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Decision Making in Interdisciplinary Studies

Authors:
  • Association for Interdisciplinary Studies

Abstract

Drawing on the latest professional literature on interdisciplinary studies, this chapter identifies the decision making skills required in each step of the interdisciplinary process. It offers an idealized model for individual interdisciplinary decision making and a theory-based strategy for addressing any particular complex issue.
13 Decision Making in
Interdisciplinary Studies
William H. Newell
CONTENTS
13.1 Introduction.........................................................................................................................245
13.2 The Steps in the Interdisciplinary Process.........................................................................248
13.2.1 Defining the Problem............................................................................................249
13.2.2 Determining Relevant Disciplines........................................................................250
13.2.3 Developing a Command of Each Discipline........................................................253
13.2.4 Gathering Disciplinary Knowledge, Studying the Problem,
and Generating Insights........................................................................................253
13.2.5 Identifying Conflicts in Insights, Illuminating Their Source,
and Evaluating Them............................................................................................255
13.2.6 Creating Common Ground ...................................................................................257
13.2.7 Identifying Linkages among Disciplines..............................................................260
13.2.8 Constructing and Modeling a More Comprehensive Understanding ..................261
13.2.9 Testing the More Comprehensive Understanding................................................262
13.3 Conclusion...........................................................................................................................262
References......................................................................................................................................263
13.1 INTRODUCTION
A few years ago, this chapter could not have been written. Definitions of interdisciplinary studies
had not been operationalized with sufficient specificity to even identify the requisite types, styles, or
processes of decision making involved. The field of interdisciplinary studies had an emerging
consensus definition—“interdisciplinary studies may be defined as a process of answering a ques-
tion, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with
adequately by a single discipline or profession.IDS draws on disciplinary perspectives and
integrates their insights through construction of a more comprehensive perspective” (Klein and
Newell, 1996, 393–394). But the process itself had not been adequately identified. Indeed, there is
some opposition within the field to any greater specificity on the grounds that it might constrain
freedom of activity or suggest objectivist modernism. Others, however, believe the field cannot
advance or gain greater acceptance until it specifies how one draws on disciplinary perspectives and
especially how one integrates their insights.
The nature of the debate over the definition of interdisciplinary studies shifted with the 2001
publication of my “A Theory of Interdisciplinary Studies,” (Newell, 2001) along with responses
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from five prominent interdisciplinary scholars.
*
In that article, I advanced the claim that interdis-
ciplinary study is mandated by complexity and proposed generic steps in the interdisciplinary
process required to address that complexity. Since then, attempts to operationalize the interdisci-
plinary process, such as the interdisciplinary studies assessment instrument developed by Wolfe
and Haynes (2003) for the Association for Integrative Studies, have made explicit use of the steps
Q1
identified in the theory.
While readers should keep in mind that those steps may well undergo some
alteration as the process is vetted within the professional literature on interdisciplinarity, the theory
is as yet the only one available to explain the process and thus will form the basis for this chapter.
The literature on complex systems theory has, if anything, been even more fragmented than that
on interdisciplinary studies. Certainly, no consensus definition of complexity has yet emerged, and
the various sub-literatures have grown out of diverse disciplines (e.g., computer science, meteor-
ology, mathematics, biology, chemistry) that lead theorists in different directions. Indeed, one
might say the field itself is emerging. Even so, if interdisciplinary study is understood to focus
on individual complex systems, then an examination of decision making within interdisciplinary
studies ought to be informed by any available insights into complexity in general. The difficulty is
that decision making is a distinctively human enterprise, yet the disciplines listed above from which
complex systems theories emerged are all in the natural, not the social, sciences. Jack Meek and I
have contended that this natural science legacy has shaped complex systems theory in ways that
make it less than ideally suited to the human sciences (Newell and Meek, 1997). Worse, early
attempts to apply the theory to humans and their institutions drew uncritically from the literature on
complex systems, applying it directly instead of adapting it from theory designed for non-living
systems or for living, non-human systems. A few years ago, I attempted to sketch out the appli-
cability of complex systems theory to human systems in general (Newell, 2003). More recently,
Elizabeth McMillan (2004) has published a compatible assessment of its applicability to human
organizations in particular. It is primarily from these sources that the insights of this chapter into
complexity in interdisciplinary decision making are drawn.
The complex systems characterizing the problems studied by interdisciplinarians (Klein, 2003)
have many variables, typically organized into sub-systems (each of which is studied by a different
discipline). The relationships between variables in different sub-systems are fewer, weaker, and
more nonlinear, while relationships between variables within each sub-system are more numerous,
stronger, and less nonlinear. The relationships between sub-systems are strong enough to make
the behavior of each sub-system react to variables in the other, connected sub-systems—making the
overall system unpredictable in the long-term—yet weak enough to give each sub-system
some short-term stability and the overall system some limited short-term predictability.
The resulting balance between order and disorder, consistency and novelty, and stability and
change may shift over time and differ from one complex system to another, but all human
systems that persist necessarily avoid both excessive fluctuations (else they end in revolution or
disintegrate) and excessive rigidity (else they fail to adapt and become obsolete).
What is offered in this chapter is an idealized model for individual interdisciplinary decision
making about such complex issues. It is a theory-based strategy for addressing any particular
complex issue, not a description of current practice. It could hardly be otherwise, considering
the current ad hoc approach to almost all decision making regarding actual complex issues.
