Acknowledging and responding to criticisms of interdisciplinarity / Reconnaître et répondre aux critiques de l’interdisciplinarité

By Romain Sauzet

A French version of this post is available

Romain Sauzet (biography)

What are the core arguments that critics of interdisciplinarity employ? Which of these criticisms can help to clarify what interdisciplinarity is and what it isn’t?

While some of the criticisms of interdisciplinarity stem from a general misunderstanding of its purpose or from a bad experience, others seem well-founded. Thus, while some must be rejected, others should be accepted.

I outline five different types of criticisms drawn from three main sources:
(1) academic writings (see reference list), (2) an empirical survey on interdisciplinarity (Sauzet 2017), (3) informal discussions. These criticisms extend the ideas presented in an earlier blog post, Why We Should Not Ignore Interdisciplinarity’s Critics by Rick Szostak. I reflect on how interdisciplinarity could be improved by attending to key criticisms.

The five types of criticisms of interdisciplinarity are summarised below.

1. The problem of interdisciplinarity’s descriptive scope

  • Interdisciplinarity uses multifarious and unclear concepts for:
    • the definition of interdisciplinarity itself
    • its boundaries (eg., multi-, pluri-, trans- disciplinarity)
    • the main concepts that clarify the goals, processes and outcomes of interdisciplinarity (eg., complexity, integration, unification, pluralism).
  • There were already interactions amongst disciplines before the invention of interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity is a useless concept, except when used descriptively.

2. A normative ideal far from actual science

  • Interdisciplinarity is only an epistemological claim and a normative ideal. It promotes a particular conception of what science should be, but its ambitions are much too lofty. Moreover, it is only a theoretical approach to science, far from actual practice. Then, it can only propose dubious recipes.
  • Many activities are classed as interdisciplinary when in fact they are not. Furthermore, there are many other interesting interactions between disciplines, which do not fit into interdisciplinary categories.
  • Interdisciplinarity prioritizes a particular hierarchy of interactions (transdisciplinarity rated most highly, followed by interdisciplinarity, with multidisciplinary coming last), whereas profound scientific developments can result from interactions among disciplines for which this hierarchy is irrelevant.
  • Interdisciplinarity stems from external demand and not from an academic need or interest. But how important can the demand be if it does not fit its only resource, namely actual science?

3. Interdisciplinarity is not scientific research, but only a kind of popularization

  • Interdisciplinarity mainly has an educational purpose. It focuses on the organization and harmonization of what is known by various disciplines about a subject, rather than a better understanding of the subject itself. The coherent picture it produces is a simplification that can have an educational purpose but reduces the research potential of the subject.
  • Interdisciplinary projects do not practice interdisciplinarity. Many projects in fields that are ostensibly interdisciplinary, eg., nanotechnology, produce very interesting disciplinary discoveries, without actually being interdisciplinary in practice.
  • Interdisciplinarity stems from a general critique of science. In particular, it criticizes how disciplines are organized. However, interdisciplinarity is mistaken when it reduces disciplines to the product of social or institutional causes, rather than respecting disciplines as the principal vector of science.

4. It is impossible to evaluate interdisciplinarity

  • There is no consensus on the features by which interdisciplinarity could be measured (eg., the variety of disciplines? their disparity?), or how to measure them (eg., via bibliometric analysis? qualitative measures?), or even, what there is to be measured (eg., publications? research projects?).
  • Interdisciplinarity can only be evaluated by commensurable disciplines. Every interdisciplinary project is composed of several distinct disciplines and only researchers involved in another similar interdisciplinary situation will be able to understand and evaluate each discipline’s contribution. Without this, a substantial part of the scientific development would be missed, given that the expertise of any discipline is outside the competence of other disciplines’ specialists.

5. Institutionalizing interdisciplinarity is a failure

  • Interdisciplinarity is costly, both in time and money.
  • Interdisciplinary teaching does not provide enough substantial expertise on a specific subject. Students trained in interdisciplinarity, who do not also have disciplinary expertise, do not have sufficient knowledge or skills to tackle problems.
  • Interdisciplinary teaching is superficial. Interdisciplinary courses trade intellectual rigor for topic-based excitement. Such courses are a compilation of unique cases and the core of interdisciplinarity is composed of only very general advice, such as ‘keeping an open mind’.
  • Interdisciplinarity has become a discipline itself, with all the flaws of a discipline: new sets of intellectual boundaries, new journals, subspecialties, conflicts over university resources, and so on.
  • Interdisciplinarity generalizes a focus on short-term objectives and a managerial conception of the academic world. This undermines other longer-term academic projects, which are less easy to control.

Where next?

Having outlined these criticisms, I draw three conclusions which I suggest will aid the further development of interdisciplinarity:

  1. Interdisciplinarity must be a secondary objective and must stem from something else, whether it is previous knowledge or a discipline. It cannot work on its own, and attempting to do so risks creating a purely epistemological construction, with no connection with actual research.
  2. Interdisciplinarity should not be defined in a unique and homogenous way. It should instead be seen only in specific and contextual conditions in order to avoid: a) promoting an ambitious model that is unrealistic and b) failing to acknowledge actual interactions.
  3. Interdisciplinarity should be more self-critical. It is unnecessarily tolerant of many scientific activities that call themselves interdisciplinary when they are not, partly because being benevolent seems to be an essential epistemic virtue. Being more rigorous (or rigid) and firm in defining what interdisciplinarity really is would avoid many of criticisms cited above.

