Interdisciplinary vs. Disciplinary Research and Writing

welcome to interdisciplinary scholarship!

In choosing to pursue a degree in Liberal Studies, you have also recognized the advantage of an interdisciplinary approach to your research. That is, instead of adhering to the theories and methodologies of a single academic disicipline (e.g., history, physics, political science), your research will integrate the "knowledge domains" of two or more disciplines to achieve a multifaceted understanding of an issue, concept, or problem that is only possible by combining disciplinary perspectives. Interdisciplinary scholarship values the disciplines, and indeed cannot exist without them. However, to effectively address complex issues, integrating the insights, concepts, and methodological tools of multiple disciplines into an interdisciplinary approach is necessary.

Key characteristics of interdisciplinary research and writing.

Allen F. Repko, author of Interdisciplinary Research: Theory and Process, notes that "interdisciplinarians typically describe the doing of interdisciplinary research as a 'process' rather than 'method' because process allows for greater methodological flexibility..."(2008, 12). In particular, he refers to interdisciplinary research as a decision-making process in which the researcher considers which disciplines-with their respective viewpoints, tools, and methodologies-might be pertinent to the problem, concept, or issue at hand, and then decides which insights from those disciplines are most useful for further developing "an integrated and purposeful understanding" (Repko 2008, 12).

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Repko lists the key characteristics of interdisciplinary research and writing:

  • Interdisciplinary research is heuristic: interdisciplinary researchers are "discoverers" who engage concepts, issues, or problems individually or collectively "by introducing multiple decision points or steps...using experimentation or trial and error" to achieve integrated understanding (Repko 2008, 138).
  • Interdisciplinary research is iterative: the research process involves "repetition of a sequence of operations yielding results successively closer to the desired outcome" (Repko 2008, 139).
  • Interdisciplinary research is reflexive: throughout the research process, interdisciplinary researchers are "self-conscious or self-aware of disciplinary or personal bias that may influence one's work" (Repko 2008, 139).

Repko cites the 10 steps of the interdisciplinary research process:

  1. Define the problem or state the focus question
  2. Justify using an interdisciplinary approach
  3. Identify relevant disciplines
  4. Conduct a literature search
  5. Develop adequacy in each relevant discipline
  6. Analyze the problem and evaluate each insight into it
  7. Identify conflicts between insights and their sources
  8. Create or discover common ground
  9. Integrate insights
  10. Produce an interdisciplinary understanding of the problem and test it (2008, 142).

While interdisciplinary research provides certain advantages over disciplinary research, interdisciplinary research is also faced with challenges that a disciplinary researcher may not face.

  • Disiciplinary Bias- Disciplinary bias consists of using terminology and phrasing that connects the subject to a particular discipline. Doing so limits the scope of research within a particular disciplinary approach that prefers certain methodologies over others (Repko 2008, 145).
  • Disciplinary Jargon- Disciplinary jargon is similar to disciplinary bias in that it uses discipline-specific terminology. Beyond connecting the subject to a particular discipline, jargon uses terms that may only be understood within a particular discipline. Interdisciplinay work is intended to facilitate discourse between disciplines, and if the terminology used is indecipherable to other disciplines an interdisciplinary approach has failed (Repko 2008, 45-6).
  • Personal Bias- According to Repko, students often attempt to express their own, personal point of view or opinion into their work. In some disciplines and circumstances it is acceptable, or even desirable, that a student take a stand on a particular issue. However, interdisciplinary work is not concerned with the author's point of view. Repko states, "the role of the interdisciplinarian is to produce an understanding of the problem that is more comprehensive and more inclusive" (2008, 147). Interdisciplinary research must be open to many different points of view and approaches; adhering to one's own point of view will hinder that person's ability to keep an open mind (Repko 2008, 146-7)

Works cited: Repko, Allen F. Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008.


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