Some generalizations are starting to emerge from the literature on organizations as complex
systems about how to approach complex systems in general, but that literature (hence the general-
izations emerging from it) ignores the contributions of specialized expertise that disciplines
provide. After all, that literature is inspired by complex systems theory, which deliberately
ignores the distinctive characteristics of any particular complex system, as it critiques the discipline
*
See responses in the same volume by Bailis, Klein, Mackey, Carp, and Meek as well as a reply by Newell.
See also Meek’s (2001) application to public administration.
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of management. And while the management discipline engages in sporadic cross-disciplinary
borrowing from disciplines such as psychology, economics, and sociology, it rarely undertakes a
fully interdisciplinary examination of even the most complex managerial problem. None of these
literatures makes use of literature on interdisciplinary studies. It is the contention of this chapter that
interdisciplinary study, appropriately informed by complex systems theory, offers an effective
approach to decision making regarding individual complex systems. Considering the prevalence
of complex problems—in our lives, in business, in society as a whole, and in the international
realm—decision making in interdisciplinary studies is as important as it is under-examined.
Idealized models in general are now under attack by postmodernists, postcolonialists, post-
structuralists, critical theorists, feminists, etc., as obsolete relics of the modernist agenda (with its
attendant white, male, capitalist, imperialistic biases), so some justification of my approach is in
order. Interdisciplinary work is increasingly carried out by teams, and it is important to acknowl-
edge and address the additional layer of challenges represented by power differences (e.g., North-
South, male-female, hetero-gay, Caucasian-other races, able bodied-disabled) among participants
in the interdisciplinary process. But it only muddies our understanding of interdisciplinarity to
conflate such power differences with the cognitive challenges inherent in drawing critically on
different “disciplinary” perspectives and integrating their insights into a more comprehensive,
holistic understanding. The way to ensure they do not become conflated is to focus on the solo
interdisciplinarian, as is done in this chapter. Even so, one’s social location influences one’s
cognitive processes, hence the interdisciplinary work of even solo interdisciplinarians has a
social as well as a cognitive component. But in principle one could look at the cognitive processes
of different solo interdisciplinarians developing their own comprehensive models of the same
complex problem and determine empirically the size and nature of the social influences on their
models because those interdisciplinarians inevitably occupy different social locations. It is my
contention that, once social location variables are held constant, we will discover that there are
many similarities and probably a few notable differences in the decision making processes of
interdisciplinarians. Those anticipated similarities are the focus of this chapter, though potentially
significant differences are pointed out.
Another source of these critiques of idealized models is epitomized in Lyotard’s (1984) state-
ment: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives”
(xxiv). The concern is with grand, all-encompassing stories, especially those that claim some kind
of transcendent and universal truth, because they miss the heterogeneity of human experience. Such
critics prefer small local narratives—what Lyotard calls “petit re
´cits”—that validate multiple
theoretical perspectives. Yet the idealized model set out in this chapter represents just such a
challenge to privileging any one perspective and its claim to transcendent truth. Instead, the
process described in the model gives both a rationale and a procedure for doing precisely what
these critics wish: it validates multiple perspectives. And the more comprehensive understanding at
which it arrives is small and local, in that it is temporary and tentative, and limited in time and space
rather than universal because it focuses on a single complex problem. While one could argue that
the model itself is a metanarrative, the same can be said of postmodernism itself (Habermas, 1985).
Finally, I should point out that one need not embrace complex systems theory, my minority
view of disciplines as a reflection of the portion of reality they study, nor a constructivist realist
ontology [see, for example, Varela and Harre
´(1996) and Cupchik (2001)] to utilize the steps in the
interdisciplinary process and appreciate their implications for decision making in interdisciplinary
studies. I provide the complex systems framework because it provides a rationale for best practice
techniques that are widely accepted among interdisciplinarians. Many interdisciplinarians who
believe that disciplines are more arbitrary than reflections of reality, or that reality is largely
unknowable and cannot be seen even indirectly and “through a glass darkly,” will agree with
much of what is said here about interdisciplinary practice and decision making, even as they
reject the complex system rationale.
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13.2 THE STEPS IN THE INTERDISCIPLINARY PROCESS
The essence of the consensus definition of interdisciplinary studies mentioned above is that inter-
disciplinary study is a two-part process: it draws critically on disciplinary perspectives, and it
integrating their insights into a more comprehensive understanding. In the academy, public
Q2
policy, and medicine, to name a few prominent settings, that process is appropriately used to
understand an existing complex phenomenon. It can also be adapted to the creation of a new
complex phenomenon such as a new product by a cross-functional team in business, an interdisci-
plinary work of art in the fine and performing arts, or an intervention by social workers or therapists,
again to name only a few applications. The focus of this chapter, however, will be on the use of the
interdisciplinary process to understand an existing complex situation.
The steps listed in “A Theory of Interdisciplinary Studies” (Newell, 2001) are adapted from the
work of Julie Klein (1990). They represent an elaboration of the two parts of the definition of
interdisciplinary studies (see points 1 and 2 below). The steps below differ from the steps in that
article only in that one two-part step (gathering all current disciplinary knowledge and searching for
new information) is now split into two separate steps (gathering disciplinary knowledge, and
identifying nonlinear linkages) and the latter step has been shifted from part 1 to part 2.
The Steps in the Interdisciplinary Process:
1. Drawing on disciplinary perspectives
Defining the problem (question, topic, issue)
Determining relevant disciplines (including interdisciplines and schools of thought)
Developing a working command of the relevant concepts, theories, and methods of
each discipline
Gathering all relevant disciplinary knowledge
Studying the problem from the perspective of each discipline
Generating disciplinary insights into the problem.
