Author: R.J Ellis


Interdisciplinarity in Humanities/Social Sciences teaching since the mid-1970s has come to be defined as a learning mode involving the exploration of issues, problems and knowledges through integration and synthesis of theoretical and/or methodological procedures which draw upon more than one discipline or challenge conventional disciplinary approaches. It has proved particularly relevant to Linguistics, which has developed strongly-defined interdisciplines (such as Psycholinguistics and Sociolinguistics) and to Area Studies (both within and without Modern European Language Departments), which characteristically draws upon several disciplines. In the latter case, developing interdisciplinarity learning approaches proves challenging in terms of syllabus design.

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Emergence of the concept

Though arguments for an integrative approach to research and learning have been advanced from Plato to von Humboldt, "interdisciplinarity" as it is generally understood today probably originated in the mid-1920s. Documents produced at that time by the United States’s Social Science Research Council as part of the development of "A Constructive Program for the SSRC" mention its desire to foster research "which brings in more than one discipline" whilst (contemporaneously) the scientific studies of the Vienna circle also sought to adopt this approach (Robert Sessions Woodworth, quoted in Frank 1988: 91; Klein 1990: 19-25). Whilst it might have been anticipated that the term would find its origins in the Sciences, which from the beginning pursued research drawing on more than one discipline, "interdisciplinary" seems to have been first used within the portals of the SSRC. Perhaps these origins are unsurprising, given that the constituent disciplines within the Social Sciences were at that time rapidly expanding in scope, for example leading Margaret Mead to call in 1931 for "co-operation, for cross-fertilization in the social sciences" (Mead, quoted in Frank 1988: 93). Since these tentative beginnings, use of the word "interdisciplinary" has rapidly mushroomed, especially in the latter quarter of the twentieth century and the opening decade of the twenty-first.

In important respects the development of a whole range of Sociologies in the mid-twentieth century (of Knowledge, of Literature, of Power, of Gender etc.), demanded that further interdisciplinary practice be developed, as academics in the Humanities and the Social Sciences encountered and interacted with their Sociological counterparts’ ideas. This process was accelerated by the impact of the educational disruptions of 1968, aimed at the academic establishment (including its constituent discipline-based departments) and characterized by an impatience with what was seen as institutional conservatism-manifested most plainly in a failure to resist the perceived injustices of this period (Gozzer 1982: 282). Certainly this provides one way of understanding how it was that varieties of political, social and cultural theory at this time came to become so prominent as a concern for Humanities academics, thereby opening the way for further exchanges-both with Social Scientists and within the Humanities. This radical discursive trace within the word "interdisciplinary", injected into it at the start of the third quarter of the twentieth century, still perhaps lingered into the twenty-first. A belief in interdisciplinarity’s reforming, innovative and progressive potential endured, but this somewhat romanticised reputation perhaps hindered the concept’s development: "much of the discourse which purports to be interdisciplinary betrays a soft foundation which gives way under probing" (Cluck 1980: 87).

Importantly, however, in the late twentieth century the term was largely purged of such "soft" connotations. Increasingly the idea of interdisciplinarity was invested by more conventional discourses articulating a general requirement for exploration of new areas of potential knowledge and discovery and proposing that certain problems were particularly amenable to interdisciplinary research (Maasen 2000: 174). This was a process depending upon a more rigorous understanding of what interdisciplinary work constitutes. An important early step in this development depends upon drawing up distinctions between multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and disciplinary research and teaching.


Multidisciplinary study involves employing two or more disciplines, in juxtaposition. But "these separate disciplines never intersect upon a well-defined matrix" (Cluck 1980: 68). Instead the process of research and learning is additive (Klein 1990: 56). By contrast, interdisciplinary work is integrative and consultative. Though, of course, "there is some overlap between interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary study … for the most part they are different areas" (Kline 1995: 2). Interdisciplinary work is more firmly rooted in "conjunctive interaction" (Cluck 1980: 68; Klein 2000: 56). The approach is a synthetic one (with the prefix "inter-" implying among/between) (Kline 1995: 2), often revolving around a central focus (conceptual, theoretical, and/or methodological). Arguably such synthetic interaction became easier in the late twentieth century, as disciplinary boundaries became increasingly blurred (Klein, 2000: 7). Hence, understanding interdisciplinarity demands an understanding of its relationship to disciplinarity.

When drawing up the distinction between discipline-based and interdisciplinary work, a starting point is the idea that discipline-based exploration depends upon one category of knowledge, conventionally identified as belonging to that discipline. A discipline can be regarded as "a specific body of teachable knowledge with its own background of education, training, procedures, methods and content areas" (Berger 1970). Such a definition is perhaps both too narrow-it offers no sense of the dynamism of every discipline’s evolution-and too wide: it needs to be more specific about how "procedures and methods" might be effectively differentiated (Gozzer 1982: 286). However, as a definition it remains helpful, because it suggests how both multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches might work. Where multi-disciplinary approaches draw separately upon the existing disciplines’ own methods and procedures, interdisciplinary work seeking to integrate or establish "inter-disciplinary" methods and procedures. But such a distinction also, inevitably, raises the issue of the appropriate relationship of the disciplines to each other and to the larger intellectual terrain in which these disciplines are located (Kline 1995: 2).

