Interdisciplinarity: The Modern Face Of Science

Jack of all trades, master of none, but better than a master of one?

Since the emergence of interdisciplinarity around the late 1900's, interdiscipline/multidiscipline/transdiscipline and all its variants have become almost mystical incantations, shouted from the rooftops of "progressive thinking" universities. Interdisciplinary studies have transformed into some cure-all that students and academics alike are encouraged to partake in, the latter more likely encountering the idea as a prerequisite for career options. All this while there is no clear definition for "interdisciplinary", no clear answers to the questions of where the boundaries between disciplines lie nor what threads connect them, no clear threshold above which the modern academic can be formally knighted as "interdisciplinary". 


Please don't mistake the tone of that opening statement; I am in no way vehemently against the notions of interdisciplinarity, nor can the value of such notions be denied. What I would like to unravel is the buzzword shroud that wraps the modern interdisciplinary academic to take a look at what that actually means and its pitfalls and triumphs.


The Oxford English dictionary defines "interdisciplinary" as "relating to more than one branch of knowledge". At a cursory glance, this seems a reasonable definition. Looking closer, however, the ambiguity of just what "relating" means becomes quite apparent.


For example, as a physicist I have also had to undertake thorough training in the field of mathematics. Does that make me an interdisciplinary academic or is that just collateral from physics being a heavily mathematical field? Do the numerous threads that connect the two fields render physics itself a interdisciplinary science rather than the "pure" science it is often touted as? During undergraduate studies it is often mandated that courses in non-related areas of study be taken. Are undergraduates by definition then interdisciplinary students or does that classification require a dedicated series of courses studied in parallel? 


"Do the numerous threads that connect the two field render physics itself an interdisciplinary science...?" 


The answer to this depends on what approach you take to interdisciplinarity. A divide often found is that between generalist and integrationist interdisciplinarity. The generalist school of thought considers interdisciplinarity as any dialogue or interaction between disciplines without their integration. The integrationist approach of course requires the solid integration of two or more disciplines before the practice can be considered interdisciplinary[1]. In this discussion I will be referring to integrationist interdisciplinarity, mainly because just about everything can be classified as generalist and also because I'd like to make the distinction of combining multiple disciplines with intention. (I may also be a fan of constructivist theory[2]


[1Interdisciplinary research: process and theory, Allen F. Repko, Rick Szostak, 2017 Sage Publications


Why It's Good


Combining disciplines holds a certain kind of power in unraveling the mysteries and problems in the world. While it is still entirely possible to carry out "pure" academic studies to explore individual areas in a field, application of that with any ramifications in the real world more often than not requires a more bird's-eye view.


A simple, literary example of this is Douglas Adams' work, "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy". Any person can appreciate the mastery of storytelling in this work, and many people do. A science background (more specifically a physics background) adds an entirely new layer of appreciation for the work as much of the humourous science unravels even further for the enjoyment of the reader. A second more tangible example is that of examining a  polluted riverbed. A chemist may be able to identify the pollutant and how to neutralise it, while a biologist can explain the ramifications on the organisms. But understanding the full picture would require someone with a background in both, along with geology, ecology, fluid dynamics, even politics and history to determine what policy can affect this and future occurences.


The point I'm trying to get across here, and indeed one of the main advantages of interdisciplinary approaches is that the world is seldom so compartmentalised into neat categories that one discipline will suffice. Interdisciplinarity allows for a better approach and more rounded worldview of what is in the eyes of the beholder. And not just of the outside world.


A second more nuanced positive of interdisciplinarity is that it affords an outsider perspective on a discipline. As academics specialise and move further into PhDs and academic research, it becomes easier and easier to encapsulate oneself in a bubble of like-minded thought. Integrating multiple disciplines into a single consciousness affords a different look at the status quo in those respective disciplines. This is vital not just for a better understanding of each discipline, but also for a wider worldview for the people within those disciplines.


Why It's Problematic


The two main problems I see with interdisciplinarity are to do with employment, and expertise.


In regards to employment, the notion of being a jack of all trades does make it increasingly difficult to qualify for positions in academic institutes. To become a researcher in physics it's good to have a physics background. To be a great researcher, you have to have a physics background, a chemistry degree, know how to program, be familiar with graphic design and be able to read off π


to 34 decimal places from memory.


An obviously hyperbolic example (I hope), but the point is this: it's not bad to be knowledgeable in multiple fields. In fact, today's world requires this. But this has not been adapted further up the chain. Research degrees like PhD's still narrow the scope of your knowledge down to a single project in a field. The academic world hasn't caught up to the need to encourage people to diversify their knowledge, and that often results in graduates that are "underqualified" for the above mentioned job description. If we're going to expect so much from people, that needs to trickle down through the education system, or rather trickle up; it can not stop at undergraduate education.


This brings me to the second problem; expertise. Another reported problem with interdisciplinarity is a lack of solid expertise in a single field, but rather a lower level knowledge of multiple. The problem with spreading yourself across a range of disciplines and activities is that no one can receive enough focus for mastery (I'm making a huge generalisation here that not all of us are genius-level talent). 


The question then remains:


Is it better to be a jack of all trades or a master of one?

Khalid Muhieddine




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