Which of the criticisms do you think are justified? Which ones should be responded to? Are there additional criticisms that have been missed?

Benson, T. C. (1998). Five arguments against interdisciplinary studies. In, W. H Newell (ed.), Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the literature, College Entrance Examination Board, New York, United States of America: 103-108.

Jacobs, J. (2009). Interdisciplinary hype. Chronicle Review, B4-5, November 27. (Online):

Mäki, U. (2016). Philosophy of interdisciplinarity. What? Why? How?’ European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 6, 3: 327-342

Peterson, V. V. (2008). Against interdisciplinarity. Women and Language, 31, 2: 42-50

Rafols, I. (2007). Strategies for knowledge acquisition in bionanotechnology. Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 20, 4: 395-412

Sauzet, R. (2017). La pluralité scientifique en action, le cas du LabEx IMU, Thèse de doctorat en philosophie, Université Lyon 3. (Online):

Wang, Q. and Schneider, J. W. (2019). Consistency and validity of interdisciplinarity measures. Quantitative Science Studies, 1, 1: 1–25

Biography: Romain Sauzet PhD is a member of Institut des Recherches Philosophiques in Lyon, France. From a philosophical interest in interactions between disciplines, his research associates theoretical analyses with empirical surveys in various areas, such as urban sciences, nanotechnology and environmental sciences.



Reconnaître et répondre aux critiques de l’interdisciplinarité / Acknowledging and responding to criticisms of interdisciplinarity

An English version of this post is available

Quels sont les principaux arguments mobilisés par les critiques de l’interdisciplinarité? Quelles sont les critiques qui permettraient de préciser ce qu’est et ce que n’est pas l’interdisciplinarité?

Là où certaines de ces critiques proviennent d’une incompréhension générale de ce qu’est l’interdisciplinarité ou encore d’une mauvaise expérience, d’autres semblent bien fondées. Ainsi, si certaines de ces critiques doivent être rejetées, d’autres devraient être acceptées.

J’identifie cinq types principaux de critiques, à partir de trois sources principales : (1.) des sources académiques (voir la liste bibliographique), (2.) une enquête empirique (Sauzet 2017); (3.) des discussions informelles. Ces critiques poursuivent une précédente contribution, Why We Should Not Ignore Interdisciplinarity’s Critics par Rick Szostak. Enfin, je m’intéresse à l’amélioration de l’interdisciplinarité en se confrontant à ces critiques.

Les cinq types de critiques sont résumés ci-dessous.

1. Le problème de la portée descriptive de l’interdisciplinarité

  • L’interdisciplinarité mobilise des concepts divers et peu claires pour:
    • définir l’interdisciplinarité elle-même.
    • identifier ses limites (multi-, pluri-, trans- disciplinarité, etc.).
    • les principaux concepts qui explicitent ses objectifs, ses processus et ses résultats (complexité, intégration, unification, pluralisme, etc.).
  • Il y avait déjà des interactions parmi les disciplines avant l’invention de l’idée d’interdisciplinarité. Ainsi, c’est un concept inutile en dehors d’un usage descriptif.

2. Un idéal normatif éloigné de la science concrète

  • L’interdisciplinarité est avant tout une affirmation épistémologique et un idéal normatif. Il promeut une conception particulière de ce que la science devrait être, mais ses ambitions sont trop élevées. Qui plus est, c’est une approche seulement théorique de la science, éloignée de la pratique concrète. Ainsi, elle ne peut proposer que des recettes peu pertinentes.
  • De nombreuses activités sont considérées à tort comme interdisciplinaires. Par ailleurs, de nombreuses interactions pertinentes entre disciplines ne correspondent pas aux catégories de l’interdisciplinarité.
  • L’interdisciplinarité hiérarchise les interactions (la transdisciplinarité est la forme la plus considérée, suivie par l’interdisciplinarité et enfin la multidisciplinarité), alors que des développements scientifiques importants peuvent être issus d’interactions pour lesquelles cette hiérarchie n’est pas pertinente.
  • L’interdisciplinarité provient de demandes extérieures au monde académique. Comment cette demande peut-elle être satisfaite si elle ne correspond pas à la seule ressource dont elle dispose, la science concrète?

3. L’interdisciplinarité n’est pas de la recherche scientifique, mais une sorte de vulgarisation

  • L’interdisciplinarité a principalement une portée éducative. Elle organise et harmonise ce qui est connu par différentes disciplines sur un sujet, plutôt qu’elle ne tente de mieux comprendre ledit sujet. Le résultat, aussi cohérent soit-il, n’est qu’une simplification qui peut avoir une dimension éducative, mais qui limite le potentiel de recherche du sujet.
  • Les projets interdisciplinaires ne pratiquent pas l’interdisciplinarité. De nombreux projets dans des champs de recherche clairement identifiés comme interdisciplinaires, comme les nanotechnologies, produisent des découvertes disciplinaires intéressantes sans être pour autant interdisciplinaire dans leur pratique.
  • L’interdisciplinarité provient d’une critique générale de la science, notamment quant à la constitution des disciplines. Elle se trompe lorsqu’elle réduit ces dernières à leurs causes institutionnelles ou sociales, sans les considérer comme les principaux vecteurs de la science.

