Manifesto of Interdisciplinarity

Motivation: Interdisciplinarity is commonly praised these days by university presidents and granting agencies throughout the world. Yet there is much confusion within the academy regarding the precise nature of interdisciplinarity and how it is best pursued. The inevitable result is that questionable interdisciplinary research and teaching practices prosper. Those who remain suspicious of the interdisciplinary project often take these as emblematic of interdisciplinarity as a whole. The obvious danger is that support for interdisciplinarity will wane if it becomes identified with superficial academic analyses. Moreover, interdisciplinary researchers and teachers will perform less effectively than they could if they are unaware of interdisciplinary best practices.

The purpose of this manifesto is to show that one consistent set of guiding principles provides compelling responses to diverse Critiques of Interdisciplinarity. The author believes that advocates of interdisciplinarity need to achieve consensus about what interdisciplinarity is and how and why it is best pursued. These guiding principles simultaneously provide useful advice to the interdisciplinary researcher, teacher, program administrator, and student.     


Format: The goal here is to be brief, but to provide links to more detailed discussions for the interested reader.


The Manifesto:

  1. The essential feature of interdisciplinarity is integration: interdisciplinary research and teaching should seek to synthesize the insights generated by the specialized research undertaken within disciplines.  This view is now common, though not quite universal, among scholars of interdisciplinarity.  It can/should be incorporated in Defining Interdisciplinarity and reflects the latest thinking in the Philosophy of Interdisciplinarity.  Note that our definition of interdisciplinarity will highlight several key characteristics of interdisciplinarity.
  2. Interdisciplinarity thus has a symbiotic relationship  with disciplines. Though a minority of interdisciplinary scholars may be hostile to disciplines, the vast majority build upon disciplinary insights. Yet interdisciplinary research can also feed back useful advice to disciplines on how these might benefit from greater openness to the ideas of others. 
  3. Interdisciplinary researchers face a common set of challenges. A variety of interdisciplinary research strategies have been found useful in transcending these challenges. Many interdisciplinary researchers fail due to ignorance of these challenges and strategies. Others waste valuable time and energy reinventing strategies that others have applied for decades. Interdisciplinary research can be evaluated in terms of the strategies employed in addressing interdisciplinary challenges (of course, disciplinary theories and methods should also be applied correctly).
  4. There are likewise common challenges in interdisciplinary teaching and program administration. Again, a set of strategies have proven useful over the years in addressing these. 
  5. The world faces a host of challenges that cannot be addressed by any one discipline in isolation. A proper understanding of interdisciplinarity can greatly enhance our ability to cope with complex public policy problems. 
  6. Indeed, much of the contemporary concern with “anti-intellectualism” can be traced to a vague public understanding that interdisciplinarity is of critical importance but that there is intellectual confusion regarding how this should be pursued. A better understanding of interdisciplinarity can be critical in restoring public faith in the scholarly enterprise as a whole. 
  7. There are important synergies between the skills and strategies associated with interdisciplinarity and the skills and strategies associated with both creativity and cross-cultural understanding. An interdisciplinary education thus also fosters creativity and understanding. 
  8. Interdisciplinary analysis can be performed by individuals or in teams. Both individuals and teams face surmountable challenges.
  9. Universities have for centuries been organized around disciplines. (See History of Disciplines and Interdisciplinarity)  There are important  changes that universities must make to University Administration in order to foster interdisciplinary research and teaching. It should be obvious that universities will be better prepared to administer interdisciplinarity if they first appreciate what interdisciplinarity is and how it is best pursued.


Comments: I am happy to publish Comments on this manifesto. Please email me at rszostak@ualberta.ca.  If you like the manifesto – and even if you don’t! – please link to it.


Authorship: This manifesto seeks to clarify the nature of interdisciplinarity and how this is best pursued. Though the manifesto reflects the views of its author, Rick Szostak, it also reflects to a considerable degree (he thinks) an emerging consensus among scholars affiliated with the US-based Association for Interdisciplinary Studies and kindred organizations such as the Swiss-based transdisciplinarity-net and the Australia-based Integration and Implementation Sciences (all three organizations operate internationally). Readers of this manifesto will often be referred to the websites of these organizations for further information. The author has published 15 books and 50 articles, all of an interdisciplinary nature, including two co-authored texts on how to perform interdisciplinary analysis. He served as President of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies for three years, served as an Associate Dean responsible for interdisciplinary initiatives in a research university for three years, and taught courses about interdisciplinary research for several years. Yet he has spent his career as a professor of economics, serving as both Associate Chair and Chair. He thus has a deep understanding of both disciplines and interdisciplinarity.