Interdisciplinarity: 10 talking points

What is the role of interdisciplinarity in solving complex problems? Professor Pami Aalto from the Faculty of Management, University of Tampere, gave a lecture on interdisciplinary research for the students of the Master’s Degree Program in Leadership for Change. We are publishing some of the students reflective memos of the lecture.

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There is an endless number of problems in the world that can be solved within a single field of studies. At the same time, however, a pool of complex problems require the expertise of various disciplines. These complex, or wicked problems, are for example: the problem of hunger and famine or energy and water resources.

When a combination of academics from different fields comes together, we are dealing with interdisciplinary processes. Interdisciplinarity is an umbrella term for multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and neo-disciplinarity. Surely, different fields of academia have always “borrowed” theories, tools and approaches from each other. Think, for instance, of the fact that business studies is built on the basis of economics, social sciences and organizational theories. But interdisciplinary approaches do more than just borrow useful bits from other fields of research.

Of these terms, multidisciplinarity might be the most relevant for the world outside academia. It is not limited to dealing with theoretical problems inside academia but also involves stakeholders from the public and/or private sector. A case study for this kind of a project is, for example, the harnessing of resources in the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic, which was discussed by Pami Aalto. How can energy resources from the Arctic be captured? How is the nature affected? How to build the logistical infrastructure? And maybe the most intriguing question in interdisciplinary project: Who has the power to draw the conclusions, i.e. can some academic field act as an objective theory to glue all the pieces together?

Interdisciplinarity can also be understood through metaphors from a different area of life. A violinist or drummer is able to perform certain compositions. But when they play in an orchestra, they create something with grandeur, a more complex composition. Similar metaphors could be found in the area of sports. Our world is a complex place with complex problems. And with the tools of interdisciplinary we might be able to compose complex and efficient solutions. Tero Penttilä

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Specialisation is a hallmark of modernisation. Modern universities have many faculties and disciplinary fields under them. Studying in a university can be very discipline-oriented, but on the other hand, many academic disciplines have multidisciplinary qualities. The word ‘interdisciplinarity’ can be considered as an umbrella term for different models depending on how different disciplines and their knowledge is combined and applied to problem-solving.

According to David Long (2011) and Raymond Miller (2010), interdisciplinarity as multidisciplinarity can be described as a model where disciplines and their literatures are used in different combinations. In multidisciplinary collaboration, knowledge is shared but not necessarily actually combined. As a result, the contribution to the development of science is not necessarily very high.

Interdisciplinarity as transdisciplinarity is a more radical way of challenging the existing boundaries. It can involve transferring or combining some theories from one discipline to another or even merging whole disciplines into something new.

Neo-disciplinarity is not necessarily an independent form of interdisciplinarity but a new body and institutionalisation of some transdisciplinary strategies. For example gender, development and environmental studies are often organized in that sense. Interdisciplinarity can also be an aim of research or a person’s way of thinking.

There are risks involved in transforming traditional research to interdisciplinary research. It is also more expensive and takes more time. Multidisciplinary research groups often face challenges in power relations, at least in the beginning. Although theories and practices might be vastly different, new ideas occur when boundaries are broken. The most important factor is the attitude and respect towards professionals and their knowledge from other fields.

The term “’T-shaped researchers” characterizes researchers with deep academic knowledge in their core discipline. They can use their expertise and analytical skills in different kinds of situations to gain experience in other fields no matter whether the situation is academic or practical. That is also the direction where investors seem to want to push research in solving common problems.

However, working in multidisciplinary settings may not be for everyone – and that is ok. Interdisciplinarity doesn’t need to have intrinsic value in itself, and many field-specific issues are solvable under just one discipline. Interdisciplinarity becomes an asset when problems are complex, and it is used correctly in combining knowledge and best practices to create something new and most of all working as a team towards a common goal. Eve Vuorela

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In Ancient times, mathematics, philosophy and astronomy were merged. However, the idea of modernization sprouted the idea of specialization, and disciplines have developed into different directions. Within the area of energy problems, for example, the need for interdisciplinary approaches becomes prominent. Questions of environment, climate, politics, transport, and public administration are all involved. Likewise, poverty and hunger also involve several disciplines.

When modelling interdisciplinarity, two different models stand out: the tree model and the network model. The idea of tree model is that some disciplines are more fundamental, and some are located at the periphery. The tree model thus highlights the issue of ‘power’ and the following critical questions need to be raised: How to evaluate the importance of relations? What is the beneficiary or stakeholder in these relations?

