisciplinary work. Each has its own benefits and challenges, and each requires a different set of resources and methods for achieving effective interdisciplinary scholarship.

Individual interdisciplinarity

The first kind of interdisciplinary work, individual interdisciplinary scholarship, is what we commonly teach our students to do. It is the kind of work you do on your own by utilizing insights from a variety of disciplinary sources. In many ways this type of study is easier to engage with. You can read widely and pursue a variety of disciplinary perspectives in many sets of literature and integrate from them those concepts, methods, and insights that are useful for your particular work. This work doesn’t depend on team dynamics, schedules, or competing priorities. It doesn’t fall prey to the incommensurability issue, because what you understand from a piece of scholarship cannot be incommensurable with what you already know.

There are, of course, other challenges. Lack of depth of knowledge in relevant fields can result in misunderstanding the work being drawn upon. It is also difficult to assess which disciplinary sources might be worth investigating when you are unfamiliar with which sources are available and what each might contain.

Many of the resources for teaching interdisciplinary scholarship address these issues.

Interdisciplinary dialogue and team science

Engaging in an interdisciplinary dialogue or an interdisciplinary team project is very different from the type of research we do on our own. The goal of any dialogue is to have a conversation where members both contribute their own perspectives and come to understand the perspectives of others. This is important on its own and also forms a key part of team science, which is even more complicated as the team works to achieve project goals.

By including a variety of expert disciplinary perspectives in a collaborative team environment, team scientists are not subject to the same challenge with depth of knowledge as individual scholars. Instead, the challenge becomes effectively utilizing the full range of knowledge available on the team.

Interdisciplinary teams face the challenges that all teams face, from team dynamics issues to leadership and project management concerns. They also face the special set of incommensurability issues that arise specifically from the variety of ways knowledge is classified and siloed in disciplinary settings. These include specialized jargon and skill sets, as well as differences in epistemological constructs and scientific values. In addition, teams often face challenges arising from the variety of disciplinary and institutional incentive structures; what counts highly for one member of the team may mean little for another.

Making the distinction explicit

The resources and methods required to address each type of interdisciplinary work are different, yet it is rare for the different kinds of interdisciplinarity to be distinguished. There are many useful resources for each type of interdisciplinary work, but, because they are not specifically linked to the type of interdiscipliarity, confusion arises. Those new to interdisciplinary scholarship would benefit from being more aware of the methods that work best for each type.

What do you think about the value of clearly distinguishing these two kinds of interdisciplinarity? I have listed key resources for each kind below. Are there others that you would add?

Resources for individual interdisciplinarity

Menken, S. and Keestra, M. (2016). An Introduction to Interdisciplinary Research: Theory and Practice. Amsterdam University Press: Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Repko, A. F. and Szostak, R. (2017). Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory. 3rd ed. Sage: Thousand Oaks, California, United States of America.

Repko, A. F., Szostak, R. and Buchberger, M. P. (2017). Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies. 2nd ed. Sage: Thousand Oaks, California, United States of America.

Resources for interdisciplinary dialogue and team science

National Academy of Sciences. (2005). Facilitating interdisciplinary research. National Academies Press: Washington, DC, United States of America. Online:

McDonald, D., Bammer, G. and Deane, P. (2009). Research Integration Using Dialogue Methods. ANU Press: Canberra, Australia. Online:

National Research Council. (2015). Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science. National Academies Press. Washington, DC, USA:  Online:

O’Rourke, M., Crowley, S., Eigebrode, S. D. and Wulfhorst, J. D. (Eds.) (2014). Enhancing Communication and Collaboration in Interdisciplinary Research. Sage: Thousand Oaks, California, United States of America.

Biography: Andi Hess is the Director of the Interdisciplinary Translation and Integration Sciences Initiative at Arizona State University, which aims to help research teams across the university bridge disciplinary gaps through a process of interdisciplinary translation. Her research interests include the science of team science, research team leadership, interdisciplinarity, and cross-disciplinary science communication.