2. Integrating their insights through construction of a more comprehensive understanding
Identifying conflicts in insights by using disciplines to illuminate each other’s assump-
tions, or by looking for different concepts with common meanings or concepts with
different meanings, through which those insights are expressed
Evaluating assumptions and concepts in the context of the specific problem
Resolving conflicts by working towards a common vocabulary and set of assumptions
Creating amalaiyandicommon ground
Identifying (nonlinear) linkages between variables studied by different disciplines
Constructing a new understanding of the problem
Producing a model (metaphor, theme) that captures the new understanding
Testing the understanding by attempting to solve the problem.
A number of caveats are in order in evaluating these steps. First, separating a fluid process into
discrete steps inevitably gives the misleading impression that the steps cannot overlap. They can
and often do. Second, even though the steps are bulleted instead of numbered, there is still the
implication that the sequence is monotonic (i.e., unidirectional). Nothing could be further from the
truth. If anything, the process should be understood as iterative. While each step typically requires
the completion of the previous steps, it often leads to a reexamination and redoing of earlier steps.
Much like the steps in the “scientific method,” these steps are heuristic rather than descriptive,
idealized more than factually accurate. Third, as with the scientific method, practitioners are prone
to leap ahead to later steps, but by spelling out the process, they at least realize they are getting
ahead of themselves and will eventually have to go back and complete the steps they skipped over.
Fourth, the process is simplified in that it assumes all of the disciplines are mined separately for
nuggets of insight before any integration takes place, and when it does, the integration takes place
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all at once. Such an impression would be not only inaccurate but also undesirable. Interdisciplinar-
ians tend to partially integrate as they go, reforming tentative syntheses as the insights of each
additional discipline are incorporated. Fifth, one can enter the process at a number of different
points—e.g., as a result of dissatisfaction with a single discipline’s perspective or with its partial
understanding—not just at the beginning, but eventually all the steps have to be taken. Finally, as
mentioned earlier, the steps are subject to change as interdisciplinarians come to understand better
the process that defines their profession.
These caveats notwithstanding, a close examination of how each step is carried out provides
the best opportunity to identify the decision making ideally involved in interdisciplinary studies.
What follows is a step-by-step assessment of the decision making implications of the inter-
disciplinary process.
13.2.1 DEFINING THE PROBLEM
The first decision faced by the interdisciplinarian is to determine if the problem is complex and thus
requires an interdisciplinary approach to its solution. The following extended example should
clarify what is meant here by a complex system:
Think of a GIS (geographical information systems) overlay of maps for the same urban area, including
not only one of street maps and neighborhoods taken from the road atlas, but also maps of water and
sewer districts, fire districts, school districts, police precincts, rapid transit, regional planning adminis-
tration, political wards, ethnic enclaves, the county, watersheds, soil profiles, water quality indicators,
and many others. The typical large American city has several hundred administrative units, each
charged with the responsibility for one of those maps. Each map represents a sub-system, which can
be usefully studied in its own terms from a single perspective. But those sub-systems are connected by
an intricate series of often-overlooked relationships that can be subtle, intermittent in their operation,
and occasionally produce responses that are disproportionately large or small—in short, by a network of
nonlinear relationships. The decisions of the school board about the location of a new school can have
unanticipated effects on the ethnic distribution of neighborhoods and thus on voting patterns of wards or
on traffic patterns, which in turn affect highway maintenance; the resulting political shifts and changing
decisions about new highway construction can have unanticipated consequences for watersheds and
water quality; and so on. Taken together, the sub-systems and their nonlinear connections form a
complex system. (Newell, 2001, 8–9)
If the problem crosses boundaries between areas traditionally studied by different groups of
disciplines (e.g., natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, fine and performing arts), then it is a
highly complex problem. If it crosses boundaries (e.g., between social, political, economic, cultural,
and geographical spheres) within an area traditionally studied by different disciplines (in this case,
the social sciences), then it is complex as well but the order of complexity is lower. (The former is
broadly interdisciplinary, the latter narrowly interdisciplinary; but both are still fully interdisci-
plinary because the problem is complex and its study therefore requires the full interdisciplinary
process). Thus, one test of the complexity of a system is to ask if its sub-systems are typically
studied by different disciplines. Alternatively, one can focus on the overall pattern of behavior of
the system, asking if it occasionally exhibits major discontinuities or makes large responses to
relatively small changes. System effects that are disproportionate to their causes, or sudden large
shifts in the system’s pattern of behavior, are also indicative of a complex system.
Having determined that the problem is complex, the interdisciplinarian needs to next decide on
the scope of the problem. By taking too seriously the claim that “everything is connected to
everything else,” the problem can be conceived too broadly and become unmanageable.
A problem can be narrowly defined and still be complex: the test of complexity is not breadth
but the predominance of nonlinear linkages between sub-systems. The essential challenge is to
include all sub-systems with strong nonlinear linkages in this problem-domain, while excluding
Decision Making in Interdisciplinary Studies 249
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those sub-systems with weaker linkages. Indeed, there are advantages to defining complex
problems as narrowly as possible while still retaining their complexity. More time and resources
can be available to: illuminate all of the subsystems; examine the concepts, theories, and methods
utilized by each discipline in that illumination; and uncover, examine, and evaluate the assumptions
underlying the perspective of each discipline.
