Disciplinarities: intra, cross, multi, inter, trans

For some papers I am currently working on, I have taken up my interest in definitions of different types of disciplinarities (see blog post from a couple of years ago). Since that time I think the talking about the need for working interdisciplinary has only increased, but still there seem to be no real incentives for actually making it possible to work truly interdisciplinary. This holds true when working within an academic setting, and it is even more difficult when trying to bridge academic and artistic disciplines.

In the middle of all of this, I hear the word transdisciplinarity more and more frequently. Trying to find a proper definition of what this actually means, I came across Marilyn Stember’s 1990 paper Advancing the social sciences through the interdisciplinary enterprise, in which she offers the following overview of different levels of disciplinarity (my summary of her points):

  • Intradisciplinary: working within a single discipline.
  • Crossdisciplinary: viewing one discipline from the perspective of another.
  • Multidisciplinary: people from different disciplines working together, each drawing on their disciplinary knowledge.
  • Interdisciplinary: integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches.
  • Transdisciplinary: creating a unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives.

Based on this, I have added two elements (inter and trans) to my former sketch of the different disciplinarities (originally based on Zeigler (1990)):

I am still not entirely sure that I understand the difference between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary, but I guess that the latter is one more step towards full integration. That is why I have drawn the centre circles so that they almost overlap, but not entirely. I would imagine that when/if full integration of disciplines actually occurs, you are back to a single discipline again, so I have added that to the figure as well.

In her paper Stember argues that many people believe they work interdisciplinary, while in fact it is more common to work multidisciplinary.

For myself, I think I work on the edge between multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. I do most certainly integrate knowledge and methods from different disciplines (mainly music, informatics, psychology, movement science), and try to create a holistic perspective based on this. However, I often feel that I have to choose approach when presenting my work for different (disciplinary) groups. Then I feel like a music researcher when talking to technologists, and as a technologist when talking to music people. This could mean that I have not been able to develop my ideas into a truly interdisciplinary approach, yet. I am not sure I will ever get to transdisciplinarity, and I am not even sure that that would be an interesting goal to work for either. After all, many of the interesting things I come across are based on the “friction” I encounter when working between the different disciplines.