18 thoughts on “Two types of interdisciplinary scholarship”

  1. I appreciate your blog, Andi, because I do not agree with efforts to remake interdisciplinarity exclusively as team science. Both individual and collaborative forms are important sources of knowledge production. I’m curious, though, what you think about the challenge of incommensurability for individuals as well. I perform both kinds of scholarship, but my ability to conduct it individually depends in no small part on confronting incommensurability. Doing so requires engaging difference in critical dialogue with sources I read and, for researchers, in exchanges with individuals in other communities of practice and networks. So I’m interested in overlaps in the two categories you construct. Bottom line: I believe any form of scholarship is a collective endeavor. Thank you, Julie

  2. Thank you Andi for a useful, and clearly posed, suggestion for further clarifying how we might think about interdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary scholarship.

    In drafting our 2009 book ‘Research integration using dialogue methods’ (that you generously listed above and correctly classified under ‘Resources for interdisciplinary dialogue and team science’), a boundary that we had set for our task was focussing on dialogue, specifically interpersonal dialogue generally through structured group processes.

    As other commentators have written, differentiating between individual interdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary dialogue and team science, and clarifying the links and overlaps between the two, is helpful. In my work as a policy analyst (rather than as an interdisciplinary researcher) in the domains/disciplines of population health and criminology/criminal justice, I can readily think of situations where I thought I had adequately completed a task of individual interdisciplinarity (e.g. systematically identified the types of information relevant to the task, identified key stakeholders, read widely, consulted with close colleagues, etc.) to then find myself in group interdisciplinary dialogue with people I had not previously met, and finding that the products of my individual interdisciplinarity efforts were robustly challenged there.

    It highlights the value of resources such as Menken and Keestra’s ‘An introduction to interdisciplinary research: theory and practice’: down-to-earth guidance on how to use interdisciplinarity in our work. Our book ‘Research integration using dialogue methods’ was a response to what we saw as a need for this type of resource, nearly a decade ago. It is great to see the continuing development of scholarship and practice that Andi has presented here, and the responses to it made by others.

    • Hi David,
      Funny – I have similar experiences. One of the programs I work in is a science policy program, and it just happens to be where I fit best (‘science of science’, etc) for now. I am not a policy person, per se, but I can’t deny that this is part of my training by virtue of proximity. As you mention, it is very common in that environment for us to talk about what influences “science” and to be bringing people from a variety of backgrounds together, drawing from both of the types of interdisciplinarity I mention. I imagine these policy experiences contribute greatly to our perspectives of dialogue in these contexts.

  3. It’s certainly the case that it is possible to engage in what you call ‘individual interdisciplinarity’. So, I agree that it’s a mistake to conflate interdisciplinarity with teams or with collaboration. (There are, of course, other reasons for this, such as the fact that teams could be made up of people all from a single discipline.) That said, I want to suggest a note of caution about individual interdisciplinarity, at least as you describe it here:

    “[Individual interdisciplinarity] doesn’t fall prey to the incommensurability issue, because what you understand from a piece of scholarship cannot be incommensurable with what you already know.”

    This rules out the possibility that one might think one understands a piece of scholarship, but that one might think so and yet be mistaken about one’s level of understanding. Moreover, the individual interdisciplinarian, operating independently as she does, doesn’t engage with someone who really does understand that concept in a way that’s validated by others — someone who uses that concept as a native speaker of that disciplinary language, say. So, unless one has definitely learned to speak the language of the ‘foreign’ discipline fluently (and it’s difficult to see whether one can know that without engaging in dialogue with at least one fluent speaker), unrecognized misunderstanding is a live possibility.

    To put the same point slightly differently — incommensurability doesn’t depend on interaction with others. One can misunderstand things radically acting as an individual. But incommensurability only manifests itself when attempts at communication break down. This means that acting as an individual interdisciplinarian doesn’t rule out incommensurability so much as it provides the illusion of no incommensurability.