Within the scope of the problem, the focus of the interdisciplinarian should be on the overall
pattern of behavior that is problematic. Disciplines typically redefine a complex problem so they
can address it using the tools at their disposal. They focus on an aspect of the problem and ignore
the overall pattern of behavior (or at least those parts of the pattern that are inconvenient or outside
the scope of phenomena studied by the discipline). To counteract this tendency, the interdiscipli-
narian needs to contextualize the contribution of each discipline within the overall complex system.
In education, the topic of an interdisciplinary course should focus on a problem that requires the
expertise and interest only of faculty assigned to teach it, and the illumination only of the disciplines
mandated for inclusion in the course.
Once the scope and focus of the problem is established, the challenge is to decide how to word it
in language that does not privilege any one of the disciplines. Avoid jargon, technical terms, or even
non-technical terms that are characteristically used by one discipline. After all, disciplines see the
overall pattern of behavior of the system from the unique vantage point of the sub-system they
study, and their perspective is embedded in the language they use. The best strategy is often to start
out stating the problem in everyday language: the resulting vagueness or imprecision may be an
advantage, in that it admits of multiple interpretations. As subsequent steps in the interdisciplinary
process call for reexamination of the definition of the problem, more precise wording (even newly
minted terms) can be developed that is responsive to all the relevant disciplinary perspectives
(Palmer and Neumann, 2002).
Finally, one must ask, “Problematic for whom?” Whose values and which ethical traditions
were used in deciding that the pattern of behavior is a problem? (Szostak 2003). Is this problem
Q3
more pressing than other problems? Are the interests of the most powerful disproportionately
addressed in choosing to focus on this problem? Whatever the ethical standard employed, one
must make the choice of the problem problematic. It is when one unquestioningly accepts a
problem as self-evident that injustice can creep in.
These four decisions involved in identifying the problem—determining that it is complex,
establishing its scope, choosing its focus, and determining its ethical appropriateness—require
the interdisciplinarian to think systemically as well as comparatively across disciplines, to be
alert to possible strong nonlinear relationships between sub-systems, to balance out the conflicting
requirements of context and feasibility, to be sensitive to implicit disciplinary implications of the
wording of the problem, and to be alert to whose interests are advanced by choosing this problem
over others. More generally, the first step of the interdisciplinary process requires pattern recog-
nition and mental flexibility in shifting back and forth between part and whole; breadth of
knowledge and a feel for where knowledge is incomplete; judiciousness in reconciling competing
claims; rhetorical analysis; and ethical sensitivity.
13.2.2 DETERMINING RELEVANT DISCIPLINES
The central decision here regards choosing which disciplines to bring to bear on the problem. In
complex systems terms, this involves identifying which sub-systems comprise the complex system
whose behavior is problematic (and thus contribute significantly to the overall pattern of behavior),
and then identifying the discipline (or disciplines) that offers insights into each sub-system.
A couple of tests may help in identifying the appropriateness of a particular discipline: is the
topic included in its professional literature, and do colleagues in that discipline see how it can be
applied to the topic? In general, the rule of thumb is to err initially on the side of inclusiveness.
After all, it may not be fully apparent even to those in a discipline how the sub-system they study
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contributes to the overall pattern of behavior of a system that is truly complex. If later steps reveal
that a discipline has little of use to say about the topic, or it offers insights that overlap too much
with those of another discipline, it can be removed from the study. Indeed, it should be removed at
that point because the more researchers who end up on the research team or the more faculty
members involved in developing the course, the greater the cost. Thus, inclusiveness should be
favored in the early steps in the interdisciplinary process, but one should balance it against cost in
later steps.
In evaluating the appropriateness of disciplines in the humanities (including the fine and
performing arts), one must distinguish between the older traditional humanities and the newer
critical humanities. The traditional humanities focus on the human culture sub-systems—the
meaning, values, and significance (Davidson and Goldberg, 2004) of its art, literature, music,
philosophy, religion, theatre, etc.—and fit well into the system-based approach to interdiscipli-
narity of this chapter. The critical humanities—feminist theory, critical theory, postcolonial
theory, cultural theory, queer theory, postmodernist theory, post-structuralist theory, deconstruc-
tionist theory, etc.—on the other hand, focus not so much on human culture itself as on our
knowledge of it, and on disciplinary knowledge in general. While these theories have much in
common with interdisciplinarity, e.g., valuing multiple perspectives and seeing knowledge as
constructed, they also have the potential of providing a critique of interdisciplinarity as well.
After all, they offer fundamental critiques of disciplinary knowledge in which interdisciplinary
studies are grounded.
“Discipline” should be understood here as an umbrella term that includes not only disciplines,
sub-disciplines, and specialities, but interdisciplines and schools of thought. By “interdiscipline,” I
refer to an initially interdisciplinary field that has congealed into a kind of discipline with its own
theories, journals, professional associations, and ultimately a new orthodoxy. Biochemistry, for
example, has completed the transition from interdisciplinary study to interdiscipline, while
women’s studies is still seeking consensus on a new orthodoxy (though cultural, radical, and
material feminists all agree on such key concepts as patriarchy and hegemony, on the need to
distinguish between sex and gender, and on the political and gendered nature of ostensibly econ-
omic, social, and cultural behavior). By “schools of thought” (sometimes referred to as
transdisciplines), I refer to groups of concepts, theories, and methods such as Marxism, structur-
alism-functionalism, and others listed in the preceding paragraph that cut across disciplinary lines.
