These ideas are adapted from Moti Nissani’s article “Ten Cheers for Interdisciplinarity.” Social Science Journal 34 (#2): 201-216 (1997). Thanks to the Fall 2016 class of “Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies” at Plymouth State University for much of this synopsis.
There are many reasons why approaching a problem, concept, project, or educational path in an interdisciplinary way can benefit learners and the world. Here are a few ways that taking an interdisciplinary approach can enrich our thinking, our work, and our contributions:
- Creative Breakthroughs: Taking a new perspective from a different angle can yield unexpected pathways that were not visible before.
- Outsider’s Perspective: a situation viewed by a diverse group of people to make the outcome as creative and diverse as possible. When people are trying to avoid the cookie cutter pathway to how an outcome may seem.
- Crossdisciplinary Oversights: Scholars from a different field can often catch errors and flawed thinking that scholars in another field miss because they are not connected to the right information or concepts. For example, a literature student might begin a paper about a feminist story, “Ever since the dawn of time, women have been struggling against patriarchy.” An anthropologist might be able to sharpen up that overstatement, and explain that gender roles are tied to both history and culture.
- Disciplinary Cracks: There can be deep divisions between disciplines. For example, studying the mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart might mean analyzing weather patterns, looking at airplane construction, studying her life story– and the answer to the mystery might depend on looking at these things together, rather than separately.
- Complex or Practical Problems: Having a broad understanding of many disciplines to gain a better comprehend and come up with a conclusion on why something is the way it is. Most real problems are not simple, and they demand thinking from a variety of academic fields. Think of a complicated problem that you know of, and then try to list as many academic disciplines as you think might relate to it.
- Unity of Knowledge: Being able to learn more so that you have the ability to connect with more knowledge. Most majors and fields look at parts of the world, but there is something beautiful and exciting about trying to step back and see how things connect.
- Flexibility of Research:Working with colleagues from other fields of study and expanding your horizons in terms of what and how you research are surely the pros of having a more flexible field. When you start exploring a research question, it is liberating to know you can follow it across and into as many fields as necessary.
- Law of Diminishing Returns: The higher the level is that you desire to achieve, the more time you must input into the profession. As you progress further towards mastery, the amount of time you have to dedicate to the field increases exponentially, reducing the amount of time you can spend learning about other things. Genuine expertise often comes with a high price that may not always be worth the time spent. For example, if you can gain fluency in a language, is it worth the extra time to achieve the perfection of a native speaker, or is it more rewarding to branch out into other areas to add to your language proficiency?
- Social Change: Interdisciplinarians work to build connections across divided ideas, and we seek out new ways of conceptualizing knowledge. This can lead us to truly change the world, structure our world differently, and see ourselves as connected in a wide web of humanity.
- Academic Freedom: Freedom to study our interests, in the way we best comprehend knowledge. We can work to decrease the amount of control the disciplines exert over how we learn, and instead put disciplinary knowledge to work in ways that reflect our interests and concerns.
There are also some potential drawbacks and barriers to working in interdisciplinary ways. Here are a few drawbacks to keep in mind:
- Interdisciplinarity’s drawbacks include being seen as a threat due to the versatility and potential agitation of change in a stagnant environment. Universities, for one, may not like the idea since it shakes up the basic organizational structure of our silos and can draw resources and power away from the individual disciplinary units.
- The barriers of Interdisciplinarity include: challenges to accreditation processes that demand strict disciplinary content coverage; lack of professional representation given how few visible interdisciplinarians exist in the academy; and lack of a system of recognition for interdisciplinary scholars.