19 The BIG Terms

Discipline: A concentrated and bounded academic field of study.

Disciplinarity is what results from discipline-oriented activities and structures.
Disciplinary is the adjectival form of the word.


  • “I hope to be a math teacher, so I am studying the disciplines of mathematics and education.”
  • “Her major demonstrates a rigid disciplinarity in that it includes courses from only one field of study.”
  • She doesn’t always enjoy the highly disciplinary nature of her program.”

Interdisciplinarity: Incorporates several fields of study to allow collaboration among diverse disciplines to either specify or broaden students’ education, to gain understanding, and/or to problem solve.

Interdisciplinary is the adjectival form of the word.
Interdiscipline is a field that emerges when two or more disciplines are combined.


  • “Interdisciplinarity is a more integrative approach to learning.”
  • “His major is highly interdisciplinary in that it combines two fields of study.”
  • “Game Studies is an interdiscipline that combines Communications with Computer Science.”
Multidisciplinarity (Photo CCBYSA Allen Gottfried)

Multidisciplinary: Drawing on information and methods from two or more disciplines. Distinct from “interdisciplinary,” in that it generally does not imply integrating the fields together into something new.  Interdisciplinary educator Allen F. Repko suggests that “multidisciplinarity” is like a fruit bowl, where different disciplines are represented by the different fruits that are placed together in a bowl but which do not mix much or change shape themselves.

Interdisciplinarity (Photo CCBYNCND Anna Wyrwol)

“Interdisciplinarity” is more like a fruit smoothie, where the disciplines are blended together–integrated– to create something new.

Both multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity are valid ways to bring different academic perspectives together.



Students from Plymouth State University’s IDS program suggest
this metaphor for thinking about interdisciplinarity:

Interdisciplinarity is like mixing paint. You can lay colors side-by-side to create beautiful paintings (multidisciplinarity), or you can mix them together to get totally new colors (interdisciplinarity).

Mixed paint
CCBY Rhian https://flic.kr/p/hw8ZAT


Transdisciplinarity: This term sometimes refers to work that seems to entirely transcend the realm of the academic disciplines altogether. More helpfully, though, the term can be used to describe work in which academics, using the tools of the disciplines, partner with stakeholders from outside the university. In this sense, transdisciplinarity builds bridges across disciplines, but also across the disciplinary structures altogether, linking the academic world with the practical world, and scholars with non-academics who are working on similar problems or ideas.

Instrumental Interdisciplinarity: This is when you do interdisciplinary work in order to reach an outcome of some kind. It is the process of integrating knowledge in order to solve problems, generate new or different concepts, or provide broad context for an event.

Critical Interdisciplinarity: This is when you use interdisciplinarity to question the very structure of knowledge, to critique the way that education and research are carved up into silos, or to question the way that disciplines organize the world around us.

Are you more interested in INSTRUMENTAL or CRITICAL interdisciplinarity? 

Key Definition

Interdisciplinary studies is “a process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline or profession,” and it “draws on disciplinary perspectives and integrates their insights through construction of a more comprehensive perspective” (Klein and Newell, 1998, 3).

Disciplinary Community grows when practitioners in a common discipline engage in work together. Disciplinary communities might:

  1. Conduct a conference
  2. Publish a journal
  3. Give awards
  4. Create a degree, major, or educational program
  5. Establish Honor Societies or other clubs and groups
  6. Bring recognition to the discipline
  7. Broadcast news about the discipline
  8. Fundraise for the discipline, inside or outside of a university
  9. Set policies or standard for that discipline
  10. Offer internship in the field
  11. Engage in collaborative research or community-based projects related to the discipline
  12. Hang out and talk about intellectual and professional stuff related to the discipline

Have you been part of a disciplinary community in high school or college so far? What did you do as part of that community?

Work Cited

Klein, Julie Thompson and William H. Newell (1998).  “Advancing Interdisciplinary Studies,” in William H. Newell, ed., Interdisciplinarity:  Essays From the Literature.  New York: College Entrance Examination Board.


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Interdisciplinary Studies: A Connected Learning Approach Copyright © 2016 by Robin DeRosa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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