The “ABC’s” of interdisciplinarity

By Stephen M. Fiore

Stephen M. Fiore (biography)

What are the attitudinal, behavioral, and cognitive issues that influence interdisciplinary collaborations?

The illustrations I provide here are based upon 20 years of experience working in research environments with scholars ranging from philosophers, anthropologists, and sociologists, to historians, economists, and ecologists, to psychologists, computer scientists, and neuroscientists. This experience has helped to illuminate what creates challenges during interdisciplinary interactions and what also can contribute to effective collaborations and help scholars learn from each other.

Attitudinal issues

Often times interaction is stifled when collaborators maintain some form of disciplinary disdain. The characteristics of disciplinary disdain include lack of respect or a form of contempt for another disciplinary approach, or condescension toward another discipline. An example is the view basic researchers sometimes show for applied research.

A related attitudinal problem is that of disciplinary arrogance. This is characterized by an overbearing pride in one’s own discipline and/or a belief that one’s own method/theory/approach is superior to others. Disciplinary arrogance can characterize the view those in physical sciences sometimes have for the social sciences.

A positive characteristic is disciplinary tolerance. This is an openness to, or acceptance of, ideas and inputs from those in other disciplines. Disciplinary tolerance is often manifest in research cultures that have a long history with, or some prior experience in, the benefits of interdisciplinarity (eg., research centers).

Behavioral issues

Potential interdisciplinary collaborations may not even be considered due to what can be referred to as disciplinary apprehension. This is characterized as a fear of negative consequences resulting from one’s treading into a new domain or discipline or from adopting a concept from another discipline. Disciplinary apprehension can characterize the consequence of negative reinforcement tenure-review committees may sometimes give young faculty for trying to work outside their field.

A more subtle behavioral issue is that of disciplinary ignorance. This describes a lack of willingness on the part of a researcher to improve one’s understanding of some problem he/she is trying to understand by considering or assimilating knowledge from another discipline. As an example, disciplinary ignorance can characterize a rigid experimentalist who will not pursue the adoption of potentially useful or relevant methods from field research.

A positive behavioral concept is that of disciplinary benevolence. This can be used to characterize when one within a discipline shows some form of charity or kindness towards those naïve about their discipline so as to encourage pursuit of potentially innovative ideas.

Cognitive issues

Sometimes discipline-bound researchers suffer from disciplinary myopia. This occurs when a scholar is unable to see distant disciplines as clearly as near disciplines, hence the relevance of the other discipline is not apparent, and not even in view. This can manifest itself when, for example, scientists believe something is “not possible” because they cannot even imagine what might be feasible if alternative approaches were brought to bear on a given problem.

A common problem is disciplinary multilingualism. This arises when differing disciplines use the same term to describe different concepts or use a different term to describe similar concepts. This may arise when a discipline appropriates a term from another discipline – creating a form of negative common ground (ie., the misperception that they are discussing something similar). Or it can occur when the varied epistemological approaches arising in differing disciplines lead them to label the same phenomenon differently.

On the more positive side is what can be called disciplinary naivety. This describes one who is unhampered by knowledge of, or experience in, a given domain which can result in an “out of the mouths of babes” phenomenon where fresh and productive insights emerge. In this sense, one is not “held back” or fixated on a particular way of thinking about a problem and is free to offer innovative solutions those within a discipline may never have considered.

Concluding thoughts

What has your experience been of the nature of the interactions required for interdisciplinary research? What have you found to be important supports, or problematic impediments, when coordinating research across disciplines and learning from each other while collaborating? What interdisciplinary attitudes, behaviors, or cognitive processes have you found to be relevant to learning on your own cross-disciplinary teams?

To find out more:

Fiore, S. M. (2012). President’s Essay: The “ABC’s” of Interdisciplinarity: Understanding the Attitudinal, Behavioral, and Cognitive Factors Involved in Interdisciplinary Research. INGRoup Newsletter, October, 2, 3: 1, 4-6.

Biography: Stephen M. Fiore PhD is Director, Cognitive Sciences Laboratory, and Professor with the Cognitive Sciences Program in the Department of Philosophy and Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, USA. He is President-elect, International Network for the Science of Team Science (INSciTS), and a founding member of the Inter- and Trans-disciplinarity Alliance (ITD Alliance), as well as Past-President of the Interdisciplinary Network for Group Research. He maintains a multidisciplinary research interest that incorporates aspects of the cognitive, social, organizational, and computational sciences in the investigation of learning and performance in individuals and teams.

9 thoughts on “The “ABC’s” of interdisciplinarity”

  1. Steve, my two cents having dealt my over 50 years in industry and science is that it is very much about the leader and his/her ability to pull together the interdisciplinary team based on vision. Without a capable leader, there is not real interdisciplinary success. On a personal note, I want to thank you for your excellent effort in editing Cognitive Technology (r) for the last half of its 19 years of publication! You demonstrated your interdisciplinary chops in magnificient form. Thank you! Bob Rager, Publisher

  2. Thank you for this blog post, Stephen. I also read the comments and your replies, very good discussions. Firstly, I appreciate that you analyse the interdisciplinarity at individual level from attitudinal, behavioural and cognitive aspects. I am familiar with all the issues you described and didn’t manage to articulate them well. I would like to adopt the “ABCs” approach to justify why certain strategy and activities are proposed to foster interdisciplinarity when designing an interdisciplinary research project/programme,

    I am wondering whether another aspect could be added to the attitudinal domain, and it’s about one’s belief of and one’s perception of others’ view on the value of interdisciplinarity. It’s related to disciplinary apprehension which you mentioned in behaviour issues. I think the orientation of the academia tenure and promotion schemes influence people’s attitude towards interdisciplinary research as well as behaviour. Does it make sense?

