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.

Discussion

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?

Reference
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.

24 thoughts on “A manifesto of interdisciplinarity

  1. Rick, there are two questions I would like your thoughts on, and any of the readers as well. What do you see as the difference in a student who has a major in one discipline and a minor in another and a student who is ‘interdisciplinary’ in two disciplines? In this scenario, do you think the student with the ‘interdisciplinary degree’ will be allowed into a ‘disciplinary department’ as readily as the student who has a ‘traditional degree’ with a major in one discipline and a minor in another? Do you think there is bias against hiring a student with an ‘interdisciplinary degree’?

    • Hi Larry; Great questions. I first have to say that a lot of programs call themselves “interdisciplinary” without at all teaching students how to evaluate insights from different disciplines or integrate across these.Students in such programs may be ill prepared for graduate study in either disciplines or interdisciplinary programs. Students from good interdisciplinary programs — that do teach evaluative and integrative skills — are well prepared for interdisciplinary graduate programs (of which there are a growing number). Disciplines differ in how willing they are to look at students who did not major in their discipline. Students from a good interdisciplinary program may indeed have to advertise the skills they have acquired when applying to grad school — especially since these aren’t acquired in every program that calls itself interdisciplinary. When surveyed, employers say that they are looking for creative problem solving, communication, and analytical thinking, skills that are fostered by a good interdisciplinary education. Students from a good interdisciplinary program should be able to impress employers, but only if they are self-aware of the skills they have acquired (We talk about these things a bit in my co-authored Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies).

      Like you, I would love to hear what others have to say, Rick

      • Students in the bachelor programs at our Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Amsterdam do major in a particular discipline after having completed at least one multi- & interdisciplinary foundation year and interdisciplinary research seminars during the two years of their major. Our alumni are accepted in master’s programs in other (international) universities corresponding to their major as well as in many interdisciplinary programs. In other words, we have very good experiences with the T-shaped interdisciplinary bachelor student, even in a relatively discipline-oriented European context. Indeed, it also concurs with my view that interdisciplinarity thrives only when combined with disciplinary specialization – as the latter provides the student/academic a better insight in why and when interdisciplinarity is needed at all, and what the challenges involved with that might be.

  2. Some time ago, in a fit of interdisciplinarity, I began reading this community’s posts. That I’ve continued reading for months tells me you are all speaking to issues I find important. Within bio-medicine there is a vast network of interdisciplinary boundaries. In five decades working on many of those boundaries I’ve found that a pivotal part of interdisciplinary work is accurate translation. We, as interdisciplinary scientists, must study on both sides of each boundary where we work. The deep expertise of each collaborating disciplinary specialist is vital, but at least one of the collaborators (and preferably both) must invest enough time and energy in the other discipline (perhaps the terms cis-discipline and trans-discipline would be useful) to permit accurate translation of results and concepts into the a language of her or his own discipline. Only then, in my experience, can Rick’s manifesto point 1 (integration) be done effectively. This investment in the trans-discipline is the cost of interdisciplinary work. We trade some depth for the essential breadth that allows interdisciplinary projects to succeed. It’s this forgone depth that leads to the facile criticism: “a mile wide and an inch deep,” but this criticism misses the point that interdisciplinarity is no longer optional. It’s where the big questions are.

    • Thanks rdphair! It is great that you are finding the blogs useful. And I thank you for the careful explication from a practitioner of both the value and necessity of interdisciplinary breadth. Rick

  3. I would add two things which by the way could reconcile the proponents of interdisciplinarity and of disciplines. Firstly, to be interdiscplinary implies being at the crossing of two or more disciplines, which is twice demanding as much as being in one discipline only. An interdisciplinary scholar is someone whose works can be acceptable to two or more disciplines. Secondly and related to the point above, interdisciplinarity implies that the two or more disciplines eventually complement each other and feed one another. One can bring insights from a third-party discipline into one in particular. This implies a perfect command of both.

    Reposted from the Linked in group International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association

    • I’m not so sure that interdisciplinary work requires expertise in multiple disciplines. Our new textbook shows how to be an expert at synthesizing/integrating theoretical perspectives (models, etc) from multiple disciplines. With this approach, the new generation of interdisciplinarians serve to facilitate communication, integration, and decision making: https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/practical-mapping-for-applied-research-and-program-evaluation/book261152

        • Rick – You may also look forward to reading that paper you suggested I write. But not soon… After waiting four months for the reviewers to provide feedback on the third re-write… I’m told I’ll need to wait a few more months… at a minimum!

    • Thanks Vassili! One of the purposes of my manifesto is indeed to indicate that interdisciplinarity is hard — but feasible. I should perhaps be more explicit about that. Interdisciplinary scholars need to be clear about the challenges they face in drawing upon multiple disciplines. I think we need to be careful about insisting that interdisciplinary scholars have the same level of understanding of each discipline they draw upon as a disciplinary expert. Very few of us could meet that standard. But we must insist that scholars familiarize themselves with the overall perspective of each discipline, and then recognize the internal debates within the discipline regarding the problem the interdisciplinary scholar is investigating.

