$n-disciplinary: meaning(lessness) and competing terms

I stumbled across some blurb that included the word ‘transdisciplinary’ today. I’d already been thinking about the meaning of ‘interdisciplinary’ as opposed to ‘multidisciplinary’. In a typical “dear lazywebs” moment, I posed the question to Twitter: what is the difference?

Max Wilson was good enough to respond, remarking that to him, ‘inter’ is a point of union between disciplines, and ‘multi’ presumes many disciplines. So far, so good: interdisciplinary refers to the intertwingling of disciplines, multidisciplinary means drawing on techniques and views from multiple fields.

And transdisciplinary? I’m still not sure. Max pointed me to this PDF that provides definitions:

  • Multidisciplinary: relating to, or making use of several disciplines at once
  • Cross-disciplinary: coordinated effort involving two or more academic disciplines
  • Transdisciplinary: approaches that transcend boundaries of conventional disciplines
  • Interdisciplinary: combining two or more disciplines, fields of study or professions

I’m not convinced. I see multi and I see trans. But how is the above definition of cross-disciplinary meaningfully different from that of multidisciplinary? What does it mean to ‘transcend boundaries’ of conventional disciplines? How do people make these arbitrary decisions about which words to hyphenate, and have I repeated ‘disciplinary’ enough in this post that the word is beginning to lose meaning?

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3 responses to this post.

  1. These distinctions are only arbitrary if they are used arbitrarily. Since there are many ways to share across disciplines, it helps to develop language to explain just what we’re doing.

    Barbara Johnstone, who lectures in Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon, has posted this excellent exploration of the varieties of interdisciplinary research (skip the first page).

    For those of us who have not been deeply grounded in a single discipline, it can be difficult to understand why interdisciplinarity is such an important and troublesome issue. This is one reason I am very grateful for my time at Cambridge, where I worked with many people whose focused work fit very solidly within well-established disciplines.

    I would see cross-disciplinary as a term describing the actions of organisations in a partnership between departments or faculties.

    I would see transdisciplinary as something like Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, or projects having to do with understanding happiness.

    Since one can do research without aiming to create a discipline, there is presumably a further category for people who are trying to create new disciplines.

    The Media Lab has historically been called “antidisciplinary” because it sees disciplines as enemies of innovation, and because research has often been seen as a secondary goal.

    Overall, I think that academics tend to give too much faith to the power of terms. We like to create neologisms, and then we act surprised when people are confused.

    This leads us to ask: who are we trying to convince, and when should we use these terms? I am sure that there are times to use these, such as when describing a project to funding and administrative bodies.

    I personally love the idea of disciplines, even though I haven’t managed to fit into one. I wish I were capable of becoming an expert in an area with shared clarity about the goals, methods, and objects of study.

    But alas, I spend most of my time in places where the norm is to grab whatever you can to do the job. In those environments, these words are meaningless because they describe expected behaviour. So when describing my work, I simply describe my work (I like elevator pitches).

    (PS I think that it is possible to hide confusion about one’s project with the smokescreen of words like “interdisciplinary,” but that confusion can be exposed or cleared up by asking questions like “how” and “why)

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  2. […] Copyright ‘n’ legal « $n-disciplinary: meaning(lessness) and competing terms […]

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  3. […] and mentoring. We also came to a topic I had mused upon in the somewhat distant past: the meaning of words such as interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and […]

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