Like interdisciplines, they have their own core beliefs and approaches that form a sort of orthodoxy
out of which a diverse array of positions can evolve, but their origin lies more in a rejection of
disciplinarity than in interdisciplinary inquiry grounded in disciplines.
What disciplines, interdisciplines, and schools of thought all have in common is a characteristic
perspective or worldview. Whether they are economists, biochemists, or Marxists, they share a
distinctive, though often largely implicit, way of thinking. Members of each group can agree on
what constitutes an interesting and appropriate question to study, what constitutes legitimate
evidence, and what a compelling answer to the question should look like. They agree, again
largely implicitly, on a surprising number of ontological, epistemological, and value assumptions
(e.g., whether individual human beings are rational or irrational, whether the goal of research is
explanation of commonalties or expression of particularities, and whether order or diversity, short-
term or long-term, equality or freedom are more important).
Each perspective provides a unique vantage point from which to view the complex problem
under study. Because each perspective illuminates a different facet of that problem (that may
represent a different sub-system), the challenge is to identify as many relevant perspectives as
possible so that all facets of the problem can be revealed. Indeed, the term “interdisciplinary”
probably places too much emphasis on the disciplines and not enough on the other available sources
of perspective. Were it not so infelicitous, one might better speak of “interperspectival
studies” instead.
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If the interdisciplinary process is being presented in a course and not applied in a research
project, there are additional considerations involved in choosing which disciplines to include. In an
interdisciplinary course in the social or natural sciences, the humanities can offer a hook that draws
students into the topic by providing an empathetic feel for the topic, rich (“thick”) description, and
nuanced appreciation. They can also provide the basis for ethical analysis that goes beyond
common sense. In an interdisciplinary science course, the inclusion of perspectives from the
social sciences or humanities can help students see science as a human endeavor reflecting its
social and cultural context, and bring out the imaginative, creative, or spiritual dimensions of the
topic that are overlooked in science’s focus on what is measurable. Conversely, the sciences can
provide an empirical base that anchors humanistic speculations.
The decision about which disciplines to include has been presented here as a purely cognitive
one, and for full-time interdisciplinarians I believe it can be, but disciplines have social, political,
economic, and cultural as well as cognitive dimensions that can cloud the judgment of the unwary.
Some disciplines are more prestigious than others (e.g., in the natural sciences physics held sway
for centuries as the premier science—a position in the academic pecking order now usurped by
biology). That prestige translates into more funding, more political clout, and more recognition in
the larger culture. It can also translate into an unconscious bias towards its perspective in an
interdisciplinary activity, especially when the decision is made by someone based in a discipline
or new to evaluating the potential contribution of disciplines. Experienced interdisciplinarians,
however, become familiar with the weaknesses as well as the strengths of each discipline, and
come to reject disciplinary claims to privilege.
More problematic are the ideological differences between disciplines. Since its founding,
sociology has been more liberal than economics, for example, and “studies” of any sort (e.g.,
women’s, environmental, even religious) tend to be more liberal than their disciplinary counter-
parts. And individual scholars, interdisciplinary as well as disciplinary, typically have an
ideological predisposition as well. Thus, it would not be surprising if left-of-center interdiscipli-
narians were to draw disproportionately from left-of-center perspectives. On the other hand,
interdisciplinarians come to value diversity of perspective and seek out conflicting viewpoints;
indeed, they revel in ambiguity (Davis and Newell 1981). I see this tension at work in my seniors
Q4
carrying out year-long interdisciplinary research projects. They become restive with the narrowness
of individual disciplinary perspectives, yet they occasionally have to remind each other to look for
ideological perspectives that are right-of-center. As with the earlier question, “Problematic for
whom?,” the best antidote for bias is awareness of its potential. Luckily, interdisciplinarians
develop the habit of detached critical interrogation of all perspectives, making it easier to recognize
their own biases and engage in self-examination of their own perspective.
Finally, it is not uncommon for the decision about which disciplines to include to lead to a
reassessment of the problem; i.e., there is a feedback loop from choice of disciplines to problem
identification. For example, once one recognizes that anthropology and religion have useful contri-
butions to make to the debate among conservationists, preservationists, and restorationists, one may
decide to recast more broadly what had appeared to be an economic, political, and scientific
problem of overgrazing on public lands.
The decisions involved in determining relevant disciplines—identifying sub-systems and the
disciplines focused on them, balancing inclusiveness and cost, determining the distinctiveness of a
discipline’s contribution, and checking for bias based on ideology or disciplinary prestige—require
the interdisciplinarian to think systemically and comparatively, judiciously, and self-reflexively.
More generally, this step in the interdisciplinary process requires breadth of knowledge of the
relevant disciplines and the aspects of reality they illuminate; judiciousness in reconciling
competing disciplinary claims; judgment of the significance of differences in disciplinary contri-
butions; and strong-sense critical thinking (Paul, 1987) in which the critical gaze is turned inwards
to one’s own motivations.
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13.2.3 DEVELOPING A COMMAND OF EACH DISCIPLINE
The step of developing a working command of the concepts, theories, and methods of each discipline
requires decisions about how much and what kind of knowledge to develop. These questions are
particularly troublesome to those glancing at interdisciplinary studies from outside, especially from a
discipline. Must one have a PhD in a discipline to makeintellectuallyrespectable use of it; if not, how
much expertise is enough? How much depth and breadth in each discipline is sufficient? Which concepts,
theories, and methods should be chosen? Is it even possible to do responsible interdisciplinary work as an
individual, or must one collaborate with an expert from each of the other contributing disciplines?
