Interdisciplinary perspective: “A discipline is a particular area of study, especially a subject of study in a college or university” (“academic discipline”, n.d.). Interdisciplinarity or the interdisciplinary approach involves the merging of two or more academic disciplines for one purpose or activity like a research project (Nissani, 1995). It draws knowledge from several fields of study, for example, sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics etc. It is about creating knowledge by thinking across the boundaries of different disciplines. The adjective interdisciplinary is mainly used in academia when researchers from different disciplines combine their approaches and modify them so that they are better suited to solve the problem at hand (Nissani, 1995).
Advantages of the interdisciplinary perspective
Interdisciplinary knowledge and research are important because it encourages creativity and promotes important contributions in fields other than one’s own expertise. In addition to creativity, it also enhances critical thinking skills to compare and contrast perspectives from various disciplines. It also allows for fewer errors as it can be verified by experts from various fields. Many social problems require interdisciplinary approaches to come up with practical solutions. Understanding and analysing tasks, data sets and concepts through the lenses of more than one discipline can help individuals in gaining insight on how a project might apply in various settings. It also helps students apply the knowledge gained in one discipline to ar different discipline in order to deepen their learning experience and encourages the pursuit of knowledge in many areas (Appleby, 2019). As one engages with topics from many different perspectives, it also helps them overcome their preconceived notions around a subject and recognise their biases. This also encourages them to understand the complexity of certain topics and allow for ambiguity in information coming from many different perspectives. Information that is acquired in a holistic manner can also be easily connected with previous knowledge and can be recalled much faster (Jones, 2009). Interdisciplinarity also gives researchers greater flexibility in research and related topics. Interdisciplinarians can also help to breach communication gaps in modern academia, and therefore help to mobilize vast amounts of intellectual resources. The interdisciplinary perspective allows professionals to see the effect of what they do outside of their own fields as well (Jones, 2009).
However, there are certain pitfalls to interdisciplinary approaches. Michael Burawoy (2013) highlights this in his paper where he argues that interdisciplinarity creates a risk of weaker, critical disciplines being dissolved and pushed under a more established and powerful discipline in the hierarchy. It can become the basis for narrowing rather than widening of perspectives, it can have the effect of dissolving the very “discipline” required for any serious scholarship or science. He also points out practical disadvantages to creating a unified discipline that is all-encompassing. This can lead to budgetary restrictions, downgrading of departments, and sometimes their dissolution in universities and research centres. It will lead to experts from different but closely related fields having to compete for resources in universities. The academic system is still quite structured on specific majors as disciplines and the integration of interdisciplinary studies have caused disruptions to the traditional fields of study. Researchers from different disciplines also have different methodologies and integrating research can be challenging. Another disadvantage to the interdisciplinary approach is that it can get too meta-theoretical and not address real-life problems like the research was supposed to. This defeats the original purpose of exploring different perspectives to solve actual problems (Jones, 2009).
Practical applications of the interdisciplinary perspective
Despite the disadvantages, interdisciplinarity is crucial to many fields, especially social sciences. For example, psychology is a field where interdisciplinary research is extremely popular. Research around artificial intelligence involves collaboration between cognitive psychology, computer sciences, robotics, machine learning etc. Other fields of interdisciplinarity include biology, neurosciences, sociology etc. These are important to understand the basis of psychopathology in terms of the impact on the brain, the effect of neurotransmitters, genetics etc. It is also important to understand the role that socio-economic and cultural backgrounds play in a person’s mental health. Different major health issues faced by society are quite complex and require research from multiple sciences. For example, issues like obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, and violence and aggression. Such problems necessitate the use of interdisciplinary research in order to reach holistic solutions.
One historic example of how research in one field has greatly influenced the basis of the study of another discipline can be found in the work of Nobel laureate Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “in recognition of his work on the physiology of digestion, through which knowledge on vital aspects of the subject has been transformed and enlarged” (Nobel Foundation, 1904). While Pavlov was conducting research on the digestive system of dogs, he noticed that the dogs drooled upon just the sight of the white lab coat of those coming to feed it. He termed the drooling at the sign of food as a normal ‘unconditioned response’, which was then paired to another stimulus and elicited the same response to an unrelated stimulus, now termed a ‘conditioned stimulus’. This experiment was instrumental in formulating the principle of “conditioning” in the form of objective, verifiable and scientific studies. Although his initial research focused on the ways in which eating triggered salivary, gastric, and pancreatic secretions, the findings of the experiment formed the basis of behaviourism (Specter, 2014).
Another important example of interdisciplinarity is modern biological research and its heavy reliance on the use computers. This new reality has led to the emergence of a discipline that combines both biology and computer science called bioinformatics (National Research Council, 2005). Bioinformatics takes a computer science perspective in developing new methods and techniques for analysing of the vast amounts of data that results from biological research, especially in fields like genomics and proteomics. Bioinformatics draws heavily on methods that were used by an older field, called clinical or medical informatics. However, current education in bioinformatics includes both clinical and biological applications of data analysis (National Research Council, 2005).
An interdisciplinary field that studies decision-making has emerged in recent years. Its importance is apparent in organizations like the Society for Judgment and Decision Making and another related organization that focuses on health care, the Society for Medical Decision Making (National Research Council, 2005). Scientists and researchers in this field come from economics, sociology, psychology, business, law, statistics, medicine, anthropology, and many other related fields. They are concerned with the different facets of decision making in the real world. This includes studying normative decisions which are the optimal outcomes and actual decisions made by people. There is often a huge gap between the two decisions, and bridging this gap can provide solutions to many problems and be crucial to society and health care (National Research Council, 2005).
A similar new interdisciplinary field in the social sciences that combines political science, sociology, public policy, economics, business, environmental sciences and psychology looks into rational decision making and resource management within societies. The discipline includes subfields such as ecological economics, urban and rural affairs, resource management, and other similar policy related fields (National Research Council, 2005).
There are many useful avenues for interdisciplinary study and research that are being explored across universities and research departments.
Appleby, M. (2019). What are the benefits of interdisciplinary study?. OpenLearn.
Retrieved 30 June 2021, from https://www.open.edu/openlearn/education/what-are-the-benefits-interdisciplinary-study
Burawoy, M. (2013). Sociology and interdisciplinarity: The promise and the perils. Philippine Sociological Review, 61(1), 7-19. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/43486352
Jones, Casey (2009) “Interdisciplinary Approach – Advantages, Disadvantages, and the Future Benefits of Interdisciplinary Studies,” ESSAI, 26(7). Retrieved June 30, 2021, from http://dc.cod.edu/essai/vol7/iss1/26
National Research Council (US) Committee for Monitoring the Nation’s Changing Needs for Biomedical, Behavioral, and Clinical Personnel. (2005). Advancing the Nation’s Health Needs: NIH Research Training Programs. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US). Ch.8, Emerging Fields and Interdisciplinary Studies. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22616/
Nissani, M. (1995). Fruits, Salads, and Smoothies: A Working Definition of Interdisciplinarity. The Journal of Educational Thought (JET) / Revue De La Pensée Éducative, 29(2), 121-128. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23767672
Specter, M. (2017). Drool. Retrieved 15 July 2021, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/24/drool
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1904. NobelPrize.org. Retrived 15 Jul 202,1 from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1904/summary/