Considering these "territorial" issues has been termed the study of "disciplinarity" (Messer-Davidow 1993), examining how the establishment of such genealogies (between disciplines) sets up borders that must be identified as relative rather than essential. Specifically, this is because disciplines must be recognized as also social structures, "organizations made up of human beings with vested interests based on time investments, acquired reputations, and established social networks that shape and bias their views on the relative importance of their knowledge" (Weingert & Stehr 2000: xi). Taking up this position leads to the emergence of radical (post-structuralist) definitions of disciplinarity (see, e.g., Turner, 2000: 47).

Such critiques of disciplinarity suggest that whilst the discipline-based approach has clear conceptual advantages (of clarity and capacity and for specialised study), it is also limiting. There is always the possibility of substantial omission if knowledge is wholly structured within disciplines (Campbell 1969), not least because prevailing disciplinary arrangements have never been more than a marriage of convenience in which the elements of academia were never smoothly united on the basis of general agreement (Graff 1987).

Varieties of interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinary work, in one of its key configurations, can explore those arenas of knowledge and understanding that disciplines, because of their need to establish and preserve distinctions between themselves, may leave relatively or completely unexplored. However, such an emphasis reveals one of the difficulties of interdisciplinary undertakings. It can be argued that interdisciplinary work, relying as it does upon an understanding of the disciplines with which it "inter-disciplines", has to be primarily or even wholly a postgraduate, even post-doctoral undertaking, in which "experts" understand "the relationship of their particular discipline to other disciplines and the totality of human knowledge" (Kline 1995: 4). Indeed (with a witty tongue in one cheek), the experience of undertaking an interdisciplinary project has been described as going through nine stages (singing the old songs; believing everyone on the other side is an idiot; retreating into abstractions; experiencing definition sickness; jumping the tussocks; playing the glass bead game; experiencing the great failure; asking "what is happening to me?"; and getting to know the enemy) before a tenth stage, "the real beginning", is arrived at (Sjölander 1985).

However, it can be argued either that interdisciplinary work need not be so ambitious or theoretically demanding (e.g, an academic based in an English department and an academic based in a Cinema Studies department may be quite readily able to define a mode of interaction that is rooted in an interdisciplinary procedure when examining a filmic text) or that it may be able to draw upon a set of procedures and theories that have attained a measure of clear definition (political economy). What is needed, perhaps, is clarity about what (and how much) is being attempted. Different levels of ambition can be defined.

Plainly, for example, there are different types of inter-disciplinary study:

  • Developing conceptual links using a perspective in one discipline to modify a perspective in another discipline
  • Recognizing a new level of organisation with its own processes in order to solve unsolved problems within existing disciplines or problems that lie beyond the scope of any one discipline.
  • Using research techniques developed in one discipline to elaborate a theoretical model in another
  • Modifying and extending a theoretical framework from one domain to apply in another
  • Developing a new theoretical framework that may reconceptualize research in separate domains as it attempts to integrate them
  • Addressing broad issues and/or complex questions spanning more than one disciplinary field. (Bechtel 1986: 46-7; Klein 1990: 11)

What certainly seems to be the case is that, because the coverage of disciplines is incomplete and partial (in both senses of the word) some migration of specialisms and some hybridization is inevitable, and these need to be explored in any higher education programme of learning. Linguistics’ interactions with the (other) Social Sciences certainly illustrate this, with Psycholinguistics and Sociolinguistics in particular firmly established as what can be called interdisciplines-areas of knowledge, study and learning with distinct, evolving theoretical and methodological procedures. Such interdisciplines are certainly not unamenable to undergraduate study.

On the other hand, at its most demanding, as when interdisciplinary work becomes "transdisciplinary", evolving as it develops its own synthetic, encompassing amalgams of other disciplines’ theories and methods as it searches for unifying and comprehensive understanding of problems and issues (Klein 1990: 66-71), interdisciplinarity can become a mode of study needing to be approached carefully and not over-ambitiously (whilst—quite rightly—proving to be of considerable appeal to undergraduates).