At this point in the interdisciplinary process, the required breadth of knowledge in eachdiscipline is
quite modest: command of the few relevant concepts, theories, or methods from each discipline that are
applicable to the problem under consideration, and a basic feel for how each discipline approaches such
a problem. (However modest, the requisite knowledge of disciplines still has significant faculty
development implications). How much depth (i.e., command) depends, just as it does for disciplinar-
ians, on the characteristics of the problem, the goal of the activity, and the availability of collaborators
and the nature of their collaboration. If the problem requires the collection and processing of large
quantities of information, the use of specialized instruments or higher mathematics, or the use of
advanced concepts and theories whose mastery requires a series of prerequisites, then more depth
and collaboration is required. But if the problem can be illuminated adequately using a handful of
introductory-level concepts and theories from each discipline, and modest information readily and
simply acquired, then a solo interdisciplinary researcher or even a first-year undergraduate student can
handle it. Luckily, one can get some useful initial understanding of most complex problems using a
small number of relatively basic concepts and theories from each discipline.
If the goal of the interdisciplinary activity is the development of a course, then the level of the
course largely determines the depth of mastery required. Introductory-level courses, whether in
general education or an interdisciplinary major, require of faculty only an introductory-level
familiarity with each of the contributing disciplines and a slightly more advanced knowledge of
the actual concepts, theories, and methods drawn from them. Colleagues can be invaluable in
identifying what their discipline has to contribute to an understanding of the problem, suggesting
readings for students and additional background reading for faculty, and even giving guest lectures
(Newell, 1992). The role of faculty in such courses is not to be an expert, but to serve as a coach,
guide, mentor, and role model for how to draw on disciplines in which one is not an expert (Newell,
1994). Indeed, too much expertise can be a bad thing when teaching an interdisciplinary course: one
needs enough knowledge for accuracy, but enough distance for detachment from the discipline.
Again, there is a feedback loop from developing a command of disciplines to determining the
relevant disciplines. A discipline that initially seemed useful may not look so promising when the
concepts, theories, and methods it has to offer are examined more closely. If the discipline doesn’t
provide the anticipated illumination of a particular sub-system, then one may need to look for
another discipline or perspective that does.
Decisions involved in developing a command of disciplines—about how much and what kind of
knowledge is required, and whether the disciplines chosen are still appropriate—require an assessment
of the applicability of specific concepts, theories, and methods to the problem; an evaluation of the
characteristics of the problem, the goal of the activity, and the availability of collaborators; and an
reevaluation of the appropriateness of the disciplines selected. For one’s own discipline, these decisions
also require some detachment, the ability to step outside its comfortable perspective.
13.2.4 GATHERING DISCIPLINARY KNOWLEDGE,STUDYING THE PROBLEM,
AND GENERATING INSIGHTS
The steps of gathering relevant disciplinary knowledge, studying the problem from each disci-
plinary perspective, and generating disciplinary insights into the problem require decisions about
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the appropriate use of disciplines to shed light on the different aspects of the complex problem. In
terms of complex systems theory, the challenge is to illuminate the sub-system underlying each
aspect of the problem using the discipline focused on that sub-system. Those decisions determine
how much and what kinds of information to gather, which concepts and theories to employ and how
to use them, and how to interpret and evaluate the diverse insights generated. One consequence of
these decisions is that earlier choices of disciplines, and even the problem itself, are re-evaluated.
Interdisciplinarians need a systematic overview of the available types of concepts, theories, and
methods, Szostak (2002) points out, if they are to make informed choices. Much of his recent
scholarship has been devoted to developing such typologies, which serve as a useful starting
point in identifying the perspective of each discipline and identifying key theories and methods
that characterize its approach (Szostak, 2004). More detailed overviews are available through a
variety of library reference works such as the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences
(1968); standard introductory textbooks for various disciplines give additional details. Starting with
broad typologies and narrowing down systematically, with a little help from a librarian and then
from relevant disciplinary departments, the interdisciplinarian can hone in not just on relevant
disciplines, but on appropriate concepts and theories from each discipline.
The challenge to the interdisciplinarian interested in an entire complex problem is that each
discipline focuses in on a particular aspect of the problem. When a discipline is brought to bear on a
complex problem, it immediately redefines the problem more narrowly in a way that allows it to
make use of its distinctive concepts, theories, and methods. The result is that each discipline offers
powerful but limited and skewed insights into the overall problem. To make effective use of those
insights, the interdisciplinarian must be fully aware of how each discipline redefines the problem to
figure out the limitations and bias of its insights.
Because disciplines specialize in different sub-systems (that underlie different aspects of a
complex problem), each discipline has its own distinctive strengths; the flip side of those strengths
is often its distinctive weaknesses. A discipline such as psychology that is strong in understanding
individuals, is thereby weak in understanding groups; its focus on parts means that its view of
wholes is blurry. A discipline such as sociology that focuses on groups doesn’t see individuals
clearly; indeed, at the extreme it sees individuals as epiphenomenal—as little more than the product
of their society. Empirically-based disciplines in the social and natural sciences cannot see those
aspects of human reality that are spiritual or imaginative, and their focus on behavior that is lawful,
rule-based, or patterned leads them to overlook human behavior that is idiosyncratic, individua-
listic, capricious and messy, or to lump it into unexplained variance. Humanists, on the other hand,
are attracted to those aspects and tend to grow restive with a focus on behavior that is predictable,
feeling that it misses the most interesting features of human existence. Interdisciplinarians need to
develop an appreciation of the strengths and concomitant limitations of each perspective, and to
evaluate accordingly the insights of each discipline and its relevance to the overall problem.
