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Interdisciplinary Interaction: Participant, Project and Process
A Preliminary Interpretive Model
April 11, 2002

To the untrained eye the world is interdisciplinary—or, more accurately, nondisciplinary. In Western society our attempts to understand it, however, are often discipline-based.
—Lisa R. Lattuca, Creating Interdisciplinarity, 2000

A. Introduction to the Concept of Interdisciplinary Interaction

As Klein notes, interdisciplinarity is a concept of wide appeal, but it is also one of wide confusion (Klein: 11-12). She identifies three major reasons for this confusion: 1) general uncertainty about the meaning of the term; 2) widespread unfamiliarity with interdisciplinary scholarship; and 3) the lack of a unified body of discourse (Klein: 11-12). While all three contribute to the background context for any proposed definition of interdisciplinarity, it is the last confusion, the dispersion of discourse on interdisciplinarity, which is most fundamental (Klein: 11-12). Accordingly, it is necessary to propose a provisional, working definition of the concept that is sufficiently structural or formal, i.e., one that is broad enough to accommodate within its semantic scope the diverse, and even competing, types of interdisciplinary interaction. As such, it will function as a preliminary interpretive orientation to interdisciplinarity as a complex, vast, and diverse phenomenon. In this light, I propose the definition offered by the Centres for Educational Research and Innovation in 1972:

Interdisciplinary—An adjective describing the interaction among two or more different disciplines. This interaction may range from simple communication of ideas to the mutual integration of organizing concepts, methodology, procedures, epistemology, terminology, data, and organization of research and education in a fairly large field. An interdisciplinary group consists of persons trained in different fields of knowledge (disciplines) with different concepts, methods, and data and terms organised into a common effort on a common problem with continuous intercommunication among the participants from the different disciplines (Lattuca: 17-18).

As Lattuca correctly notes, this definition is broader than teamwork or collaboration, is discipline-based, and may be reformulated in terms of a continuum of interactions (Lattuca: 17-18).

Least Most
informal communication of ideas between colleagues formal collaboration on projects, tasks, courses, etc.

B. A Preliminary Model of Interdisciplinary Interaction: Participant, Project and Process
On the basis of our working definition or concept articulated above, we may identify three essential components of interdisciplinary interaction: the participant, project, and process.

B.1 The Interdisciplinary Participant: A Typological Profile
Klein presents a suggestive profile of the interdisciplinary individual based on the current literature. She articulates the interdisciplinary individual according to the following schema: character traits, behavioral types, and acquired skills (Klein: 182-3).

a) Character traits
Klein’s summarization of literature: “…reliability, flexibility, patience, resilience, sensitivity to others, risk-taking, a thick skin, and a preference for diversity and new social roles.”
Forrest Armstrong
: The ideal person for interdisciplinary work would be characterized by a high degree of ego strength, a tolerance for ambiguity, considerable initiative and assertiveness, a broad education, and a sense of dissatisfaction with monodisciplinary constraints.

b) Behavioral types
Irvin White: “divergent thinkers,” as opposed to convergent thinkers
Margaret Mead: “analogic thinkers,” as opposed to digital thinkers
Swora and Morrison: “academic intellectuals” (vitally interested in questions of personal and societal importance, accompanied by a sense of accountability to a wider public audience.

c) Acquired skills
General capacity: ability and interest in looking at things from different perspectives
Specific skills: differentiating, comparing, contrasting, relating, clarifying, reconciling, synthesizing, and a knowledge of how to learn (knowing what information to ask for; knowing how to acquire a working knowledge of the language, concepts, information, and analytical skills pertinent to a given problem, process, or phenomenon; etc.).

B.2 The Interdisciplinary Project: Objectives, Questions, and Types

a) Range of Interdisciplinary Objectives (Klein:11):

  • to answer complex questions
  • to address broad issues
  • to explore disciplinary and professional relations
  • to solve problems that are beyond the scope of any one discipline
  • to achieve unity of knowledge, whether on a limited or grand scale

b) Types of Questions at the Basis of Interdisciplinary Objectives:
What is X
Why did X happen? Why is X happening?
How can we solve problem X?
How can we integrate or synthesize our dispersed knowledge of X?
How can we inquire into “reality” or “history” in its concrete complexity?

c) Examples? Construct your own list below:

d) Project Types (Klein: 191-2):
Instrumental interdisciplinarity: Adopts a pragmatic approach that focuses on interdisciplinarity as a problem-solving activity that does not seek a synthesis or fusion of different perspectives (disciplinary, methodological, thematic, theoretical, etc.).

2. Conceptual interdisciplinarity
: Strives for a synthesis of knowledge as a theoretical, primarily epistemological, enterprise involving internal coherence, the development of new conceptual categories, methodological unification, and long-term research and exploration.

B.3 The Interdisciplinary Process: Models of Integration (Klein: 191-2)

1) Hursh, Hass, and Moore: They articulate the process of interdisciplinary inquiry in terms of two sequential methodological levels:

a) Level of Clarification: Focuses on developing an understanding of both the salient concepts and skills to be used in evaluating those concepts. Example: The concept of “power” permeates all the social sciences; each discipline, however, has its own distinctive definition(s) of the concept. The skill of conceptual clarification consists, preliminarily, in contrasting the assumptions and ambiguities of these disciplinary definitions. One can then proceed methodically, on this basis, to construct a higher-order, or more abstract, composite meaning consistent with the participating disciplines.

b) Level of Resolution: Focuses on a more thorough and systematic integration of the different perspectives identified by definitions of “salient concepts” in the participating disciplines.

2) DeWachter: He proposes a more complex model of the interdisciplinary process, which ideally consists of five phases. DeWachter’s model accords a pivotal function to methodical epochē, a philosophical technique* for the temporary suspension of knowledge claims and disciplinary methods. Its purpose is to open up the possibility of achieving an interdisciplinary way of stating a global question.

  • methodical epochē of monodisciplinary methods and presuppositions
  • interdisciplinary formulation of a global question that acknowledges the complex network of aspects inherent to the problem-set under consideration
  • translating the global question into the specific terminology of each participating discipline
  • constantly checking the answer to this translated question by examining its relevance in answering the global question
  • forging a consensus on the global answer that must not be produced by any one discipline but rather by integrating all particular answers

1. Klein, Julie Thompson. Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.
Lattuca, Lisa R. Creating Interdisciplinarity. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000

*Cf. ancient Pyrrhonian skepticism, the modern rationalism of Descartes, and Husserl’s 20th-century phenomenology.