By contrast, the network model is more realistic than the tree model. It models interdisciplinarity by connecting the interrelated disciplines. The size of the interconnected spots of a network (i.e. disciplines) indicates the magnitude of power relations.

According to David Long (2011) and Raymond Miller (2010), multidisciplinary approaches utilize different combinations of disciplines and literatures on problems. For example, in multidisciplinary problem-solving sessions or workshops, there are researchers and policy-makers from different fields. The idea is to gather information from different disciplines, and to come to a common purpose. Disciplines can maintain their own prestige and resources.

As defined by Long (2011) and Miller (2010), new transdisciplinary approaches draw upon existing disciplines either in a reduced form or fully, leaving these disciplines and their literatures to exist as such. To give an example, political economy is a transdisciplinary field, combining the approaches of politics and economics. Gender studies is also transdisciplinary, combining, for example, sociology, social work and psychology.

In neodisciplinarity, the study of academic questions is pursued consistently. According to Long (2011), new transdisciplinary can draw upon existing disciplines in various ways to become institutionalized into neo-disciplines.

To illustrate, in the case of the extraction of Arctic/Yamal natural gas resources, there are enormous issues in terms of logistics, technologies, infrastructures (e.g. road construction) in the region. In order to tackle such issues, several actors from different levels and disciplines (e.g. political scientists, geologists, engineers, economists) must be involved. Berfin Nur Osso

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That interdisciplinary is needed in today’s world can be shown by the realization of the Yamal megaproject in Siberia, Russia. It is estimated that up to 360 billion cubic meters of gas can be produced in the middle of the Arctic. Gazprom, a Russian gas company, has been planning this project since the 1990s and started active work there in 2008. By 2015, already 61.9 billion cubic meters of gas had been produced.

All in all, 200 different businesses are involved in the project. There are also other stakeholders: e.g. all Arctic states and the EU, international institutions such as the Arctic Circle, as well as the indigenous population and different NGOs. All of these interests have to be taken into consideration in the process, while also framing Arctic energy policies. This can only be done if experts from different fields work together. In this case, there are also several structural dimensions involved: resource geography, finance, institutions and ecology.

Before the project started, mostly anthropologists and environmental scientist worked in the area. Now many more disciplines are needed. As you can imagine, there is a demand to build transportation for materials, workers and the gas. Technologies to explore, extract and produce the natural resources have to be invented. And first of all the geology and geography of Arctic oil resources have to be analyzed.

Financial experts have to examine the infrastructure, production and investment costs and take into consideration the global oil price expectations as well as taxes. Political scientist take care of the formal and informal institutions and legislation process in Russia. International institutions, diplomacy and orders cannot be disregarded either.

Moreover, an important aspect of the project is the ecological dimension. Environmental risks of Arctic oil projects have to be calculated beforehand, as well as the climatic consequences and the global pressure towards renewable energies. These might change the market situation completely in such a long-term project.

It becomes obvious that a project of such dimensions cannot be realized without experts from different fields. There is only the question: which of the disciplines is the one in the lead. In a project such as this one, as in many others in these days, it is probably economics.

Interdisciplinary as a scientific concept thus raises this question: Does interdisciplinary have a value as such in academia or is it only valuable to solve complex or “wicked” problems outside the academic sphere? Aline Mayr

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In their book International Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches, Pami Aalto, Vilho Harle and Sami Moisio (2011) explain the concept of interdisciplinarity as the relation of different disciplines or fields of research immersed in the study of international issues (p. 13). This idea is based on Quincy Wright’s interdisciplinary approach. In it disciplines are classified by defined criteria that keeps them at the centre of everything. The goal of this approach is to “synthesize the contribution of all these different disciplines, and therefore, reach the unity of all knowledge” (ibid. p. 14).

Interdisciplinary research assesses complex, cross-sectoral problems in today’s world. It can be executed by an individual researcher or a group. To reach a fruitful performance, an individual or group can utilize the interdisciplinary approach in different modes: Multidisciplinarity means proceeding with problem-oriented questions; namely, using different combinations of disciplines and their literatures. Transdisciplinarity implies drawing from academic questions within different disciplines using their literature in different levels. Neo-disciplinarity suggests giving some consistence to the study of these academic questions.

