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 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 genuinely interdisciplinary. This holds when working within an academic setting, and it is even more complicated 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 means, I came across Marilyn Stember’s 1990 paper Advancing the social sciences through the interdisciplinary enterprise. There 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 (based initially on Zeigler (1990)):

Sketch of different types of disciplinarities (cc-by Alexander Refsum Jensenius).

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 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 an 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 exciting 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.

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.

8 thoughts on “Disciplinarities: intra, cross, multi, inter, trans”

  1. Hi Alexander,

    Good Post. I’ve been fighting with this terminology for a couple of years now, and I still fail to understand completely their nuances as well as to find papers where the differences are clearly stated to refer to.

    Sometimes I feel we try over-complicate the simple concept of collaboration, and really struggle to see the difference between inter and trans.

    Please give me a shout if you have written or know of a paper where the terminology is discussed in detail!

    Many thanks.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I agree that it may be difficult to differentiate between them, particularly transdisciplinarity. But I think it may be useful to understand that there is a difference between (particularly) cross, multi and interdisciplinarity. I often find that misunderstandings arise because people believe they work interdisciplinary, but in fact only work multi- or crossdisciplinary.

  3. Very nice web site and very interesting your research and your way to present it.

    However, with regard to “interdisciplinarity” and “transdisciplinarity” divergence, I would like to add some piece of information which lacks in your post. The real difference between “interdisciplinarity” and “transdisciplinarity” lies on the diverse nature of research questions posed by these two different approaches of research.

    In fact, the first one (interdisciplinarity) is focused on a single subject of investigation which can be understood using knowledge coming from different disciplines. So, there is a single question – or a limited set of research questions – which can be comprehended by integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines.

    The intent of the second one (transdisciplinarity) is different since it contemplates the possibility of a variety of research questions they might be comprehended only outside the boundaries of the singles disciplines but generating an overall knowledge which embraces all the disciplines – with this respect look at the works of Jean Piaget (“Genetic Epistemology”) and Edgar Morin (many of them speak about the issue of the “unity of sciences” and the need of transdisciplinarity) or, also, look at the epistemological foundations of General Systems Theory.

  4. Very clear and well thought out posting. As an architect who designs research laboratories, I agree that most work described as “inter” is really “multi”. One reason, frankly, for the increased use of “inter” is that the NIH, who is a major source of research funding, is increasing their emphasis on interdisciplinary research.
    As to what it actually is, one way that I often describe the difference is that interdisciplinary research addresses topics that are too broad to be understood by a single discipline, and have too many aspects than could even be addressed by a multi-disciplinary team working on a single subject.

    An example in current terms is the effects of soil fracturing or “fracking”. This is at once an engineering issue, environmental issue, public health issue, etc, and requires many diverse fields to build an understanding of the nature of the problem, let alone the solution.

  5. Great visuals, they really help.
    This is my interpretation:
    Interdisciplinary: Combining two or more disciplines to discover something within either of those two fields.
    Transdisciplinary: Combining two or more disciplines to discover something in a different discipline or even create a new discipline.

    I think the definitions also depend on the perspective. A multidisciplinary group can create interdisciplinary work.
    Also as two different disciplines can fall into a single, broader discipline it’s again a matter of perspective. Think biology and chemistry falling under the science category.

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