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Interdisciplinary research requires joint problem framing, argues SOAS scholar at LIDC’s inaugural lecture

19 February 2014

Peter Mollinga, Professor of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London inaugurated a new lecture series at LIDC on Interdisciplinarity and International Development last month.

This new series of annual lectures draws on LIDC’s five-year experience of stimulating interdisciplinary research in international development across Bloomsbury Colleges.

Professor Mollinga, an expert in political economy of irrigation, water management, agrarian change and technology, and inter- and transdisciplinary approaches to natural resources management, asked what is interdisciplinarity, explored origins of (inter)disciplinarity and addressed how to make interdisciplinarity a reality.

Peter Mollinga lecture pic
We are all victims of disciplinary stereotypes
Professor Mollinga started by explaining how his own professional and academic trajectory has shaped his interests in inter- and transdisciplinarity in international development. After having worked on irrigation issues as an engineer, he turned to social sciences to pursue critical water studies.
Then the scholar reflected on the notion of interdisciplinarity in development studies, which has to a large extent focused on problematising the hegemony of economics within development studies, and does not really address the differentiation between interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity.  

Subsequently the speaker showed an image of three individuals and asked the audience to guess who was an economist, a natural scientist and a social scientist. This quiz revealed entrenched stereotypes about disciplinary affiliations, i.e. the economist had to be a man wearing a tie and a woman could not be anyone else than a social scientist. This led to the conclusion that thinking about interdisciplinarity is not only about knowledge, but also requires moving beyond stereotypes and cultural images.
Peter Mollinga lecture pic 2

Origins of (inter)disciplinarity
Until 1700s, knowledge was divided into very few academic disciplines. From late 19th century onwards, the number of fields in science grew considerably, notably due to the specialisation process during the industrial revolution, the explosion of admission into universities as well as decolonisation and the subsequent increase in areas studies. As Professor Mollinga pointed out, this suggests that disciplines are not naturally given but represent dynamic, historically evolving social constructs. New disciplines are being created all the time through processes of hybridisation (mergers of parts of disciplines, such as in Ethnobotany), which actually supports the trend towards specialisation. Interdisciplinarity may even be seen as a natural trend in science.

Disciplines as tribes
The term ‘discipline’ derives from the word ‘disciple’, to follow, which implies control. Following Becher and Trowler, disciplines can be seen as tribes that create and sustain cultural, institutional and discursive boundaries (‘territories’) that are difficult to transgress. Disciplines are therefore unable to address ontological, societal and analytical complexity. As Professor Mollinga put it, single disciplines can address ‘tame’ problems, but only an interdisciplinary approach can tackle ‘wicked’ problems – complex ones. For Professor Mollinga, one of the biggest challenges of interdisciplinarity is how to bring together natural and social sciences. This is due to the fact that we tend to see nature and society as fundamentally separate and opposed to each other.

Disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity - a continuum
Professor Mollinga presented a typology of approaches to disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity that form a continuum. Disciplinarity involves separate disciplines working in isolation. Multidisciplinarity happens when disciplinarians define their problem separately and then work together.

Interdisciplinarity involves the process of joint problem framing, a shared research question and the development of integrated knowledge and theory across different disciplines. Transdisciplinarity goes even further and crosses not only disciplinary but also scientific/ academic boundaries to involve non-academic participants.

How to make interdisciplinarity a reality?
When do we need interdisciplinarity and/ or transdisciplinarity? According to the speaker, the added value of interdisciplinarity is that it can better address complexity, it can help solve important societal problems, and it sometimes makes it easier for academics to get funding for their work – as it is often funders who drive interdisciplinary approaches. Lastly, interdisciplinarity protects against territorialism and tribalism.

Is it easy to be an interdisciplinarian? The main issues interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary researchers are likely to face are:

  • Language: definitions may vary across disciplines
  • Paradigms: different philosophical standpoints amongst researchers may impede the production of a joint problem framework
  • Organisation and incentives: e.g. interdisciplinary work may make it harder for early-career researchers to obtain tenure
  • Inclusion/exclusion of 'stakeholders' in research framing and implementation.

However, as the speaker pointed out, these issues can be overcome and there are examples of this being done successfully. For instance, the website of the Network for Transdisciplinary Research of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences contains useful resources and best practice on interdisciplinary research.

Ultimately, interdisciplinarity is not really about disciplines, said Professor Mollinga. Rather than think about disciplines, one will be better off thinking about scientific communities and how to bring them together.

Boundary crossing - a new framework
To conclude, Professor Mollinga proposed his own framework to make inter- and transdisciplinary research work. He stated that that boundary crossing requires boundary work: interdisciplinarity is about finding ways to productively negotiate knowledge, cultural, institutional and political boundaries.

To do so, one needs to:

  • Develop boundary concepts: think (analytical work)
  • Configure boundary objects: act (instrumental work)
  • Shape boundary settings: enable (organisational work)

Audio recording is available on the LIDC website.