    • Following up on Britt’s caveat, which I support, it’s important to add that individuals experience disequilibrium and incommensurability when shifting from their familiar bodies of knowledge and methods to another disciplinary lens. The individual might consult with “native speakers,” but could also turn to explanations of what is being borrowed in information tools and training modules. In some cases the “foreign” element has also become assimmiliated into a discipline’s toolkit, not uncommon in contemporary disciplines given the amount of boundary crossing occurring.

      • Thanks Britt and Julie. I do think that there are certain cases where particularly complex scientific theory might be misunderstood and/or misapplied, but I also think that there are plenty of cases where theory and concept borrowing can occur without these types of issues.

        If I see a problem approached in a different way from another discipline that inspires me to look at my own problem in a different way, I don’t know that I always need to fully understand the contexts I’m borrowing from in order to produce new (useful) insights. This happens all the time. We all take bits and pieces and apply the relevant portions to our scholarship.

        I certainly don’t think this is the ONLY way to draw from other disciplines in a useful way, but I think each type of interdisciplinary thinking brings unique benefits and challenges. Some are clearly more useful/applicable in some contexts than others, which is why we need both and why we should be thoughtful and explicit about how we are engaging with other materials.

        • Excellent points, Andi. Taking “bits and pieces” is controversial when it is perceived as casual bricolage, but that problem occurs on all sides of disciplinary fences. In teamwork immediate elaboration or correction is possible. However, the individual doing so may represent only one approach in a discipline. So, I am much in favor of evaluating any interdisciplinary work based on context and its contingencies. Being thoughtful and explicit about how materials are engaged is crucial as well, in both individual and collaborative research and education.

          • Exactly. And I think with this conversation, we’re starting to get into why this distinction is so important. In order to examine the aspects of interdisciplinarity that are important in a particular situation, it would be helpful to have a set of resources and best practices that are separate and explicit for each type, although I’m sure many would overlap. We can’t do this sort of contextualization without making these distinctions clear.

  4. This posting raises an important topic of discussion at a time when some are trying to redefine interdisciplinary scholarship as team-based, not individual in nature. The myth that interdisciplinary work can only be achieved by teams also continues to circulate. Thank you, Andi, for framing the debate. Distinguishing two distinct forms is helpful. However, heightened focus on team science does not obviate responsibility to attend to individual capacity. We need to be looking at this question as Both/And, not Either/Or. There are distinct sets of resources. Yet, there are also overlaps, at a time when preparing the next generation of workers to think in both interdisciplinary and collaborative fashion is high on the list of desired learning outcomes.

    • Great point Julie! It is Both/And, and it must continue to be. I think this was what I was trying to say in response to Machiel earlier. There is much to be gained from both modes of scholarship.

  5. I also prefer team work in interdisciplinary projects, not only because this is how it works in the real world, but also because students learn so much in their efforts to overcome disciplinary boundaries. In my opinion they become open minded academics as well as better citizens. Disciplines are like cultures. Our complex societies need people who are able to bridge cultural divides.

    • Exactly the case Ria! Bridging disciplinary cultures is exactly how I explain it, and it’s the focus of my Interdisciplinary Translation Initiative. Team scientists face the same challenges as anyone trying to understand another culture, and facing that complexity is a transferable skill in any career path and in life.

  6. I agree that it is important to distinguish individual from team interdisciplinary projects, Andi, and that both indeed come with very different challenges as you point out so clearly. In fact, the introduction that we wrote (and that you kindly listed above) stems from our work with interdisciplinary student teams and is meant to facilitate also their team work. Yet I hope that in the next edition of the book we can indeed include more resources on coping with these team challenges that you’re referring to. In my ‘Metacognition and Reflection by Interdisciplinary Experts’ (Issues in Interdisc. Studies 2017) I’m also arguing that the fact that individual interdisciplinarity is not challenging your perspective (in terms of the incommensurability that you refer to, for example) is in a way a disadvantage as you may not be forced to articulate your perspective, underestimate or overlook differences etc. Because of this I’ve come to prefer students to do team work. What is your idea about that?