4. Il est impossible d’évaluer l’interdisciplinarité

  • Il n’y de consensus ni sur les caractéristiques qui pourraient être mesurées (la variété des disciplines? Leur disparité?), ni sur la manière de les mesurer (par des analyses bibliométriques? Qualitatives?), pas plus sur ce qu’il s’agit de mesurer (les publications? Les projets eux-mêmes?).
  • L’interdisciplinarité ne peut être évaluée que par des disciplines commensurables. Chaque projet interdisciplinaire est composé par des disciplines distinctes et seuls des chercheurs impliqués dans des situations interdisciplinaires similaires seraient à même de comprendre et donc d’évaluer la contribution de chaque discipline. Sans cela, une part substantielle des développements scientifiques serait ratée, tant l’expertise de chaque discipline est au-delà des compétences d’une autre.

5. L’institutionnalisation de l’interdisciplinarité est un échec

  • L’interdisciplinarité est coûteuse, temporellement et financièrement.
  • L’enseignement interdisciplinaire ne fournit pas d’expertise substantielle sur un sujet spécifique. Les étudiants de tels enseignements sans expertise disciplinaire associée n’ont pas suffisamment de connaissances et de compétences pour se confronter à des problèmes véritables.
  • L’enseignement interdisciplinaire est superficiel et préfère des sujets excitants à la rigueur intellectuelle. De tels cours consistent en une compilation de cas uniques et l’enseignement de l’interdisciplinarité elle-même se limite à des conseils très généraux, comme ‘garder l’esprit ouvert’.
  • L’interdisciplinarité est devenue une discipline elle-même, avec tous ses défauts: des limites intellectuelles, des journaux dédiés, des sous-spécialités, des conflits sur les ressources académiques, etc.
  • L’interdisciplinarité généralise les objectifs à court terme et la conception managériale du monde académique. Elle empêche de ce fait d’autres projets sur le long terme, moins facile à contrôler.

Et ensuite?

Après l’indentification de ces critiques, je précise trois conclusions générales pour aider le développement de l’interdisciplinarité.

  1. L’interdisciplinarité doit être un objectif secondaire et doit provenir d’autre chose qu’elle-même, que ce soit d’une connaissance ou d’une discipline précédente. Elle ne peut travailler à partir d’elle-même, au risque de n’être plus qu’une construction purement épistémologique, sans lien avec la science concrète.
  2. L’interdisciplinarité ne doit pas être définie de manière unique et homogène. Elle doit plutôt être mobilisée en relation avec des contextes spécifiques afin d’éviter: a) de promouvoir un modèle irréaliste par son ambition  b) d’empêcher la reconnaissance d’interactions concrètes.
  3. L’interdisciplinarité devrait être plus critique d’elle-même. Elle est trop tolérante à l’égard de nombreuses activités scientifiques qui se prétendent, à tort, comme interdisciplinaires, en partie parce qu’être bienveillant semble être une vertu épistémique essentielle. Être plus rigoureux et ferme dans la définition de ce qu’est vraiment l’interdisciplinarité éviterait de nombreuses critiques évoquées ci-dessus.

Parmi ces critiques, lesquelles vous semblent justifier? Auxquelles faudrait-il répondre? Manquent-ils d’autres critiques?

Benson, T. C. (1998). Five arguments against interdisciplinary studies. In, W. H Newell (ed.), Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the literature, College Entrance Examination Board, New York, United States of America: 103-108.

Jacobs, J. (2009). Interdisciplinary hype. Chronicle Review, B4-5, November 27. (Online):

Mäki, U. (2016). Philosophy of interdisciplinarity. What? Why? How?’ European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 6, 3: 327-342

Peterson, V. V. (2008). Against interdisciplinarity. Women and Language, 31, 2: 42-50

Rafols, I. (2007). Strategies for knowledge acquisition in bionanotechnology. Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 20, 4: 395-412

Sauzet, R. (2017). La pluralité scientifique en action, le cas du LabEx IMU, Thèse de doctorat en philosophie, Université Lyon 3. (Online):

Wang, Q. and Schneider, J. W. (2019). Consistency and validity of interdisciplinarity measures. Quantitative Science Studies, 1, 1: 1–25

21 thoughts on “Acknowledging and responding to criticisms of interdisciplinarity / Reconnaître et répondre aux critiques de l’interdisciplinarité”

  1. Dear Romain,
    Thank you for interesting research! I am sure that the results of your research will strengthen the attention of specialists to solving problems of interdisciplinarity.
    I want to highlight a key paragraph:
    1. The problem of interdisciplinarity’s descriptive scope
    Interdisciplinarity uses multifarious and unclear concepts for:
    • the definition of interdisciplinarity itself

    Perhaps if we give the correct definition of interdisciplinarity, many elements of its criticism will lose relevance.
    I am sure that the “fog” of interdisciplinarity will disappear if we distinguish consonant, but different in content, terms: interdisciplinarity, interdisciplinary interactions and interdisciplinary approach.

