The meanings, definitions, approaches, and concepts of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity studies.


The meanings, definitions, approaches, and concepts of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity studies.

The following is a non-exhaustive review of some of the commonly used concepts used to discuss Interdisciplinarity.

Analytical Intelligence: 

The ability to break a problem down into its component parts, solve problems, and evaluate the quality of ideas.

Appreciation for Diversity:

Welcoming and embracing the exchange of diverse world views or perspective on an issue, phenomenon or problem. 

Common Ground: 

That which is created between conflicting disciplinary insight, assumptions , concepts, or theories and makes integration possible.


Having multiple parts that are connected and interact in sometimes unexpected, non-linear ways with each other. 


The circumstances or setting in which the problem, event, statement or idea exists.

Contextual Thinking: 

The ability to view a subject from a broad perspective by placing it in the fabric of time, culture, or personal experience.

Creative Intelligence: 

The ability to formulate ideas and make connections.

Critical reflection: 

The process of analyzing, questioning, and reconsidering the activity (cognitive or physical) that you are engaged.

Critical thinking: 

The capacity to analyze, critique and assess.


The process of breaking a problem, issue or idea into its component parts.


A branch of learning or body of knowledge such as sociology, economics, anthropology, etc.


The system of knowledge specialties called disciplines.

Disciplinary assumption: 

The “truth” or “facts” that lie at the foundation of disciplinary epistemology.  Disciplinary assumptions can be the rule by which research and the evaluation of phenomena are governed.  For example, the law of supply and demand is a disciplinary assumption of economics. 

Disciplinary bias: 

Favoring one discipline’s understanding of the problem at the expense of competing understandings of the same problem offered by other disciplines.  

Disciplinary perspective: 

A discipline’s unique view of reality that is like a lens through which it views the world.  A discipline’s perspective embraces, and in turn reflects, the ensemble of its defining elements that include the phenomena it prefers to study, its epistemology, assumptions, concepts, and favored theories and methods. 

Disciplinary reductionism: 

Reduces complex issues or ideas to a narrow form within the discipline’s understanding, perspective and support.


The study of the nature and bias of knowledge. 

Epistemic position: 

One’s uderstanding of the nature of knowledge and truth.   

Epistemic community: 

A group of shared epistemic approaches to the systems of academic research and interpretation of data.  Epistemic communities support and promote common goals for studying and interpreting issues, phenomena and problems.  An example of an epistemic community is an academic organization such as The American Political Science Association.  However, epistemic communities are also non-academic. 


Having the continued position that you must remain realistic as to your own centrality to issues, phenomenon or problems.  The realization that your own point of view is not necessarily the only point of view or the right point of view. 


The cognitive process of critically evaluating disciplinary insights and creating comon ground among them to construct a more comprehensive understanding. 

Intellectual dexterity: 

The ability to speak to (if not from) a broad spectrum of knowedge and experience. 


The awareness of your own learning and thinking process, often decribed as “thinking about your thinking.” 

Personal Bias: 

Allowing your own point of view (ie, your politics, faith tradition, cultural identity) to influence how you understand or approach a problem. 

Perspective Taking: 

The intllectual capacity to view a complex problem, phenomenon, or bahavior from multiple perspectives, including disciplinary ones, in order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of it. 

Tolerance for Ambiguity: 

Remaining open to various interpretations of a problem, issue or phenomenon and allowing all interpretations to have value.  An ability to remain open to new and various conclusions or no conclusion at all. 

Repko, et al.  (2017) Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies, 2nd edition.

The simplest words and phrases can be misunderstood if we don’t understand the vocabulary AND its context.  And so, the definition of the concept of interdisciplinarity is also something that needs to be defined for the purposes of our course.  There are several ways to understand what Interdisciplinary is or what its outcomes are.  In your research you will need to identify and use various forms of disciplinarity.  So to identify various forms of disciplinarity and differentiate various forms, I will define disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.


A discipline is “a branch of learning or body of knowledge”  Branches of knowledge are studied in departments.  Disciplines are clearly named – economics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc.

Disciplinarity, is the specialization of the discipline as a system of knowledge focusing on narrow areas that apply to the discipline.  For example, in a complex problem like poverty, economics might focus on issues related to market behavior, income or employment issues.  These are specialized and important disciplinary areas of study that fall inside the special disciplinary expertise of economists.


