About Interdisciplinary Studies

IS WORDLEInterdisciplinary Studies is an academic field, approach and  process that fosters the  synthesis of broad disciplinary perspectives, knowledge, skills, interconnections, and epistemology in an educational setting.

Klein and Newell (1998) offer the following widely-quoted definition of interdisciplinary studies:

A process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline or profession… [It] draws on disciplinary perspectives and integrates their insights through construction of a more comprehensive perspective. (p. 393-4)

The National Academies definition is broadly similar:

Interdisciplinary research (IDR) is a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice.

Transdisciplinairty Diagram

(From td-net@scnat.ch ) Figure 1 (above) : Four key purposes of interdisciplinary- (and transdisciplinary) research, each leading to a different definition: encyclopaedic understanding, holistic understanding, problem solving, and reflection-in-action. (nb This figure is the result of td-net's work in progress and should not to be taken as a comprehensive analysis of all possible purposes.)


According to U of Alberta Interdisciplinary Studies Scholar Rik Szostak's Website:

Although definitions of interdisciplinarity are diverse and contested, there is an emerging consensus around certain key components:

  • Interdisciplinarians focus on particular problem or questions that are too complex to be answered satisfactorily by any one discipline [Some Interdisciplinarians may be guided by a search for a particular policy or technology requiring input from different perspectives. Others may search for insights into what a concept means across different realms.]  [This emphasis on problem-solving is echoed on the td-net website here.]
  •  Interdisciplinarians draw upon the insights of specialized research. Specialized research is performed by communities of scholars who share a  set of guiding questions, concepts, theories, and methods.
  • Interdisciplinarians evaluate the results of specialized research
  • Interdisciplinarians utilize multiple theories and methods. They are conscious that all theories, methods, and disciplines are useful for some purposes but also have weaknesses.  [See Classifying TheoriesClassifying Methods]
  • Interdisciplinarians appreciate that each discipline is characterized by an (evolving) ‘disciplinary perspective’ or way of looking at the world. We should nevertheless be careful of stereotypes, for members of that discipline will deviate from disciplinary perspective to varying degrees. [See Defining Disciplinary Perspective]
  • Interdisciplinarians integrate the best elements of disciplinary insights in order to generate a more comprehensive (and often more nuanced) appreciation of the issue at hand. (This may come in the form of a new understanding, new product, or new meaning.) As we shall see below, interdisciplinarians often stress ‘integration’ as the defining element of interdisciplinarity.  [See Defining Integration]

Dr. Szostak has compiled a really cool and comprehensive resource on Interdisciplinary Studies.

interdisciplinary crayons

The YorkU MA in Interdisciplinary Studies -  one of the first formalized graduate programs in Canada - enables highly motivated students to study within three distinct disciplines in order to deeply explore a particular problem or phenomenon.