September 12, 2012, by Tara de Cozar

Interdisciplinarity explained…

So, we’ve been plugging this conference a bit over on our Twitter feed… Interdisciplinarity: Grounding social research and practice in a age of complexity. It’s the 5th ENQUIRE postgrad conference – an annual event aimed at bringing postgrads and early career researchers in social sciences together to discuss contemporary issues. This year’s is on the topic of  interdisciplinarity — which is a bit of a mouthful and not an immediately obvious concept to the uninititated. So I asked one of the organisers, PhD student James Tangen, to provide some enlightenment…

“Since the middle of the twentieth century, researchers from across a range of disciplines have increasingly referred to the ‘interdisciplinarity’ of their research. In the last sixty years we have seen any number of new subjects emerge, such as biochemistry and social work. These subjects highlight the influence of research both within and between traditional disciplinary boundaries.

“The history of the term is linked to how we develop new knowledge and how that is communicated to others. In particular, questions on interdisciplinary research come from concerns about whether competing ideas about knowledge can be combined (Klein, 1990). But, as collaborative research projects evolve into new disciplines, questions arise about the continued relevance of traditional disciplines (Holmwood, 2010). Which explains the workings of the universe better: astrophysics or quantum physics? And what role is there for plain physics? Perhaps each has a contribution to make, with multiple models instead of the idea of a grand unified theory.”

So, the idea is that the boundaries between traditional academics shouldn’t be strictly adhered to. They’re more just… guidelines. And James sees this as a key way of working in academia.

“In this sense, I find it encouraging and inspiring when I think about friends from across the University of Nottingham, who talk about different approaches that are brought to bear on important questions. For example, the Horizon digital economy (2012) research unit asks questions about the impact of digital devices in our lives, but is not solely reliant on experts in computers or engineering. Rather, researchers are drawn from sociology, economics and law amongst other disciplines. Each researcher is asked to examine an aspect of the digital economy, from the impact on tourism to how we can securely manage our on-line identities.

“I prefer a broader definition of interdisciplinarity; one that is less about new subject-knowledge and more about how we ‘do’ academia. If interdisciplinarity has anything to offer academia, it is the potential to inspire and challenge existing ideas about how knowledge is developed. In my mind, traditional boundaries shouldn’t be threatened by ideas such as an interdisciplinary approach to ‘peer’ review, which has been the focus of research at the University of Texas’ Centre for the Study of Interdisciplinarity (University of Texas, 2012).

“As an academic process, ‘peer’ review is an interdisciplinary activity that all researchers undertake at some point in their career. However, it is often limited to listening only to those voices that define themselves by boundaries we recognise in ourselves. What if my own work on the process of identifying and defining victims of human trafficking were read from a purely legal perspective, or an economic one? I hope that such an approach would add new dimensions to my research, rather than limiting me to thinking about what compliments them both.”

Interdisciplinarity also informs working with non academics that are key to research – particularly in the social aspects of medicine.

“Academic research should try to understand and then change the world in which we live (Holmwood, 2010). One clear way this can be achieved through interdisciplinarity is by promoting the collaboration of professionals and practitioners in research. My own research focuses on identifying how professionals from the public sector, and wider civil society, identify victims of human trafficking. This is not possible without the cooperation of those professionals, and I hope that once I complete my thesis, it will help them to understand their various roles and will highlight how they might improve the way they work with each other. I am by no means the first to take such an approach. The Institute of Mental Health aims to improve clinical practice through research, and this year launched a website that facilitates the exchange of research knowledge and practice experiences (University of Nottingham, 2012b).

“We can further extend the interdisciplinarity to mean the breaking down of ivory walls so that researchers work with the communities that they study. In the School of Sociology and Social Policy, there is a history of collaborating with the community of St Anns in Nottingham, which continues to this day (University of Nottingham, 2012a). This work highlights the complexity of poverty and deprivation and challenges the stereotypes that are often repeated without consideration of the impact on individual lives.

“So for me, interdisciplinarity is a way of thinking about my work that encourages me to consider alternative perspectives, but not at the cost of my own ideas. It’s about collaboration with professionals and members of the public; and about me explaining what I do in a way they understand.”

So there you go. Yet more evidence that it’s the postgrads who are on the ball and talking about the important things… If you want to know more, there are references for the publications James mentioned below. Or drop him a line.

Holmwood, J. (2010). Sociology’s misfortune: disciplines,interdisciplinarity and the impact of audit culture. The British Journal of Sociology, 61(4), 639-658.

Horizon. (2012, September 10). Horizon: Digitial Economy Research. Retrieved from

Klein, J. T. (1990). Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Detroit: Wayne University Press.

University of Nottingham. (2012a). Case Study – Community Understanding. Retrieved September 11, 2012, from Research and Knowledge Transfer Priority Areas – Centre for Advanced Studies:

University of Nottingham. (2012b). Research. Retrieved September 11, 2012, from Institute of Mental Health:

University of Texas. (2012, September 10). Philosophy of Peer Review. Retrieved from Centre for the Study of Interdisciplinarity:


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