Multidisciplinarity is the side by side comparison of 2 or more disciplinary perspectives.  It is a process of comparing or explaining different disciplinary approaches to understanding problems and issues.  For a complex issues like poverty, a multidisciplinary approach would include an understanding of the perspective of economists while also considering the value of another perspective from, lets say, sociology.  The two perspectives are valued but not integrated.  For example, an economics perspective on poverty will take notice of market behavior, employment and wages.  A sociologist might look at the social structures that exclude groups of society from opportunities to participate in the economy equitably.  The sociologist might also look at the equality of the distribution of socially supported benefits that prepare everyone to participate in the economy equitably.  In a multidisciplinary exercise, these two perspectives would be explored and compared as two possible explanations for poverty.


Interdisciplinarity, by definition,  is a cognitive process through which 2 or more disciplinary perspectives are integrated to form a more holistic understanding.  In order to do this, disciplinary bases, assumptions and insights must be known at an appropriate depth for understanding.  For example, an interdisciplinary approach to poverty would include a deeper understanding of the basis of economic research and perspectives.  It includes understanding the basis of the research and perspectives of sociology.  It then includes finding common bases and objectives from which economics and sociology can build an integrated understanding of poverty.  An interdisciplinary exercise would include communicating about the assumptions and epistemological bases that are used to research poverty from economic and sociological perspectives.

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They might critique the assumptions about what causes poverty by collaborating in research that explores the assumptions about poverty like –  Do market forces impact various social groups the same?  What is the impact of historic discrimination of economic policy?  Do qualitative forms of research support quantitative findings?  Can qualitative stories explain quantitative data?  By integrating their approaches to researching poverty they are sharing their disciplinary assumptions, insights and methodological practices.  Through integration they are building a broader understanding of the problem of poverty.  This approach is thought of as Instrumental Interdisciplinarity.  According to Repko, “The instrumentalist approach embraces the full diversity of authors and perspectives rather than rejecting their legitimacy…”  Throughout this semester, we will work as instrumental interdisciplinarians.

Interdisciplinarity may be defined slightly differently in other programs.  For us, it is an activity of understanding and merging perspectives.  We will focus on how ideas are constructed through  academic disciplinary learning AND the way worldview and experience influences the interpretation of social problems and issues.  This construction is impacted by researchers, social groups and individuals. The knowledge generated by academic research cannot be separated from the researchers.   Afterall, researchers are people.  Our task as interdisciplinarians is to understand the basis of knowledge as one that has been prepared through disciplinary reductionism by individuals and interpreted by disciplines and individuals.  Our responsibility is to integrate ways of knowing to create a holistic understanding of social issues and problems.

Critical Interdisciplinarity

According to Repko, Critical interdisciplinary “questions disciplinary assumptions and the ideological underpinnings”.  This type of interdisciplinarity questions the structure of the research and knowledge.  Critical Interdisciplinarians question the epistemic basis of disciplines.  They may question the methods of inquiry or the disciplinary assumptions that underlie disciplinary research.  For Critical Interdisciplinarians, integration is not appropriate without questioning the foundations of the research first. 

Following the example of a complex social problem like poverty, the critical interdisciplinarian will question the foundations of how we define and evaluate poverty within the disciplines before attempting to integrate disciplinary perspectives.  For example, questions would be asked about how we define poverty.  Is poverty defined and measured in terms of income?  If so, how do we decide what type of income are used in the measurement.  Should poverty be described as a lack of resources?  If so what resources are measured and how are they measured?  These questions are meant to understand and critique the imperialist nature of knowledge.   Most critical forms of interdisciplinarity will question cultural inclusion in research. 

Critical Interdisciplinarians question the foundations and the nature of knowledge itself because of the lack of inclusive and holistic practices in knowledge foundations. They “reject the belief that research can be apolitical, objective and value neutral” and, therefor, work toward the transformation of disciplinary knowledge to reflect more inclusive realities.  “Rather than building bridges between disciplines for practical problem-solving purposes… critical interdisciplinarians seek to dismantle boundaries of all kinds and challenge existing power structures, demanding that interdisciplinarity respond to the needs and problems of oppressed and marginalized groups”.  (Kann, 1979, pp. 187-188 quoted by Repko, 2017).

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Transcisciplinarity involves integrating academic and non-academic sources of knowledge.  It seeks participatory research and problem solving processes that combine disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and practical knowledge from stakeholders and other interested or affected non-academic groups.  The transdisciplinary approach to a complex problem like poverty is to involve multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary practices as explained above but also, they will add the experiences and practices of stakeholders and professionals. 