    Interdisciplinarity is the designation of the possibility of expanding the horizon of the scientific worldview through the use of knowledge and cognitive means of various scientific disciplines.

    Interdisciplinary interactions are the designation of a set of integrating factors that contribute to the formation of logical structures of scientific disciplines and the discrete expansion of the horizon of the scientific worldview.

    Interdisciplinary approach is a method of expanding the horizon of a scientific worldview in the direction of enriching knowledge, methodology and language of one scientific discipline at the expense of knowledge, methodology and language of another scientific discipline,

    – Interdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary interactions are a “designation”.
    – An interdisciplinary approach is a “method”.

    For example, McDonald’s is the “designation” of fast-food restaurants. Fast food technology is a method of cooking cutlets and buns. Therefore, it is not the name of the restaurant that should be criticized, but its technology.
    Do you agree?

    Mokiy, V.S. (2019). Systems Transdisciplinary Approach in the General Classification of Scientific Approaches. European Scientific Journal. Vol. 15, no 19, ESJ July Edition, pp. 247-258. DOI:
    Mokiy, V. S., & Lukyanova, T. A. (2022). Manifesto for systems transdisciplinarity (2023-2030). Universum: Social sciences. 9(88).

    • Dear Romain and Vladimir, good discussion here. It is hard to argue against the idea that all disciplines interact and engage in an interdisciplinary world. From the lens of working to develop an educational framework to teach and practice skills for complex problem-solving, I see interdisciplinarity as a tool or an approach for creative innovation. I agree that it is a way to expand the horizon of scientific worldview in the direction of enriching knowledge, methodology and language. I see this work, however, not as being “at the expense of knowledge, methodology and language of another scientific discipline”, but rather as a way to develop critical thinking about a scientific discipline, to question practices and assumptions about that discipline and its value in the real world. From this lens, a discipline is meant to find solutions for the real world, not to play within the boundaries of that one particular discipline. For example, chemistry has branches of organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and biochemistry, which are applied in food science, agriculture, chemical engineering, and medical research. And math extends into statistics, which are used in the humanities. And scientists use language to share research findings. To imply that science or math or the written word are contained within only one discipline is like saying running shoes are only for running. Science is a means to a human end, and must be viewed in this way.

      • In the introduction to his book, Consilience: The unity of knowledge, biologist Edward Wilson (1999) opened with this statement: “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.” In today’s context of rapid change, this quote can be applied to information overload and the resultant need for unity of knowledge and wisdom to make use of existing knowledge and advanced technologies to transform the way we relate in and with our communities and the environment.

      • Dear Colleen,
        You report the characteristics of interdisciplinarity that seem obvious to you. This is important for understanding the term interdisciplinarity.

        However, Romain asked us to answer three specific questions:
        Which of the criticisms do you think are justified? Which ones should be responded to? Are there additional criticisms that have been missed?

        I am sure that the order to scientifically soundly answer these questions, it is necessary to use the appropriate method. The analysis of critical remarks should be built according to the following scheme:

        – it is necessary to use (offer or accept) one a generic definition of interdisciplinarity.
        – identify (offer or accept) a set of relevant specific definitions of interdisciplinarity.
        – distribute criticisms into those that relate to the generic definition of interdisciplinarity and those that relate to its specific definitions.
        – identify (offer or accept) additional obvious criticisms of generic and specific definitions.

        In our case, three consonant terms interdisciplinarity, interdisciplinary interactions and interdisciplinary approach have been identified. Therefore, the proposed method can be strengthened. To do this, the proposed scheme of actions should be applied to each of the three terms. I am sure that in this case the results of the study of criticisms will sparkle with fresh colors.

        • Thank you Vladimir for your response, it is well taken. I do like your approach to analyzing criticisms of generic and specific Interdisciplinarity definitions and distributing the criticisms appropriately for further analysis and argument. In response to Romain’s conclusions and your points, my stance is that all of their assumptions about interdisciplinarity are incorrect. For example, the criticism that considers interactions within disciplines is irrelevant. This is indeed an example of knowledge sharing and collaboration, however, it is not in alignment with the purpose of interdisciplinarity, to solve large complex problems. Interdisciplinarity is more closely related to the diffusion of innovation, rather than discovery alone. Measurement is not the point, successful innovation that solves a complex problem is the intended outcome.

          As Rick Szostak, 2017, wrote in his blog, “We do not want to discipline interdisciplinarity the way that disciplines constrain scholarship: we must celebrate openness to diverse theories, methods, and phenomena. But that does not mean that researchers should be free to ignore either the literature on interdisciplinary best practices or relevant disciplinary scholarship”. I think this wisdom is important to consider.

