Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and what do these words actually mean?

Mar 30, 2011 by

Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and what do these words actually mean?

Tongue-twisters and mind-twisters, that’s what they are. The first time I typed  the word “multidisciplinarity”  Microsoft Word, with due dilligence, underlined it. Since then I’ve taught it better. The word is in the dictionary, in everyday talk, in most American university personal statements. But what is it, in reality?

First on the point of difference: “multidisciplinarity”  and “„interdisciplinarity”  mean different things, even if often they are used interchangeably. The former we could imagine as a sheet with dots sprinkled all over, disjointed but sharing a common space. The latter: the dots are connected, and create a shape. Let me focus on the latter.

The most obvious definition is a negative one: the approach that it interdisciplinary is not unidisciplinary. It integrates various perspectives, transcends the boundaries, instead of being confined to one.  All very well, but….?

One practcial illustration of the word I’d call a ‘from-from’ approach: “from the economic point of view”, “from the social point of view”, “from the political point of view” and you carry on “froming” across various views, untill you run out of perspectives (or paper!). But seriously, this approach does obviously give you a more complex pictures, but it often fails to actually give you a whole picture. In this way it is more “multi” then “inter”.

There are two ways in which I could describe true interdispilinarity as I witnessed it here at Yale. One is situational.  There are three people sat on a stage: a novelist, a philosopher and a philosopher who also writes novels. This actually happened, last Friday. The meeting went under the heading: “Can a novelist write philosophically?” I do not want to go into the details of discussion here – it was an interdisciplinary one. Why? Because beyond providing the two views, “from-from”, at a certain point the speakers started laughing, a common laugh. And after the laugh, they started speaking as if they had forgotten their “roles” in the discussion. The focus was not on a discipline, but on questions asked: the arguments were neither literary, nor economic nor any others (though they could be termed as such ad hoc) but they were the ones that best elucidated the subject in question. Hmmm…it might still not be very clear, so I carry on.

Another picture. For me the essence of interdisciplinarity is good literature. Literature is not confined in its scope: it can treat economics, society, a blue sky, a pink elephant, emotions etc, and it does. Literature is not self-aware (apart from experimental, post-modernist literature) meaning it does not care about perspectives, points of views, denominations, classifications.  All it cares about is life and truth. First historians, such as Thucidided and Herodotus, wrote in an inter-disciplinary manner and were thus both historians and novelists. In fact, they wrote at a time when disciplines were not even invented yet, in a pre-disciplinary historical context.

This of course takes us back to an old objective-subjective dilemma. Higher realism or objectivity is for me the ability to choose and discuss about things that matter at a given time in a given context. This is not to say things that are quantifiable and scientific in a modern sense. Numbers are important, but what matters is not solely a statistic, say 1 mln people living in poverty, but a  life surrounding the statistic: what  life of people living in poverty is, what it feels like, what the reasons behind it are. This seems obvious and common-sense, but within our current disciplinary specialisations such stories get divided, cut apart and studied in separate departments.

Some might argue that history nowadays, at least as practised in the US, is also interdisciplinary. This is of course truer for history than for political science, sociology and economics, but its confinement to facts and negligence of emotions as well as other biases (e.g. the fashion for economic history, or the bias to interpret everything from the point of view of “modernity” and what makes it up) makes is partial and disciplinary as well. Unless it is practised by such literary gifted and genious historians as my thesis adviser of course;)  On this positive note, I’m off for an  interdisciplinary lunch composed of a mathematician, a social scientist and a mix of salads.

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