Trandisciplinarity is a truly collaborative and innovative way to explore issues and problems.  A transdisciplinary team of researchers would work along with those who experience poverty to explore the problem in its context.  One research methodology that exemplifies transdisciplinarity under this definition is Participatory Action Research (PAR).  PAR is a form of research for problem solving using academics, professionals and stakeholders in collaboration as team members.  A good example of what PAR is like can be found in the article, “We did it together”.  When reading this article, make note of the method of research, who is included, and the impact of the different perspectives on understanding, addressing and solving problems. 

Other definitions and practices of transdisciplinarity exist.  However, this definition and example should be held as our working definition of transdisciplinarity in this class

Social problem

impact of policy, social practice, historical impacts or social norms that exclude or cause harm to social groups or social systems.

Overview of Wicked Problems

The social sciences are consistently consumed with issues of health care reform, environmental degradation, economic distribution and other “Wicked Problems”.  We face problems that have risen from unexpected circumstances.  We face conflict over how to interpret situations that might cause hardships for some but benefits for others.

Wicked Problems are social problems with various inputs, perspectives and varied consequences and opportunities based on variable actions or inaction.  They have been thought to be unsolvable because changing conditions surrounding these problems impact our ability to pinpoint effective solutions.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon and public health researcher, explains Wicked Problems this way-

“In 1973, two social scientists, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, defined a class of problems they called “wicked problems.” Wicked problems are messy, ill-defined, more complex than we fully grasp, and open to multiple interpretations based on one’s point of view. They are problems such as poverty, obesity, where to put a new highway—or how to make sure that people have adequate health care.

They are the opposite of “tame problems,” which can be crisply defined, completely understood, and fixed through technical solutions. Tame problems are not necessarily simple—they include putting a man on the moon or devising a cure for diabetes. They are, however, solvable. Solutions to tame problems either work or they don’t.

Solutions to wicked problems, by contrast, are only better or worse. Trade-offs are unavoidable. Unanticipated complications and benefits are both common. And opportunities to learn by trial and error are limited. You can’t try a new highway over here and over there; you put it where you put it. But new issues will arise. Adjustments will be required. No solution to a wicked problem is ever permanent or wholly satisfying, which leaves every solution open to easy polemical attack.”  (The New Yorker, June 28, 2012).

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This is the nature of human society.  As social scientists we understand the messiness of human coexistence.  The trick is to minimize the wickedness.  While few social problems are wholly solvable, as social scientists we are preparing ourselves to understand society in order to construct paths to better, not worse, situations.

Subjectivity in our perspective as individuals, as political parties and as disciplined learners is inevitable.  Our society faces subjective understandings of problems that impact people in different ways.  The way we view and understand problems will determine the way we find solutions to problems.  In the social sciences, we learn ways to understand society and social problems through disciplinary lenses. The disciplines address specific areas of complexity while at the same time forge divisions in perspective.

The role of interdisciplinary studies is to find a convergence of perspectives that help to minimize the conflict and produce a well balanced interpretation of problems.


Have you ever really thought about how you know what you know?  Think for a moment about the “truths” in life.  What do you know and how do you know it?

Epistemology is the traceable foundation of how we know what we know.  For example, you might consider something simple like how you know that fire is hot.  Did someone tell you that it’s hot?  Or did you touch it yourself?  An accounting of how you know is your epistemological basis for knowing that fire is hot.

Of course, the way we think about epistemology in higher education is much more complicated.  We have to think about how we build knowledge in order to know that what we know is really “true”.  Epistemology is a very serious thing.  Disciplines are built on a shared understanding of how knowledge is created, understood and verified.  Disciplines also share philosophical bases that guide the way they see the world.  The process of building upon knowledge is part of how we understand more and more about any given subject. But the shared philosophies and values of groups, like epistemic communities of scholars, shape knowledge.  This is how disciplines build knowledge differently.

There are different types of epistemologies.  The academic understanding of epistemology branches into social, moral, and disciplinary epistemology as a few ways to study what shapes knowledge.

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Social epistemology is another way to understand the social bases for how we see the world.  Many would argue that social epistemologies also shape knowledge as well as other things, like policy.  People are part of a social world.  We are all shaped by our experiences and our experiences are informed by interactions within our social groups or interactions with other social groups.

Moral epistemology is our learned social values and morality.  Upon this epistemology, we build social practices, identify with political groups, create laws, policies and form our educational values.

Most of us don’t give much thought to how we know what we know.  In this class you will be challenged to understand your social epistemology and to see epistemological bases (disciplinary and social) in the knowledge we use in the Social Sciences.

