Drilling Down: Sometimes we break problems down into smaller parts so that we can solve it piece by piece. This is called “drilling down” a problem. We can also think of breaking a larger whole into its parts in order to understand the whole more fully, and this is called “systems thinking.” Both are very useful for interdisciplinarians, since breaking a problem or concept down may help us see the different disciplines that are involved, which will then allow us to organize our research approach.
In order to understand why so many college students do poorly in the first semester at college, we may need to break the question up into parts and look at study time, social life, living away from home, economic issues, mental health, oppression, and more. Studying these parts will help us get a sense of the overall reasons for the problem.
Setting in Context: Sometimes we actually don’t want to carve a problem or concept into small bits, but instead want to see how something specific fits into a larger pattern or fabric. This is called “setting the problem or issue in context.”
Someone might tell you that Plymouth, New Hampshire only has a handful of violent crimes per year. They might also tell you that NYC has thousands more violent crimes per year. That makes Plymouth sound so much safer, but in order to know for sure, we have to set the numbers into context, asking how many crimes per capita (or per person) each location has. Small pieces of information (such as how many children in a certain school go without breakfast each morning) are more illuminating if they are presented in relationship to other pieces of information (such as the poverty level of the town, the subsidized meal programs at the school, the start time of the school day, the funding formula for the school district, etc.).