Why defining inter- and trans- disciplinarity is hard… why it matters… and what to do about it

The terms inter- and trans- disciplinarity were proposed in 1970 to categorise a burgeoning set of activities involving disciplinary interactions. These terms are used interchangeably and inconsistently, with clear definitions remaining elusive. In figuring out how to move forward, it’s worth getting a feel for the range of research practices these terms encompass.

There are, for example, multiple ways in which two disciplines can be combined, such as bringing the principles of physics into biology, looking for commonalities between evolutionary biology and the evolution of languages, and combining psychology and economics into the new discipline of behavioural economics.

There are also problem-based approaches, which may use multiple disciplinary lenses or develop new cross-disciplinary frameworks. With increasing demands for research to be relevant, the range of interactions has expanded to include different ways of engaging decision makers, as well as those affected by the problem under consideration, with both groups often referred to as stakeholders.

A formal examination of terms and the practices with which they are associated was published in 2017 by Julie Thompson Klein who charted typologies of how inter- and trans- disciplinarity are used. She described four major trendlines for transdisciplinarity.

  1. “a contemporary version of the epistemological quest for systematic integration of knowledge” which has a long history. Often labelled the French school of transdisciplinarity, this requires “critical, philosophical and supra-scientific reflection” and is “informed by the worldview of complexity in science.”
  • the idea of “synthetic paradigms” that “transcend the narrow scope of disciplinary worldviews. Leading examples include general systems, structuralism, poststructuralism, Marxism, phenomenology, feminist theory, and sustainability.”
  • a link to “antidisciplinarity,” which rejects “disciplinarity in whole or in part, while raising questions of sociopolitical justice.”
  • a focus on problem solving, where “[t]he core premise is that problems in the Lebenswelt – the lifeworld – need to frame research questions and practices, not disciplines.” Often labelled the Swiss and German school of transdisciplinarity, “[c]o-production of knowledge with stakeholders in society is a cornerstone … realized through mutual learning and a recursive approach to integration.”

Competing typologies for interdisciplinarity are even more numerous. And Klein recognised that new forms of disciplinary interactions continue to evolve into prominence, such as “convergence” which is promoted by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and which focuses on basic research that “also leads to new inventions, treatment protocols, and forms of education and training while fostering partnerships among academic researchers and stakeholders in private and public sectors.”

The multiplicity of practices covered by just two terms – interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity – highlights why definitions are so hard. Any definition will favour some practices and exclude others and is therefore inherently political.

And yet, grappling with definitions is critical for communication, as well as organising what we know in order to facilitate teaching, funding and recognition. The following snapshots illustrate ways forward.

Teaching: In introducing university-wide educational programs on transdisciplinarity, both University of Technology Sydney and The Australian National University have favoured frameworks highlighting requisite skills rather than definitions. In both cases, the frameworks aim to allow a wide range of disciplinary and stakeholder interactions to be encompassed.

Funding: Leading funders have focused on one particular model, for instance, convergence by the US NSF, and the Swiss and German school of transdisciplinarity by funders in those countries. That choice has been coupled with attention to review processes. For example, some German programs have separate subject matter reviewers and transdisciplinary process reviewers, with success requiring a high score from both. The NSF and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) also devote considerable resources to upskilling successful grantees, with the NSF focusing on teamwork and the SNSF recently appointing a “Head of Transdisciplinarity” in one of its programs to train successful awardees.

Recognition: Library cataloguing systems do not encompass inter- and trans- disciplinarity and you also won’t find those terms in the Field of Research (FOR) codes. To be effective, both have to encompass the full complexity of inter- and trans- disciplinarity. The time is ripe for a collaborative effort between information scientists and inter- and trans- disciplinarians and their professional societies to build on Julie Thompson Klein’s work and to properly recognise the full range of disciplinary and stakeholder interactions.

Moving forward isn’t a matter of key players pitching their favourite definition and a fight for supremacy. It requires respect for the range of research practices that encompass different forms of disciplinary and stakeholder interactions. All have something to offer as research-based approaches to advancing knowledge and taking more effective action in the current polycrises.

Professor Gabriele Bammer is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) in the College of Health and Medicine at The Australian National University.



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