Its important to understand the basis from which world views are made.  The integration of ideas, even in the form of academic disciplines, is dependent on the deconstruction of knowledge and the ideas that informed that knowledge.  It is the foundation on which we can find integrative and sustainable solutions. Think of this simple example:

What do you see here?  We often bring up dandelions as an example of how worldviews can see things differently.  If you see a flower you will respond to this dandelion differently from someone who sees it as a weed.  If you see it as a flower you may marvel at its color and smile at the wonders of nature and its beautiful gifts.  If you see it as a weed you may get out the herbicide or the weed wacker.  Good bye dandelion!  Our values will dictate our actions and in our own world view, the action we take is justified.

Overview of Disciplinary Philosophy and Assumptions

Knowledge and the production of knowledge are guided by epistemological bases.  We know that disciplinary knowledge is built upon knowledge of the past.  As critical interdisciplinarians, we need to think of knowledge as having a foundation as well as a structure and sometimes upgrades.  Almost like a house, knowledge takes shape with solid additions to the foundation.  Yet the foundation can be built of many different things.  The base of the house could be made of stone or cement, clay or even dirt.  As suggested by Laera (2017) “knowledge is like a building; it has a structure composed of many parts, each supported by another and all sustained by a common base that acts as a foundation.”  But philosophical differences can act as different bases or foundations.  In that case, the structure of the knowledge can take on different assumptions about how to interpret and understand phenomena.

Think of the disciplines as having different foundations.  They build knowledge up on their philosophical foundations.  Building this knowledge can take on different methodologies and assumptions about phenomena. Deconstructing these structures is critical in understanding how each discipline interprets the same phenomena from different angles.  We will be studying disciplinary assumptions and how these assumptions can shape the way knowledge is built.

First we should define what the terms Assumptions and Methods mean for our purposes:

Disciplinary Assumptions are based in philosophical foundations and theory.  Assumptions are the “given” basis upon which methods of inquiry are based.  Assumptions can be thought of as laws of nature at the basis of scientific research.  Once you know that heat rises and cool air sinks, it acts as a “given” in further experiments.  In other words, it is a fact upon which further questions emerge.

In the social sciences a common example of an assumption is in Economics.  A common law of economics is that of supply, demand and equilibrium.  The “given” fact is that price is regulated by the supply of a commodity or product and the demand of consumers to buy that commodity or product. Equilibrium is met when the supply and the desire for that supply are equal.   (The theory is extremely simplified here.)  Because economists know that this relationship between supply an demand is a “fact”, they base additional questions and theories upon it.  For example, elasticity.

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Methods are the procedures of inquiry.  Methods are important because the procedure of inquiry determines and shapes the interpretation of data.  For example, quantitative methods (counting things, basically) is a common approach to understanding social phenomena.  You might have participated in quantitative studies if you have ever filled in a multiple choice survey.  All of the answers are quantified and coded into numeric data.  The benefit of quantitative methods is that many, many responses can be coded and counted.  Quantitative research methods can capture responses from hundreds or thousands of participants.  At the same time, this method of inquiry must make generalizations about what your responses mean.  Imagine taking part in a survey where a question is asked about your religious affiliation.  It provides several options for your response.

What is your religious affiliation?

a.  Protestant

b. Catholic

c. Jewish

d. Other

Obviously the researcher wants to know how many of the research subjects are affiliated with the first 3 responses.  It doesn’t seem to be clear if other religious affiliations matter.  In any event, the results may miss something very important about the distribution of religious affiliations unless the survey is only given to a specific type of population that only associates itself with the 3 first options.

Because of this type of limitation, other methods of inquiry might be used.  It could be better to just ask the question as a fill in the blank format.  But then it would be very hard to ask the question of a lot of people.

There are many methods of inquiry. The choice of methods can reflect the philosophical foundations and disciplinary assumptions of the researcher.  Even more importantly, the theoretical construction may depend on the interpretation of data.  Martinez-Avila, Sernidao and Ferreira (2016) studied the relationship between methodology and epistemological stances.  They found a correlation between epistemological stances and research methods “suggesting that there might be some methodological choices and even dynamics that are more common in certain epistemological stances.”  This means that the epistemological bases that guide disciplinary research can guide methodological decisions.

An understanding of the structure of theory, the assumptions that underlie theory and methods of inquiry that promote and support new theoretical constructs can help you to understand how the disciplinary silos maintain their separate ways of knowing.  Even further, we may get a glimpse into the relationship between epistemology, expert knowledge, policy and social development.  But that will come later.

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