          The way I see it, interdisciplinarity is meant to be inclusive of ideas and ways of knowing to solve complex human problems that have broader implications for all of humanity. A discovery in biology or physics, for instance, cannot solve anything on its own without the integration of other bodies of knowledge. Making the definition too specific is an error in its purpose. The purpose of interdisciplinarity is to solve complex problems collaboratively from diverse domains of knowledge. For example, it takes diverse knowledge and skills to solve climate change, homelessness, and global political and economic instabilities. Interdisciplinarity is intended to be respectful of all knowledge and contributions to solving complex problems. It is scientific knowledge and thinking in action for tangible real world purposes to solve complexities that are difficult to untangle from one discipline alone.

          For example, the disciplines of what we generally refer to as ‘science’ are not the only bodies of knowledge nor the only application of interdisciplinarity; this is an error in thinking (and elitist ‘discipline-focused’ thinking, dare I say). For example, there is ‘science’ involved in the study and comparison of languages, and even ‘science’ that is used in the fine arts, liberal arts, and the humanities. There is ‘science’ (or better, STEM) involved in business management, and there is ‘science’ (or method) in law.

          There are distinctions between ‘science’ in the disciplines and ‘scientific thinking’. Dewey referred to this as ‘experimental’ learning and thinking. Bloom called this ‘higher order’ thinking. Gardner referred to multiple intelligences. Science should be thought of as a process of thinking to solve larger problems; it is the use of knowledge to solve problems, not simply for the sake of advancing knowledge within a discipline. Scientific thinking, or higher order thinking is a way of thinking about problems. Interdisciplinarity opens up the problem-solving process to new perspectives and ways of thinking and knowing, it is not delimited by the constraints of a discipline. And yes, thinking in these ways is more strenuous than thinking within a discipline, and creates creative and imaginative solutions unencumbered by ‘disciplinary rules’. Perhaps the problem is in the definition or purpose of ‘science’ rather than the definition or purpose of ‘interdisciplinarity’. Even the trades are interdisciplinary, as these knowledges figure into how to put wind and solar energy in place, for example. This knowledge also needs to be valued.

          Hope this helps with defining interdisciplinarity and addressing its criticisms.

            • Dear Colleen,
              It seemed to me that you are at the stage of completing an article on the topic – science and interdisciplinarity. It’s good. You are trying to consider interdisciplinarity through the prism of science. In this case, I can offer you the same path that I suggested for Romain. It is necessary to use (offer or accept) one (generic) definition of science and list its many (specific) definitions.
              In our case, the generic definition of science can be as follows: Science is one of the areas of human intellectual activity aimed at developing and systematizing subjective opinions and objective knowledge about reality.
              The potential of intellectual activity determines the horizon of the scientific worldview of a particular person.
              The scientific worldview is formed in universities within the framework of scientific disciplines.
              The metaphor “horizon of the scientific worldview” is associated with a certain megaconstruction of neurons in the human brain. The student should not only hear the truisms. It is important that these truths form a special megaconstruction of neurons in the brain. Inter-disciplinarity, multi-disciplinarity and trans-disciplinarity are the “designation of the possibility” to reach new (discrete) horizons of the scientific worldview. Therefore, the university should create a full list of disciplinary, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary specialists. Once again, learning is the process of forming a megaconstruction of neuronal connections. To solve such a problem, interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity should be specialized scientific disciplines (mega- and meta-disciplines). Consequently, the statement: “interdisciplinarity is freedom from disciplinary rigor” is just an attractive metaphor, it is a way of avoiding increasing responsibility. Metaphors draw attention to the worldview. Disciplines form this worldview.
              If we look at the materials that you use for argumentation in our discussion through the prism of these statements, then several critical remarks appear. Therefore, I am pleased to accept your offer to become a co-author of the article and am ready to move in this direction.

          • Dear Vladimir Mokiy and Dear Colleen Knechtel

            Thank you very much for your exchange that I will try to catch up. I first answer to the comment of Vladimir Mokiy.
            By reading your two first definitions, it is difficult to distinguish a disciplinary from an interdisciplinarity (ID) expansion of scientific worldview. Without a clear distinction between ID and disciplinary interactions, the criticism about the uselessness of the concept of ID remains. Indeed, what distinguishes in these definitions the exchange between two biologists and between one biologist and a mathematician?
            You give this distinction when you define ‘’ID approach’’ in a minimal approach: “the expense of another scientific discipline”. I will agree with this kind of minimal definition, but in my opinion, it should be used for the description of interactions between disciplines (unless I did not understand what you mean by “approach”, and if it rather describes the behavior of individual scientists).
            However, it seems difficult to have for the same concept two different definitions, one as a general designation, another to describe more specific methods. Indeed, if ID is only a “general designation”, it lacks a clear and analytical content and stays as a vague designation (thus it becomes sensitive to the critics on section 2). I am not sure that because of its general scope, it can go beyond the status of a general way of speaking about science.