Because the insights of a discipline are skewed by the way it redefines the problem, their
relevance to the interdisciplinary understanding of the problem as a whole must be dispassionately
evaluated. Insights from the discipline of economics that presume individuals are rational and self-
interested may need to be reassessed when the problem involves social, religious, or cultural
behavior that is based on other motivations as well. Otherwise useful insights from psychology
into an environmental problem may lead the unwary interdisciplinarian to focus too much on the
micro level at the expense of systemic factors. In using skewed insights, interdisciplinarians need to
maintain some psychic distance from the disciplinary perspectives on which they draw, borrowing
from them without completely buying into them.
It is not merely the insights of disciplines that are skewed, however, but also the factual
information uncovered by the disciplines. One might think that facts are facts: how can they be
correct and yet skewed? But facts are notoriously guilty of the sin of omission. They reflect what a
discipline is interested in, and a pile of information on a particular topic makes it seem important
even to someone outside the discipline. So interdisciplinarians need to be attuned to the subliminal
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messages of facts, and keep track of the complex problem that interests them without being side-
tracked by the narrower, value-laden interests of the disciplines on which they draw.
Moving from one discipline to another involves more than moving from one set of concepts,
theories, and methods to another; it means shifting from one perspective to another. The lenses of
one discipline are taken off and the lenses of another discipline are put on in their place. The effect
on the novice interdisciplinarian can be intellectual vertigo until one’s eyes and brain can adjust and
refocus. Experienced interdisciplinarians develop the mental flexibility to shift rapidly from one
disciplinary perspective to another. I suspect the challenge is similar to shifting from English to
Spanish to French: at first, it takes some time to get into using each new language and keeping them
straight (I still find myself using Spanish in Quebec), but eventually one can move from person to
person at a cosmopolitan cocktail party and shift effortlessly from one language to another.
As with the other steps in the interdisciplinary process, these typically lead the interdisciplinarian
to revisit earlier steps. Once one sees precisely what insights the various disciplines have to offer,
one may wish to add a discipline that might offer a missing perspective or remove one whose
contributions overlap too much with others. One may discover the need to learn more about what
a particular discipline has to offer. One might decide that the wording of the problem that once looked
neutral now seems too much indebted to the perspective of one of the disciplines; and one might even
realize that the very conception of the problem is overly reflective of that discipline’s perspective.
Decisions involved in gathering relevant disciplinary knowledge, studying the problem from
each disciplinary perspective, and generating disciplinary insights into the problem require the
interdisciplinarian not only to take on the role of serial disciplinarian but also to address the
consequences of disciplines, redefining as well as narrowing the problem. The cognitive challenges
are to develop enough familiarity with each discipline to appreciate its strengths and apply its
distinctive information, concepts, theories, and methods, while maintaining enough distance from
the discipline (and focus on the complex problem) to recognize its weaknesses and avoid being
distracted by its narrow, biased interests. Finally, the challenge is to recognize the implications of
the disciplinary information and insights for decisions made at earlier steps, revisiting them if only
to assure oneself that they still look correct though more often to revise them.
Looking back over the first half of the interdisciplinary process, it becomes apparent that
Part A, drawing on disciplinary perspectives, involves decisions that are predominantly disci-
plinary: what concepts, theories, and methods to use; what information to collect; how much
breadth and depth are required; what research strategies are feasible given the constraints, etc.
However, it also involves decisions that are distinctively interdisciplinary: going back and forth
between disciplinary part and complex whole; comparative evaluation of the various disciplines’
strengths and weaknesses, and the narrowing and skewing that results from their respective rede-
finitions of the problem. Also evident should be a number of non-cognitive pitfalls that can bias the
decisions of the unwary (and in some cases even the experienced) interdisciplinarian. But none of
the decisions are particularly esoteric or exotic, even if the range and kinds of knowledge required
may appear daunting.
Next, the steps involved in integrating disciplinary insights through construction of a more
comprehensive understanding.
13.2.5 IDENTIFYING CONFLICTS IN INSIGHTS,ILLUMINATING THEIR SOURCE,
AND EVALUATING THEM
The fundamental decisions in creating common ground among the disciplines on which to construct
a more comprehensive understanding of the complex problem address the frequent conflicts among
disciplinary insights. If it were not for these conflicts, common ground would already be established
or merely await discovery. Integration would consist, as is too often supposed, of putting together a
jigsaw puzzle. Instead, integration is more like discovering that many of the jigsaw pieces overlap,
and worse, that the pieces seem to come from different jig saw puzzles and that many of the pieces
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are missing. The decisions one makes about how to modify the pieces determine if and how the
puzzle can be sufficiently solved, in spite of the missing pieces, to make out the picture.