Currently, there is an urgent need to enforce connections between practical sciences and social sciences to deal with different social, environmental and economic challenges at the global level. As Brown, Deletic and Wong (2015) argue, it is important to develop “collaborative research practices that provide more accurate and accessible policy advice, at the same time, that speeds up the research”.

Interdisciplinary research should have the following characteristic: Firstly, it needs a shared mission in which all the disciplines have a meaningful role. Secondly, the researchers should be able to cultivate and learn from each other and look beyond the scope of their discipline. Thirdly, a constructive and respectful conversation plays an essential role to keep the research or the group engaged. In addition to these features, the research needs to count with strong institutional support. As Brown, Deletic and Wong suggest, an important driver in interdisciplinarity is the “establishment of enduring connections between researchers, policymakers and industry practitioners”.

However, despite their proven efficacy, interdisciplinary projects still face some difficulties related to funding and development in particular. One of the main reasons is, as Heidi Ledford (2015) argues in Nature, “the traditional structure of university departments that are not driven to cooperate.” Besides, such collaboration may produce “asymmetrical integration” where social sciences do not have the same advantages as biophysical sciences. Reyver Serna

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Complex issues such as energy transitions and climate change should not be observed solely from the perspective of one discipline and cannot be resolved on the basis of the expertise of one field only.

Academia should change its operating environment. While specialization is the hallmark of modernization, it is important to enforce cross-disciplinary understanding. The concept of a “T-shaped researcher” characterizes a person who first develops expertise in one core discipline and then combines this specialized knowledge in different fields of study. According to Pami Aalto, all disciplines can be thought of as being interdisciplinary, as they borrow at least something from other disciplines.

The importance – and perils – of interdisciplinary collaboration were discussed through Pami Aalto’s research visit to the Yamal Peninsula where a liquefied natural gas project is located deep in the Russian Arctic. The area is extremely rich in natural resources, and according to some estimates, the resources would cover up to 20 times the annual consumption of gas in the whole of Europe. Although the project is not the first of its kind in the Arctic, it has been under scrutiny by the international society.

Some Russians are quite optimistic about climate change. As the temperatures rise, Russia is presented with new possibilities for economic growth. The melting of ice has allowed passage through the Northern Sea Route, the Arctic waterway that follows Russia’s northern shore to Asia. There is no road leading to Yamal liquefied gas project: the extreme conditions of the Arctic raise issues of infrastructure, technology, logistics and resources. This is thus a project that calls for multidisciplinary expertise and a transdisciplinary perspective.

However, the project also calls for a transnational perspective as it is highly politicized. The state is always a main actor in gas production projects and Yamal is a move by Russia towards dominating the Arctic. While it is now considered a lucrative endeavor, there are many emerging suppliers that operate in a more stable environment (e.g. in Asia and Australia). As we are steering away from fossil fuels, the European market may even have walked away 25 years from now. The instable market and rising political tensions in the North will raise new issues, which also emphasizes the importance of political analysis in interdisciplinary projects. Karolina Marisa

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Interdisciplinarity is about the fact that some disciplines can be partly used to create new disciplines and to extend the knowledge frames of previous ones. Attempts to solve today’s wicked problems – such as hunger, poverty, resource problems and so on – require multidisciplinarity.

Yet, many disciplines are interdisciplinary to begin with. International Relations, for example, is a discipline that contains 20 other disciplines. Like other such interdisciplinarities, it seeks unity of knowledge.

There are two metaphors through which interdisciplinarity can be classified: a tree and a network.

In my opinion, the network classification is better to understand the core of multidisciplinarity. It shows that there are various bonds not only with the main discipline, as the tree classifications suggests, but also smaller or bigger bonds with completely different disciplines.

Let’s take research on eye tracking for an example: It is not only about information technology as a base discipline but also physiology of humans (e.g. the reactions of brain on visual perception), etc. In a case where there are many connections to different disciplines and a common network, a new multisdicipline is made.

There are three “disciplinarities”:

  • Multidisciplinarity: new multidisciplinary approaches utilizing different combinations of disciplines
  • Transdiscplinarity: new transdisciplinary approaches drawing upon existing disciplines either in reduced form or fully
  • Neodisciplinarity: new transdisciplinary approaches drawing upon existing disciplines in various ways and becoming institutionalised into new ’neo’disciplines

The Arctic problem is serious issue with a vast amount of factors to take into account. The climate and the Arctic nature, and a lack of infrastructure seem to be the two main problems. In addition, there is the problem of pollution, huge financial investments are needed – and then nobody knows if the project really will be successful or not.