    • Great points Machiel. I think that both modes of scholarship have their place.

      Bill Newell once said to me that you could tell you were borrowing concepts correctly if someone in the other field would say “you’re not WRONG, but we would never do it that way.” I think that there are many contributions still to be made by borrowing and reinterpreting ideas from other fields. Since we always filter what we learn through our own prior experiences and education, this is a fantastic source of creativity and discipline bridging. I’m not sure you’d get these kinds of outcomes through team science, which requires a bit more deference to the expertise you gain from including others (that’s the whole point, right?).

      On the other hand, you are probably correct that this sort of scholarship leads us to another set of issues, such as articulating our perspectives clearly and misinterpreting insights in ways that lose some of the richness.

      I’ve found that for my IDS students, a major contributor of such oversight is that they lack grounding – specifically an understanding of where they came from (disciplinarily). ASU lacks disciplinary departments, so students often don’t realize where the insights they pull from originated.

      In this respect, I’ve found your book to be VERY helpful. The graph you have included regarding disciplinary classification is invaluable. I spend a few weeks on mapping disciplines in my intro class, and this has really helped students ‘locate’ their own perspectives with respect to the origins of scholarship that they are using. Note that this is not a question of depth in one area, but rather a recognition of the landscape.

      I think this type of grounding is important for contributing to a team as well. I’d love to hear more about your experiences with your student teams. There is much to be learned from our students and their experiences confronting interdisciplinarity in the classroom. That’s why I think this distinction is so important. Clarity is essential for moving the field forward, and we often talk about both modes of scholarship as if they were the same.

      • Thanks for adding this, Andi. I can only agree with you that it is important for students to have some discipinary grounding: not just as they only then come to recognize boundaries between disciplines but also will come to appreciate how different methods, theories, practices and forms of communication are related within a particular discipline. Without such grounding, students can be quite naive in their critique of disciplinary insights and too eclectic in their interdisciplinary work by just happily mixing together different ingredients. Interestingly, students who are participating in these 3rd year interdisciplinary capstone team projects I’m supervising often recognize for the first time that they really have acquired a disciplinary perspective – due to the interaction with colleagues from other disciplines. In addition to becoming self-conscious interdisciplinarians they are also becoming self-conscious disciplinarians at the same time. I think that this also partly explains why our interdisciplinary students on average get slightly better grades with their monodisciplinary bachelor thesis than their monodisciplinary fellow students, even though they’ve followed our interdisciplinary core curriculum instead of the disciplinary first year.

        • I know exactly what you’re talking about. When I was in my undergrad IDS program, It took me a very long time to realize that I had a ‘home’ and a grounding. There were times I described myself as a double major rather than an interdisciplinarian, or I’d say I was an anthropologist in one setting and a philosopher when I spoke to a different group.

          Naming something gives it power though, and through that labeling I was able to better understand my own position and the roots of my ideas. Perhaps when this identity is just given to you (ie, you are a “business major” because you chose to study XYZ) there is less of a need to do this sort of personal exploration and understand the landscape and the system. Awareness of other perspectives (disciplinary or otherwise) is what helps you situate yourself.

          • Indeed, Andi. Naming gives something power: whether committing to a single or double disciplinary affiliation or going the further step of identifying forthrightlyas a member of an interdisciplinary field. The latter route, however, requires we help students gain a sense of identity or habitus in a field, often lacking in their formal preparation. It is also curcial they be able to identify intersections with particular traditions and schools of thought within and cross-seating disciplines.

            • Well said. I consider myself quite lucky to have found that identity for myself, and it’s something I try to make sure to impress upon my students. I believe that a sense of belonging, beginning as a student, would greatly help the field.


Leave a Reply to Andi HessCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.