            This general way of speaking about ID seems to suit Colleen Knechtel, who insists on the importance of ID to keep a critical stance to her disciplinary activities and to be an occasion to tackle complex real problems. The first criticism that I try to clarify is specifically related to this conception that can be summarized as an “anything goes” position. Indeed, it seems problematic to use the same concept whether we are talking about a one-time but key insight from one discipline to another or about a conglomerate of disciplines such as the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

            Thank you again for keeping the discussion alive,


            • Dear Romain,
              I appreciate your reference to IPCC.

              Frodeman (2017) stated in scholarly literature that interdisciplinarity comes down from Plato as “the relation of the philosopher to the polis,” as he summed up interdisciplinarity in this way: “Interdisciplinarity constitutes an implicit philosophy of knowledge — not simply an epistemology, but a general reflection on whether and to what degree knowledge can help us achieve the perennial goal of living the good life. It is a contemporary expression of a very old question” (p. 8).

              The overriding question for interdisciplinarity today, Robert Frodeman (2017) wrote is its place in the political economy of knowledge (p. 55).

              ‘Interdisciplinary competence’, also referred to as “sustainable knowledge” (Frodeman, 2014; 2017) are mindsets and skillsets for specific collaborative project work.

              I do not think that a confining definition of interdisciplinarity serves its purpose. I believe instead that it is important to distinguish between interdisciplinary studies, interdisciplinary research, and what is now being referred to as ‘team science’. It seems that they are being conflated; conflation does not serve interdisciplinarity well. There is no specific method that entails interdisciplinary research.

              Interdisciplinary Research is • A decision‐making process – a deliberate choice – a movement, a motion • Heuristic – tool for finding out – process of searching rather than an emphasis on finding • Iterative – procedurally repetitive – messy, not linear – fluid • Reflexive – self‐conscious or aware of disciplinary or personal bias – what influences your work. In education, both students and teachers must take on the roles of learners and researchers to transition to an interdisciplinary approach to education.

              Here are some further resources that might help to advance this discussion:

              The Klein-Newell definition focuses on the process of integration of disciplinary insights that characterizes interdisciplinarity, describing it as a means to reach a more comprehensive insight into a complex problem (Klein & Newell, 1997).

              Klein, J. T., & Newell, W. H. (1997). Advancing interdisciplinary studies. In J. Gaff & J. Ratcliff (Eds.), Handbook of the undergraduate curriculum: A comprehensive guide to purposes, structures, practices and change (pp. 393- 415). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

              Interdisciplinary Studies

              Because interdisciplinary studies teaches students to draw upon and integrate different disciplinary insights in order to construct a “more comprehensive perspective” on a complex issue or problem (Klein & Newell, 1996, p. 394), interdisciplinary educators understand that the exposure to different insights helps students see all sides of a story including others’ perspectives (Newell, 1990). Interdisciplinary studies “promote dialogue and community, problem-posing and problem solving capacities, and an integrative habit of mind” (Klein & Newell, 1996, p. 407), including the integration of “the personal, the educational, and the professional” (Augsburg, 2006a, p. xii), thus helping students cultivate the “knowledge and skills required to succeed personally and professionally in the 21st century” (Everett, 2016, p. 28). In addition to supporting students’ development, interdisciplinary studies programming can benefit the institution as evaluative studies yield data showing how these programs promote “academic improvement, retention, development of general education skills, and high levels of student engagement” (Carmichael & LaPierre, 2014, p. 74). Further, emphasis on the value of interdisciplinary work can benefit both the institution and its students by helping clarify the logic and potential of diverse and perhaps seemingly unconnected general education courses (Carmichael et al., 2017) and helping those in such courses bridge the disciplines (de Greef et al., 2017). Noting the wide-ranging benefits of interdisciplinary learning and programming, it is unsurprising that institutions of higher education increasingly create, develop, and invest in interdisciplinary offerings (cited from Schaab, 2020, p. 58).


              Science of Team Science (SciTS)

              The emerging science of team science (SciTS) field encompasses both conceptual and methodological strategies aimed at understanding and enhancing the processes and outcomes of collaborative team science. The SciTS field focuses on understanding and enhancing the antecedent conditions, collaborative processes, and outcomes associated with team science initiatives, including their scientific discoveries, educational outcomes, and translations of research findings into new practices, patents, products, technical advances, and policies.


              • Dear Colleen,

                Thank you for continuing the discussion. Maybe interdisciplinary should be used in this multifarious meaning, more as an idea than an analytical concept (and as matter of fact, I use it myself in this way in many circumstances). Vague concepts can be useful, in particular, because of this quality, but this vagueness lets open the concept to many criticisms. How is it then possible to distinguish between a project that pretends to be interdisciplinary, while being only an occasion of discussion (e.g. a book with a common general subject and one chapter by distinct disciplines) and genuine interdisciplinarity? It is possible to discard the criticism in general discussion, but it remains when there are dubious interdisciplinary situations.
                The strategy that you propose seems to be a negative one: to keep ID its general philosophical stance while calling other situations by other names (SciTS). It is a possible option, but it contrasts with much common use of the concept in science.


                • Romain, my conception of interdisciplinarity is more holistic in nature and comes from the perspective of the educational context. My definition arises based on an inclusive teaching and learning context. For example, imagine a smoothie made in a blender with fruits, vegetables, and protein powder. Healthy outcome. Perhaps yougart is added, or raw eggs. Some people are vegetarian, and others are vegan. Different ingredients working together create different viable outcomes.

