Interdisciplinarity is a way to combine the objects and methods of different disciplines to solve a particular problem or tell a particular story.
But what defines a discipline? A discipline is defined by its object of study or subject matter. Literary critics study literature; psychologists study cognition, emotion, volition or will; sociologists study society and social institutions, status and roles within them; and so forth. Crucially, disciplines are also defined by what counts in them as evidence. Humanities scholars often interpret texts; social scientists employ statistical data; the physical sciences are historically empirical and experimental.
In saying that disciplines are defined by their methods, we mean that specialists also learn to think like their disciplines.
But even beyond content and method, disciplines are also social practices, embedded in institutions and activities.
This means that disciplines are “distinct cultures” and that interdisciplinarity must also entail “efforts in cross-cultural communication.” There is an anthropology of interdisciplinarity including different levels of civility, different degrees of democratic decision-making, different styles of presentation, and different styles of leadership.
Yet despite the formidable fact that the different areas of knowledge production that we call disciplines actually constitute different cultures, some problems are just too complex to be solved by one discipline, some stories are too complex to be told without help from other disciplines. Most of the problems of the modern world are just this complex, as are most stories having anything to do with humans.
Regenia Gaginer, University of Exeter
Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference, 2009