Interdisciplinarity is the combining of methods and insights of two or more academic disciplines into the pursuit of a common task, such as a research project. It is typically characterised by the crossing of ‘traditional boundaries’ between academic disciplines or schools of thought to address new and emerging issues.
Often, interdisciplinarity is applied in cases where traditional disciplines are unable to address the problem, such as women’s studies or sustainability. It can likewise be applied to complex subjects that can only be understood by combining the perspectives of two or more fields.
According to the British Academy, there are numerous ways that interdisciplinarity is practised.
For instance, academics may establish collaborations between disciplines to find areas of common interest or to identify new approaches to issues within each respective discipline. These might be disciplines that generally lie in the same field of study, such as economics and political science, thus forming the study of political economy. Political economy was classically defined as "the science of the laws governing the production and exchange of the material means of subsistence in human society" by German philosopher Friedrich Engels in 1877. On the other hand, they may be disciplines that are more removed, such as philosophy and engineering - an infant field of study, the philosophy of engineering may look at the ethics of artificial inteligence engineering and discuss the nature of consciousness and nature of thought in revolutionary technology advances.
Furthermore, research and teaching that are focused on a specific issue or challenge may require the input of a range of disciplines working together, such as in the areas of public health or sustainability. The understanding of diverse disciplines and the ability to adopt a fluid outlook prove to be crucial when researches are faced with complex epidemiology of AIDS or global warming in order to advance research in the field.
Finally, individual academics may apply methods from other areas to issues that arise in their own discipline.
Interdisciplinary teaching may apply techniques and methods from a range of disciplines to deliver a topic or a case study. For example, one method may be delivering modules with a team of lecturers who are able to work together and showcase a fluid perspective on an issue or a question. Another, and the most common, method of delivering interdisciplinary instruction is that of a thematic unit, where a common theme is studied in more than one content area.
Case Study: Interdisciplinarity in Engineering
The Warwick Manufacturing Group is one of the world’s leading research and education groups, designing solutions and overcoming challenges through collaborative R&D and world class education. As a result, WMG educators often find interdisciplinarity to be at the core of engineering, where disciplines meet to deliver solutions to innovation problems.
The case study is presented by Dr Harita Joshi, a Senior Teaching Fellow in WMG.
Case Study: Rachel Dickinson, Warwick Business School
To showcase examples of incorporating interdisciplinary methods into teaching, we spoke to Rachel Dickinson from the Warwick Business School on her involvement in interdisciplinarity. Rachel is a Principal Teaching Fellow and Assistant Dean for the Undergraduate programme in the Warwick Business School, developing practice in partnership, placing importance on the situated and culturally unique learner and the role of the arts and humanities in business education.
Due to her background in Drama & Theatre Education, Rachel has led the CORE Practice module in WBS, where 600+ students are supported in their transition between formal and higher education, positioning creative practice at the heart of management development. Since January 2017, she has also led the Acting Responsibly module which explores what it means to 'act responsibly' in the 21st century.
Case Study: Institute for Advanced Teaching & Learning (IATL)
The Institute for Advanced Teaching & Learning aims to incubate and support pedagogies that engage with interdisciplinarity, inclusiveness, and internationalisation. Amongst other activities, IATL hosts a suite of undergraduate and postgraduate interdisciplinary modules which are designed to help students grasp abstract and complex ideas from a range of subjects. These modules aim to synthesise the ideas into a rounded intellectual and creative response, to understand the potential of collaboration between traditionally distinct disciplines, and to encourage such collaboration through group work and embodied learning.
The case study is presented by Dr Nick Monk, who is responsible for IATL's suite of modules, including Forms of Identity which he co-teaches with Monash University in Australia, and Laughter: a Transcdisciplinary Approach.
Case Study: Global Shakespeare
Global Shakespeare is a Master's programme jointly delivered by the University of Warwick and Queen Mary University of London. Shakespeare's plays are examined through a variety of disciplines: Literature, Film, Theatre, History and many more, in different cultural contexts and forms of new media around the world.
The case study is presented by Dr Becky Fisher, Academic Manager for Global Shakespeare.
Case Study: Philosophy, Politics & Economics
Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Warwick is a very successful and well-established degree programme. The three contributing departments are all rank highly in league tables and in the Research Excellence Framework and the programme is supported by an unusually vibrant and committed student community including the award-winning PPE society.
The case study is presented by Professor Andrew Reeve, who is a Professor of Politics in the Politics & International Studies Department.
Students' and employers' approach to interdisciplinarity
According to an article by the Guardian, today's students and employers are looking for a more hollistic university experience. When asked, students say they want "coherent and well-structured courses that offer greater flexibility and more choice." At the same time, employers are looking for students who have transferable skills, namely, problem-solving, effective communication and teamwork abilities, in addition to specialist knowledge that is typical to disciplines. According to the Confederation of British Industry, it is important to ensure that graduates are ready for the workplace, which students understand and require.
Case Study: Technical Accreditation Scheme
As a key partner in Jaguar Land Rover’s Learning Academy, the Warwick Manufacturing Group leads on delivery of the Technical Accreditation Scheme (TAS) for Jaguar Land Rover employees working within the fields of future vehicle technologies and virtual engineering.
The scheme allows employees to mix and match a variety of Master’s level modules according to their needs within the business, as well as their individual and professional development needs. Thus, TAS requires a degree of interdisciplinarity in order to be able to address problems that arise in the industry.
The case study is presented by Dr Harita Joshi, a Senior Teaching Fellow in WMG.
What are the perceived benefits of interdisciplinarity?
There is a virtually unlimited number of benefits to incorporating interdisciplinarity into the university curriculum, some of which we explore in our case studies.
For students, it is crucial to be able to pursue interests and topics of their personal interest, and the ability to do so often proves as motivation to succeed. Content that is rooted in life experiences and personal passions gives an authentic reason to learn and apply the learning experience in a real-world context. As a Warwick education aims to last for a lifetime, learning based on students' passion is more meaningful and deepens their learning experiences that has a greater effect on the students' future.
Furthermore, it offers a deeper and more creative look into topics being covered due to the variety of perspectives and angles through which an idea can be explored. Thus, students learn to consolidate learning through the synthesis of various perspectives and adopt and alternative way of acquiring knowledge.
Interdisciplinarity fosters transferable skills as well. Critical thinking, synthesis and research have now become essential requirements of any global graduate aiming for a successful career in their chosen field.
Finally, it is often recognised that worthwhile topics and unanswered questions may fall inbetween traditional disciplines, thus requiring an ability to take varied perspectives. Many of these unusual issues are faced by a professional in the course of their career, rendering it a must that such an ability be developed.