                  In the context of education, learning needs to be more about the development of skills to work with people in other disciplines with other points of view (the process) so that viable alternative solutions can be created to support innovation.

                  This would include the humanities, arts, and trades, for example. Adding cinnamon or nutmeg might change the outcome in positive ways. In science, the outcome tends to outweigh the process and a failed experiment is educational. In the educational context, one needs to be more about the process to keep learners engaged in learning together for collaborative work and potential outcomes. However, currently in education, measurement, assessment, and evaluation take priority over the learning and interaction process. When we are working holistically and inclusively, we need skills to do so. Interdisciplinarity is equally about process and outcomes.

                  I am hoping this makes sense.

            • Dear Romain
              We are directly related to philosophy. Therefore, it is easier for us to use images that can more accurately describe the essence of interdisciplinarity.
              For example, disciplinary specialists often use the term “intersection of disciplines.”. They say that interdisciplinary interactions occur at the intersection of disciplines. Therefore, the space of science is a patchwork quilt. In such a blanket, all the patches are glued with philosophy glue and securely sewn to each other with threads of mathematics. This image reflects the objective essence of disciplinary science. However, such an image excludes the direct interaction of disciplines.
              The subjective essence of disciplinary science reflects the “opportunity to interact” and “direct interaction” of specialists of different disciplines. Simply put, disciplines always remain within their borders, and disciplinary specialists interact, who have seen elements of their native discipline in the object of research of another discipline. For example, physicists have seen in a person (a biological object) an extensive network of pipelines. The main parameter of such a network is pressure. Physicists could only offer biologists a device for measuring the pressure of liquid in this network of pipelines. At the same time, physicists have not changed the biological picture of the world. Therefore, biologists have played the role of a leading discipline in such interaction between the two disciplines. It was they, not physicists, who interpreted the results of interdisciplinary interaction. The physicists were joined by chemists, psychologists, ecologists, cosmologists – representatives of complementary disciplines who saw the objects of their discipline in the object of biology.
              That is why I defined interdisciplinarity as the designation of the possibility of expanding the disciplinary (scientific) worldview. Interdisciplinary interactions as a designation of a set of integrating factors contributing to the discrete expansion of the horizon of the scientific worldview. Interdisciplinary approach as a direct method of practical application of the results of expanding the horizon of scientific worldview.
              Moreover, in your post you urged us: “Being more rigorous (or rigid) and firm in defining what interdisciplinarity really is would avoid many of the criticisms cited above.”
              But, you did not set out to explain the nature of interdisciplinarity. You set the task of how to strengthen the practical significance of your research work. I’ll be interested to know if this discussion was helpful.

  2. Thank you very much, Romain. I am curious about the foundations of your work. I agree with the way you classify the criticisms but I consider that we also need to take into consideration “who” and “from which standpoint” these criticisms are done. From my perspective, you focus on an epistemological analysis of criticism and we need to include other dimensions as well, for example the cultural one.
    If we agree on doing this, then some of your recommendations will be better justified.
    According to your study, is any of these criticisms more prominent than others? These nuances can also give us a clue on how to respond to criticism.
    Thank you very much!

    • Thank you for your comment. The main foundation of my work is the empirical survey about epistemic interactions between disciplines that I have done during my PhD (Sauzet 2017 ; in French…). It was not focused on criticisms, but this subject seems to me very important. Thus, you are completely right about my epistemological focus.

      The ‘who’ is indeed very important when one wants to face these criticisms. What I try here is a previous step. I have seen many academics arguing against interdisciplinarity by using a mix of the criticisms. To clarify them seems to be a good start to avoid to be overwhelmed!

      There is also many other criticisms, from cultural, emotional, or social grounds, even from specific disciplines (think about the global pretention that can sometimes have philosophy!). An empirical work dedicated to this issue could show maybe that particular disciplines or members in the academic world use most of the time specific criticisms. It would be very useful to anticipate these specific criticisms and to start working on answering them before any confrontation.

      About the most prominent criticisms: it is difficult to answer, because as you know, it depends on the ‘who’. The criticism in 2, about how activities are classed as interdisciplinary when in fact they are not, is maybe the one I heard the most. It associates interdisciplinarity as a trendy institutional concept, with no content. With academic researchers, the criticism about the difficulties to evaluate interdisciplinarity is well grounded (4).

      Best wishes


  3. I really appreciate this discussion and diverse responses. These challenges of interdisciplinary studies remind me of the objections that community-based research (CBR) faced initially at its inception, and to some extent, still experiences, although it has been recently gaining more traction over the last several decades. For interdisciplinarity, it might be helpful to focus on the principles of this work, some of which include: the synthesis of ideas and characteristics from many disciplines, addressing individual differences, supporting the development of transferable skills (Appleby, 2019), and leveraging collective creativity for innovation (Hill, 2014). Gardner (2000), a developmental psychologist who developed the theory of multiple intelligences, agreed that the best thinking often happens when ideas, fields, disciplines, and cultures mingle. Many argue for a study of science inclusive of liberal arts and humanities; however, innovation through artistry and craftsmanship is seldom included in this discourse. The inclusion of the technologies and trades would reflect a truer picture of interdisciplinarity, and value different mindsets and skillsets for innovation.

