By its very nature Interdisciplinarity is hard to pin down; an approach to scholarship that sits in between the established academic boundaries we are taught to think within. Standard definitions describe it as a combination of one or more disciplines, or elements of those disciplines, coming together in the creation of knowledge, the pursuit of research, or in teaching and education. There is also the theoretical field of ‘interdisciplinary studies’ dedicated to the study of interdisciplinarity itself, its methods and its value (Nissani, 1995).

Late twentieth and early twenty-first century critical theory has done much to highlight the problematics of the constructed discipline within academia and its implications. In this light disciplines aren’t reflections of natural unities but rather a specific historical phenomenon, as Richard Carp describes; ‘an artifact of a confluence of psychological, economic, political, and institutional factors characteristic of a phase of the development of modernist capitalism in Western Europe and the United States from the late eighteenth century to the present’ (Carp, 2001; 93). Consequently, in shaping knowledges, disciplines also play an often undisclosed role in our self-construction and understanding - a line of inquiry that post-structuralist and feminist social theory has particuarly furthered in contemporary scholarship (See Haraway, 1996 as an example).

Putting epistemiological concerns to one side, there is also value in disciplinary thinking and training. Well defined disciplines and fields of expertise provide iteratively honed, highly refined ways to approach and respond to problems and questions. In fact, it is often initial disciplinary insight and focus that can help to frame larger interdisciplinary scope and research questions - as in the field of global health research where initial microbiological investigations of a virus in a laboratory can identify characteristics that then inform broader sociological and anthropological investigation as to transmission and its implications (Baskar et al, 2017; 153). Deep knowledge of a field of study and its methodologies, therefore, is highly valuable and necessary to further knowledge and understanding, but in isolation it can be limiting.

There is a growing recognition and drive toward interdisciplinary as a way to solve complex global problems - the threat of health pandemics and the climate crisis for example - challenges implicated across many layers of contemporary global existence, that can only really be tackled by thinking beyond, across and outside of well practised academic and industry boundaries. But this type of thinking and research practice is not without challenges - methodological, ideological, linguistic, and practical; institutional and economic barriers in particular reflect the very real scarcity and inequality of resources in academia.

In the study of yoga and meditation, interdisciplinarity is increasingly and necessarily central to research approaches. As Suzanne Newcombe and Karen O-Brien-Kop highlight in the recent Routledge Handbook of the field, whether in the efforts to decolonise yoga, to give space to under-represented narratives and languages, shine a light on structural inequalities and abuses of power, or in considering the place and value of these practices as health interventions, interdisciplinary knowledge exchange is critical to ‘strengthen the field and to make sense of complex and fast-moving global developments’ (2020; Intro). In many ways positioned both inside, between and outside the structures of the academy, scholars of Yoga and Meditation are well placed to find a fine balance between disciplinary expertise and interdisciplinary curiosity, awareness and cooperation; in the words of Donna Haraway, ‘a practice of objectivity that privileges contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing.’ (1996; 117)

Audio Interview - Dr Dagmar Wujastyk

Dagmar is Associate Professor in the department of History, Classics, and Religious Studies at the University of Alberta and an indologist specialised in the history and literature of classical Indian medicine and alchemy. We discuss the complexities and opportunities of interdisciplinary research and how both disciplinary expertise and academic humility are important in furthering knowledge and cross-cultural exchange and understanding.

Recommended reading