      Your second point is critical: that disciplines can benefit from interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary scholarship can expose disciplinary scholars to the value of alternative theories, methods, and connections to phenomena that they usually ignore. Disciplines and interdisciplinarity should be seen as mutually supportive.

      Rick

      • Sorry if I was too implicit in one thing. I do not think that interdiscplinary scholars should be equally good at both or all disciplines. At least, their work must be decently acceptable from the other disciplines taken as minors. There will always be a home discipline operating as a major and others from which it is borrowed and which are thereby minors. In order to be convincingly interdisciplinary, it is important to stress that these borrowings must be bound to be approved as such and accepted from these other disciplines. This is where it is difficult and intellectually challenging.

        Reposted from to LinkedIn group International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association

        • Thanks for the clarification Vassili. I agree with everything you say, especially about being able to communicate to multiple audiences — which means understanding disciplinary terminologies, perspectives, and internal debates . I think, though, that there is also a useful place for scholars whose main expertise is in integration itself. Thanks again, Rick

  4. Thanks Steve!

    The first and critical action item is to have a conversation in order to establish the degree of consensus around various points in the manifesto. You mention students and teachers: I can imagine useful classroom conversations around the manifesto — that I would very much like to hear reports of. I am hoping to stimulate such conversations at academic conferences also.

    If/when people become comfortable that there is consensus around various points, then the key action is to communicate this consensus in various directions. University administrators and granting agencies (and leaders of NGOs!) often mouth support for interdisciplinarity without knowing what it is that they are trying to support or how they might best do so. Disciplinary researchers often misunderstood the nature and purpose of interdisciplinarity. I think that we as a community need to be sending a consistent message to those in positions of power or influence institutionally.

    I very much agree on the importance of action items. I suppose I hesitated to say: 1. Talk to each other; and then 2. Talk to others. But we are trying to foster interdisciplinarity within an institutional structure organized around disciplines. Interdisciplinarity can be hampered by budget cuts, limited contact across disciplines, misguided tenure and promotion standards, and a host of other circumstances. We are best able to enhance the quality and reputation of interdisciplinary studies if we regularly communicate a shared vision of interdisciplinarity.

    Thanks for the suggestion, Rick

  5. Thanks Machiel!

    Consensus doesn’t mean that we all have to agree about everything but that most of us have to agree about many things. If we can’t achieve some consensus about what interdisciplinarity is and how it is best pursued, then we are severely hobbled in our ability to give advice to the next generation of interdisciplinary teachers and researchers. And I don’t see how we as a community can defend against misguided critiques unless we can agree on what we are defending.

    I very much agree that we need a conversation about the various points in the manifesto in order to establish the range of consensus. I am quite open to broadening the definition of integration. in the original manifesto there is a hyperlink from the word integration to a broader discussion of the term. That discussion addresses (I hope) your concerns.

    Rick

  6. Very Good! I would suggest adding a list of potential action items to help students, teachers, practitioners, and researchers to move forward more effectively.

  7. Interesting project to find out whether there is indeed consensus on definition and challenges of interdisciplinarity, Rick! I admit that I would be surprised if there is more than agreement about a few very general elements. Yet it can be useful to find out what those are. With regard to #1, ‘integration of insights’ being an essential feature of ID: I would certainly open that up to other forms of integration besides integration of insights, like integration of methods and results. Indeed, integration of multiple disciplines often implies a mix of such forms of integration as when anthropological theoretical insights about cultural transmission patterns have an impact upon archaeological hypotheses, which are then being investigated with an enriched excavation method.

  8. Thanks to both Bethany and Susan for comments. I think that in interdisciplinary analysis we strive toward consensus while appreciating that there are always possible counter-arguments. We should be guided by humility but that should not stop us from being bold. I certainly don’t intend the manifesto as a conclusion but rather as a statement of where I see a possible consensus, and an invitation to debate and clarification.

    I agree that a great deal of interdisciplinary work occurs outside of universities. I emphasized universities because I know them best. I will think about revising my manifesto to include NGOs. I am open to suggestions.

    Thanks again!

  9. Rick, thank you for your thoughtful work here. I do mostly agree with your 9 points, but what strikes me is they each lay out an area for further research and practice-based-evidence on ID–including whether or not those should be the 9 points or if they are/not followed in any particular case. The Manifesto may function as a boundary object facilitating IDR on IDR. That’s cool!

    Do you think, though, your Manifesto is–or could be used as–a positivist, conclusive statement of reality (viz., the reality of ID) that undermines its own claims?

  10. Very useful work to take this discussion into a more structured expression, without dictating terms that would inhibit creativity. My only additional thought is that while you comment on universities, it would also be useful to comment on the agencies that need, produce and use interdisciplinary knowledge to address the complexity of their jurisdictions. They face a different challenge to universities and perhaps an even more difficult one.

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