    Appleby, M. (2015). What Are the Benefits of Interdisciplinary Study? OpenLearn. The Open University.

    Gardner, H. (2000). The disciplined mind: Beyond facts and standardized tests, the K–12 education that every child deserves. New York: Penguin
    Hill, L. (2014). How to manage for collective creativity. [Video].

  4. Thanks very much Romain for the assembling these criticisms of interdisciplinary research. It is important for us to reflect upon these, and to critically assess which have merit and which who do not. Just as importantly we need to be able to dispense with any tropes which are advanced to ensure disciplinary status quo!

    I was interested in your comment that “interdisciplinarity prioritizes a particular hierarchy of interactions” with transdisciplinarity rated most highly and with multidisciplinary coming last. I think that this is a trap we fall into; perhaps the best way to overcome this is to ask what is the most appropriate level at which to address at research problem? Using this as a yardstick would be mean the multidisciplinary research may be the perfectly adequate and appropriate for answering some research questions, but we may need inter- or transdisciplinary for other questions.

    Best wishes,


    • Thank you Paul. I fully agree with your comment on the hierarchical tendency and how to avoid it. During empirical surveys on interdisciplinarity, I have seen many researchers losing themselves in descriptive terms. Sometimes, they were discrediting their own work on a specific project, by thinking that they could have done something more intense in term of interactions between disciplines. It is an important problem that interdisciplinarity has to take care, because according to the project’s objectives, the level of interaction was perfectly fine and they produce very interesting science!

      Rather than using the triumvirat multi-, inter-, trans-, I think that both interdisciplinary analysis and interdisciplinary research will do better by clarifying the hierarchy between disciplines, their organization, their link with action, and so on. But it is difficult to go beyond concepts that are well anchored in the academic world, while being wrongly used.

      Thank you again for your comment!

    • Thanks very much Romain for your reply. I think that there would be some value in a type of simple “screening” for researchers from different disciplines that would assist them in establishing whether they need a disciplinary, multi-, inter-, or trans-disciplinary approach to answer the research question. Best wishes, Paul

  5. Thanks again Romain; I would say that the three year research project and the shorter course would share the goal of integrating insights from different disciplines in order to address some complex problem(s) or question(s). There are a set of strategies that have proven useful for doing so in many different contexts.

    We need to be aware of both similarities and differences in interdisciplinary practice.

    Thanks again, Rick

  6. Thanks for building on my concerns Romain.

    This is a handy list of criticisms. I am not sure, though, which criticisms you agree with. Only some of the criticisms you list merit a response.

    I am not sure how your three recommendations follow from your list of criticisms. I wholeheartedly agree with your third recommendation.

    I would disagree with your second recommendation. If we accept that there are a set of common challenges faced in interdisciplinary research, then it makes sense to seek strategies that may be useful in many different settings.

    I am not sure quite what your first recommendation means. I tend to favor a problem-oriented interdisciplinarity where interdisciplinary analysis addresses a problem or question that can be usefully studied by many disciplines. Interdisciplinarity is not pursued for its own sake but to better answer particular questions.

    Thanks again, Rick

    • Thank you very much Rick for your comment.

      Interdisciplinary has to face many kinds of criticisms, and it is often discredited entirely because the combination of these criticisms becomes an overwhelming avalanche. First, it is important to organize them, and secondly to estimate them (i.e. to consider that some of them are inevitable, while other are not justified and must be fought). I keep for a closer work which arguments must be accepted and which of them must be responded, but I would consider roughly speaking that 2 & 4 should be accepted as inevitable while 1 ; 3 and 5 should be used as opportunities to precise what is interdisciplinarity.

      The final three recommendations have the objective to step aside of these criticisms and to justify the whole idea of this blog contribution: why should we be interested in the criticisms? The third one, about how interdisciplinarity should be more self-critical and less tolerant, is the key recommendation and I appreciate your agreement about it.

      About your disagreement about the second recommendation: my central issue is that it is rather impossible to give a simple and definitive definition of interdisciplinarity. A punctual research project of three years and an educational course of one year do not have the same goal, the same organization, the same objectives and so on. However, the very word interdisciplinarity remains important, and as you said, there is common challenges about it. But every answer to these challenges is dependent of specific situations. In other words, there is common checkpoints (e.g. level of interactions between disciplines; hierarchical organization between them; links with practical actions) and each interdisciplinary situation should be able to situate itself on them.

      About the first one: it is a common criticism against interdisciplinarity to consider it as a purely institutional creation or a promising way of doing science that eventually became a discipline, with all its flaws. To discuss about interdisciplinarity (as we are currently doing, my mistake!) leads sometimes to something isolated of its main purpose (i.e. to do a better science). Thus, my defense of a ‘’secondary objective” has for main goal to avoid that the interdisciplinarity practice lost itself on the road and become something on its own.



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