In my opinion, trans/multi/neodisciplinarity is an important concept, which may help in solving the most serious problems in the world. However, it should be developed further, and all the knowledge occurring on the basis of various disciplines and their mixing should be utilized and developed even more to create a bigger network, a longer chain of practices thus bringing a higher probability of success for the resolution of problems. Jekaterina Stukane

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A discipline is a branch of knowledge. While disciplines may appear as single wholes, many are interdisciplinary by character. Interdisciplinary approaches – be they multi-, trans- or neodisciplinary – are needed to solve complex problems.

Sharon Derry, an educational psychologist who studies interdisciplinarity argues that “the problems in the world are not within-discipline problems” (cit. Ledford 2015). Therefore, a combination of knowledge is required. Experts from different disciplines with different skills are needed to tackle some of the world’s wicked problems.

It is also important to remember, that not all of the world’s problems require interdisciplinarity. Yet, most cross-sectional problems like poverty, hunger, energy, urbanization, finance, economics, environmental and climate do. Interdisciplinary is not for those who cannot make it on their own, or perform well within their disciplinary boundary. Rather, it is for those who believe in strategic planning and are interested in solving wicked problems. Anifat Oladipupo

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Scholarship and academic research and education have become more specialized and more strictly classified as disciplines but their historical origin was in interdisciplinarity. During the eras of antiquity and renaissance there were people who were experts in many fields from philosophy to engineering, but later science and universities as its home have become more differentiated: disciplines have their own professors, journals, and so on.

However, in many complex problems of our time, interdisciplinarity would be needed. It could offer one solution to solving wicked problems, even though it cannot  solve them alone. For example hunger, energy and climate issues are dilemmas that would require interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches. To handle these questions we need professionals from different academic disciplines, and also people from different sectors of society.

Universities are organized on the basis of disciplines but the world is not. For instance ministries are often cross-sectoral: in ministries of foreign affairs or environment experts from many different academic fields are often represented.

Interdisciplinarity can be a feature of an individual researcher, or it can characterize a research group. In many universities, there have been attempts to break the borders between disciplines. The new Master´s programme in Leadership for Change in the University of Tampere also exemplifies this to an extent.

Arctic environmental and security questions are good examples of wicked problems requiring interdisciplinary solutions. Researchers can utilize environmental studies, anthropology, sociology, international relations, economics, and so on. To understand the special nature of the area, we should consider at least geographic, financial, institutional and environmental questions, just to begin with – and still we will not get answers to normative or ethical questions.

However, in interdisciplinary research, it is not always easy to make specialists from different fields work together. Also deciding who makes a synthesis of all knowledge may not be easy as questions of power and hierarchies are involved. Saana Tarhanen

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At Pami Aalto’s lecture, I gained new sights regarding interdisciplinary. Multidisciplinarity is relatively easy to understand. It refers to the combination of knowledge from different aspects to address an individual problem. However, the concept of transdisciplinary was new to me. It refers to a combination where something is taken from different disciplines and applied to an issue. Some transdisciplinary approaches are effective and efficient. Therefore, they develop into a new hybrid “discipline” known as a neo-discipline.

A common feature of various interdisciplinarities is the diversity of knowledge. A broader knowledge base ensures the minimization of risk, as it is likely to lead to positive decision-making outcomes. In addition to that, interdisciplinarity is crucial in planning and control functions as well. Taking more perspectives into consideration helps to prevent unexpected situations, which also reduces the risk level.

Moreover, I personally believe that innovation can be brought about by interdisciplinarity, especially transdisciplinarity. Precisely, business studies is a transdiscipline combining financing, economics, human resources, organizational behavior, and other aspects. Once the concept of business was introduced, it brought about a major innovation and benefits to the society so that has become a neo-discipline.

Another prime example would be the AI (artificial intelligence) technology. The technology itself will hardly be successful without either computer science or social sciences. Additionally, the AI technology is expanding as well. It is gradually involving more and more disciplines so that the tool can serve different tasks.

Drawing from these examples, I now start to consider if there is another type of discipline in the making in the field of AI: just like business studies initially was a transdiscipline, developing into a neo-discipline and eventually starting to absorb other disciplines to function in different aspects of the “tree model”, which was mentioned in the lecture. Zheng Zhao






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