    Thanks again for this nicely articulated blog post on interdisciplinarity at the individual level.

    • Hi Yang – I’m glad you found the blog informative. First, there are certainly many more attitudinal, behavioral, and cognitive issues. I wrote this more to illustrate a representative cross-section. So it is by no means exhaustive. Second, I like your idea relating these to varied strategies meant to foster interdisciplinary projects (e.g., some form of training aimed more at addressing cognitive factors like disciplinary multilingualism). Third, to your point about beliefs/perceptions on the value of interdisciplinary research, that definitely fits within the space of norms in a university or department about accepting (or not) interdisciplinary research. And you can think about it at the individual, group, and institutional level. At the individual level, there may be particular faculty ‘in’ a department who are not as accepting of junior faculty pursuing something outside the home department’s discipline. At the group level, that could be in a research lab or at a department level, as described. But, at the institutional level, there might also be cultural considerations at play in that some universities are less encouraging about the pursuit of interdisciplinary research.

  3. Thank you for the very helpful articulation in your post. I offer this white paper on collaboration between artists and those from other disciplines from the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru): It’s a high-level summary of findings from a cycle of interviews with faculty, upper-level administration, and staff working in various capacities to integrate the arts into research and teaching at 38 large research universities and, almost point for point, the same ABC’s arise. (FYI: the white paper also summarizes insights into challenges and solutions associated with collaboration at the institutional level.)
    (i2Insights team: Comment modified 29 March 2023 to update link to white paper.)

    • Thank you, Veronica – that looks like an interesting white paper. You should try to publish it somewhere as it is not often that we get a rich set of responses like what you report. And I think that your “part two” interpretation would be publishable as it provides an important interpretation that helps stakeholders, and also helps set up future research and/or interventions.

  4. Thanks Stephen – a really insightful summary. I find pretty much all of the As, Bs and Cs coming to the fore in translational research settings with scientists and decision-makers. As I’m sure you know, just naming the negative ones and drawing out the positive ones goes a long way to unlocking the power of interdisciplinary work. Most of the grand challenges and/or wicked problems decision-makers face require multi-sector, multi-stakeholder and interlinked system responses that are underpinned by good, clear interdisciplinary work. I find naming the ABCs (now that I have your much clearer articulation of them!) and working under a principle of fostering mutual learning as useful ways to make operational the interdisciplinary work needed. Thanks again.

    • Thanks Anthony – I’m glad you found it useful. It does help to have names for these experiences as one can better (more clearly) define any problem and use that to then find a way forward. By addressing the negative, and augmenting or fostering the positive, an interdisciplinary team is in a better position to learn from each other and reach whatever are their research goals.

  5. Thank you, Steve, for your blog. Your “ABC’s” capture attitudinal, behavioral, and cognitive challenges to interdisciplinary collaboration. The Attitudinal rightly acknowledges disdain and arrogance. To counter, you advocate tolerance in the form of openness. The Behavioral does indeed reflect fear and ignorance. However, what structures and strategies might counter them to foster benevolence you apparently advocate? As for the Cognitive, myopia is a good word for blinders including linguistic differences that impede construction of common ground. Getting past them, though, is not only an epistemological challenge. It is a socio-political one as well. So, yes, naivety is an obstacle but so is willful refusal to recognize a large body of knowledge and wisdom of practice, not just an amorphous desire to change business-as-usual. How, then, do you think ignorance and even willful failure to heed established literatures and communities of practice can be met? Julie T Klein

    • Thanks Julie – you make a number of important points.

      First, keep in mind that this kind of essay is meant to scope out a problem space rather than recommend solutions. That is, this was meant to help define problems before moving towards solutions.

      With that said, disciplinary benevolence might be a trait, and thus difficult to ‘train’. Or it could be learned by experience, for example, through positive experiences with other interdisciplinary collaborations.

      With regard to disciplinary naïvety, keep in mind that that can be a positive in the initial phase of thinking about a problem. Essentially, those who have not read an established literature can see some problem with a fresh perspective and not be inhibited by, for example, accepted dogma. That is separate from willful refusal to engage with an established body of knowledge. In the first instance, one is unaware of an established body, but, in the second instance, they know about it, but choose to ignore it. We’ve all had experiences with this.

      From the positive side, it’s not uncommon to have students come up with insightful ideas about some problem area when they are not aware of work by other disciplines (e.g., I often see this in my interdisciplinary Cognitive Science seminars). Before I point them towards the relevant literature, I make sure that they make concrete their initial ideas. This way, they are able to remember their unique insights before they start reading any large body of established literature. If insightful students first dive into a literature before making their initial ideas concrete, those ideas could be lost in the maelstrom of new knowledge. By separating these, the student may be able to make a unique contribution by integrating their unique insights with existing knowledge, if appropriate, or, they can provide true insights that are new for a field.

      Of course, that is all separate from what you describe as “willful failure to heed established literatures.” As you are well aware, that is a multi-layered problem – starting with the individual and their desire (or lack of) to overcome their ignorance – but also the group or the discipline level where they may punish, and not reward, opening the disciplinary boundaries.

      That brings up departmental and institutional norms or cultures, which, I think, would need to create a context supportive of this kind of broad mindedness. At UCF (University of Central Florida), we’ve done this with creation of our Faculty Cluster Initiative ( In these clusters, faculty are encouraged, and expected, to openly seek out and share knowledge from their areas of scholarship to ensure members have more perspective on the various disciplines addressing these kinds of complex problems. In brief, a multi-faceted problem requires multi-faceted solutions – addressing the needs of the individual and the needs of the institution, and any points in between.


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