Interdisciplinarity in area studies

The debates mentioned above are important to Area Studies, because this subject has always laid claim to an interdisciplinary approach, and indeed, is often cited in this respect (Klein 1990). It is easy to see where this claim is coming from. Within Area Studies (both within Modern European Language Departments, and outside of these, in anglophone Area Studies like American Studies and non-anglophone Area Studies like Middle Eastern Studies), the area under study is considered from a number of perspectives (Politics, Geography, History, etc.), increasingly often accompanied by detailed attention to the Cultural, Media and Literary productions of these Areas. An interdisciplinary approach, and interdisciplinary expertise, would seem at the least advantageous, and indeed is mentioned as such in the QAA Benchmarking Document for Area Studies (

Yet, Area Studies is often held to have failed to develop these interdisciplinary potentials, instead "fall[ing] back upon" a "default" position relying upon a "discipline-based perspective" (Klein 1990: 25) where the idea is that links between the disciplines predominantly took place in the students’ minds (Klein 1990: 56). This is perhaps an ungenerous verdict, though it is certainly true that the degree to which interdisciplinarity is deployed in Area Studies differs, sometimes markedly. Partly this is a consequence of the limited amount of dialogue between the different Area Studies communities, particularly between those located in Modern European Language Departments and those Area Studies communities centering their work upon other areas of the world.

The latter Area Studies communities, for example, much more often than not, possess a core to their syllabuses, seeking to do more than let the links between the disciplines occur in the students’ heads. And what form this core should take is always, quite rightly, a matter of some debate. Should it just consist of inputs from different disciplines taught alongside each other i.e., a lecture or two (or more) by a lecturer in history followed by a lecture or two (or more) by a politics lecturer, each exploring a topic from their discipline’s viewpoint. Or should a lecturer, pair of lecturers or group of lecturers teach as a team, exploring the topic in a more integrated way? The first approach might be held to be essentially, if not always solely, multidisciplinary. The second approach could potentially be able to become more interdisciplinary, particularly if the lecturers run sessions together (a resource- expensive technique). But where is the distinction to be drawn, precisely? And how much grounding in the separate disciplines is required before types of multi- or interdisciplinary work can begin to be carried out? This last debate usually emerges as a recurrent one within Area Studies—perhaps the recurrent issue. And carried within it, implicitly or explicitly, is a debate about the viability of interdisciplinary work within Area Studies, and what form(s) it can or should take. It is here that the distinctions that this essay explored in its first half become critical.

However, it is important that things are not allowed to become too precious at this point. Perhaps it is beneficial for wide variation to exist when determining how exactly disciplines interact, or interrelate within Area Studies. Indeed it is the difficulty of deciding what should follow the "inter-" that starts to dramatize the problem. How do or can the disciplines come together within the "inter-" prefix? One way-and, perhaps, a convincing way-of answering this question of how the "inter-" works is to begin to identify certain theories and/or approaches and/or skills that are not specific to a single discipline, but are taken up-perhaps in different ways and with different emphases-by more than one discipline, often to explore liminal areas, bordering on other disciplines. One way of thinking about these is to apply to them something like the label "transferable interdisciplinary methods". A specific example of this might be some aspects of the theories of Foucault to do with discourse. These were taken up strongly in Cultural Studies in the latter third of the twentieth century, and in the same moment, in some styles of literary study. Foucault’s theories increasingly came also to be deployed in the social sciences (unsurprisingly, given the emphasis of his work). Using Foucault can help identify how common ideological concerns are articulated in different "texts" (in the widest sense of the term), in different terrains, in different but related ways. In this sense a Foucauldian approach might be described as a transferable interdisciplinary method that derives not necessarily from the disciplines immediately to hand, but is suggested by the issue/problem that is confronted. Other such methods can be derived from Gender Studies, Feminism, Postcolonial Studies, Post-Marxist Studies and Post-Structuralism, for example.

Of course, in any Area Studies degree, any student would still need to use the theories and approaches and skills of more than one, and usually more than two disciplines. If interdisciplinary learning uses disciplinary theories and skills and approaches in an "inter-" way, in order to open up the Area Study to new kinds of appreciation, then by implication this would still need to occur on the foundation of a reasonably broad understanding of the disciplines involved. Yet transferable interdisciplinary methods may be able to be identified that can help lubricate points of interdisciplinary conjunction. This suggestion gains weight in the (linked) terrains of contextualisation and historicisation, since here transferable interdisciplinary methods can be used to highlight how cultural relativism plays a significant part in any understanding of "place" and "space". The implication of this argument is that interdisciplinary methods foregrounding cultural understanding may be of particular value within Area Studies—especially for the student, it could be argued.

Interdisciplinarity and cultural difference

Since organizations generally prefer native speakers when a language requirement exists within a job-description and since English is increasingly the dominant commercial world language, the motivation for studying other cultures via Area Studies, even including their non-anglophone languages (inside or outside of Modern European Language Departments), will often turn out to be, for all but the very best students, a means of acquiring intercultural skills relevant within their own multicultural societies and their multicultural workplaces. It may be that this is the way for Area Studies to revisit interdisciplinarity, now seen as bringing disciplines together to explore cultural difference as it is articulated across a range of texts-artistic, cultural, political, social, historical-so defining interdisciplinarity in Area Studies as playing an integral part in the acquisition of intercultural competence. This is why the recurrence of words such as "difficulties", "problems", "pitfalls" and "unclear" in the titles of studies of interdisciplinarity (Sjölander 1985; Gozzer, 1982) should not ultimately prove to be prohibitive. Or disheartening.


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