Conflict between the insights of different disciplines should not be surprising because the
disciplines reflect the sub-systems in which they specialize. It is well known that the physical,
chemical, geological, and biological spheres of the natural world follow different though apparently
consistent laws. (While string theorists are the latest in a line of physicists intent on developing a
physical theory of everything, most scientists recognize that biological principles are not reducible
to underlying chemical laws, nor are chemical properties fully reducible to underlying physical
laws, any more than plate tectonics from geology is reducible to more fundamental chemical and
physical laws). In the human world studied by the social sciences and humanities, however, the
different spheres of group existence follow rules that are not only irreducibly different but also
conflicting. (Thus, the economy operates by principles that are partly at odds with the principles
governing the social, political, or religious spheres). And the mental and imaginative world of
humans (e.g., culture, fiction, art) follows principles that are not only irreducibly different and
conflicting with those of the world of human behavior and institutions, but incommensurate with
them as well. (They address what could or should be more than what is; and they value expression
over explanation). The insights of different disciplines conflict because they reflect the irreducibly
different, conflicting, or even incommensurate principles by which the sub-systems they study
operate. And the nature and extent of the conflict in insights depends on whether they are drawn
from the natural sciences, social sciences, or humanities.
While every discipline makes a number of assumptions, many of them are tacit. Experienced
disciplinarians feel little need to scrutinize, much less justify, assumptions they share with others in
their field (with whom they tend to communicate primarily). Novices in a discipline tend to pick up
these assumptions unconsciously in graduate school, if not as undergraduates in their major, as part
of the process of enculturation into the discipline. Interdisciplinarians can ferret out those assump-
tions by playing one discipline off another: they can use the critique of one discipline to illuminate
contrasting assumptions of another discipline.
Insights from disciplines are expressed largely in language (though not entirely, as my
colleagues in the fine and performing arts are quick to point out). So conflict in insights
becomes embedded in terminology. Addressing differences in disciplinary terminology requires
particularly nuanced decision making. To create common ground in the face of conflict, the inter-
disciplinarian must address two types of situations—in which different disciplinary concepts mask
common meaning, and in which the same concept masks different contextual meanings in the
disciplines (Bromme, 2000). The operative decisions in both cases regard the extent and nature
of the overlap in meaning (think Venn diagrams), and then the development of terminology that
brings out the overlap in meaning while acknowledging the areas of conflict. The common ground
will eventually be expressed in new technical terms or old everyday terms that scholars can agree to
freight with new meaning. An additional challenge here is to decide which conflict is real but
extraneous to the specific problem at hand, and which conflict makes a difference in this context.
Lying behind the language are assumptions that must be evaluated in the context of the problem
at hand. Those assumptions reflect each discipline’s time-tested perception of the principles
governing the sub-system in which it specializes. They can be ontological (regarding the nature
of the “reality”), epistemological (regarding the nature of knowledge of that “reality”), and value-
based. For example, each social science makes an ontological assumption about the rationality of
individuals—whether they are rational, irrational, rationalizing, etc.—that is one-size-fits-all in
nature. Other ontological assumptions by the social sciences regard whether individuals are autono-
mous or a product of society, self-centered or other-regarding; assumptions about groups regard
whether they are merely the sum of the individuals in them or take on a life of their own, and
whether groups are characterized more by conflict or by order. Value assumptions are made by
the social sciences about diversity, justice, truth, efficiency, and ideology. To a considerable extent,
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the conflict in insights of the disciplines reflects such differences in assumptions on which the
disciplines are based: disciplines see what they are designed to see.
The interdisciplinarian can decide at any one moment whether to focus on redesigning the
disciplines’ concepts to best illuminate the complex problem at hand, or on determining the extent
to which each blanket assumption is appropriate in the context of the problem at hand. Because
assumptions underlie concepts and concepts reflect assumptions, focusing on one level has direct
implications for the other level as well. Following the “principle of least action” from physics,
conflicting disciplinary concepts or assumptions should be modified as little as possible to make
them consistent in the context of the particular complex problem. (Specific techniques for modi-
fying concepts and assumptions are discussed in the next section).
Decisions involved in addressing conflicts in disciplinary insights can be aided by becoming
cognizant of implicit as well as explicit disciplinary assumptions and by assessing their appropri-
ateness in light of the specific complex problem. Knowledge of the range of assumptions
underlying each contributing discipline is more esoteric than that required in the first half of the
interdisciplinary process. Disciplinarians are of disappointingly little help in identifying their own
assumptions—they may even be reluctant to admit they make some of the assumptions that,
logically, they must to arrive at the conclusions they do. Interdisciplinarians are only now
joining experts from library and information science in compiling this information, though I
expect it will be generally available within the next few years. For now, it can be extracted from
a discipline by subjecting it to close scrutiny and logical analysis from other disciplines, though the
cognitive skills involved—reasoning backwards from the concepts, theories, and methods under-
lying insights to infer the assumptions on which they must be based—seem difficult for
most scholars.
Even more challenging is the assessment of the appropriateness of assumptions. As explained
more fully below, that requires the interdisciplinarian to have a feel for the operation of complex
systems, knowledge of the overall pattern of behavior produced by that particular complex system,
familiarity with how sub-systems are typically connected through nonlinear linkages, a sense of the
modifications in disciplinary assumptions typically required to identify the principles by which
those linkages operate, and finally, movement back and forth between system and sub-systems.
These are skills that even the most experienced interdisciplinarians are just starting to learn, skills
that are far from the professional experience of most disciplinarians though some of these skills are
familiar to computer modelers of complex systems.
Also challenging is the rhetorical and philosophical analysis of disciplinary concepts that mask
some commonalty of meaning in different terms, or hidden contextual differences in meaning in the
same concept when used by different disciplines. This task is rhetorical in that it requires an ear for
the impact of language use, and philosophical in that it requires identifying fine gradations of
meaning. The very flexibility, fluidity, and variegated nature of language itself (Frey, 2002;
Lowy, 1991; Klein, 1996) make it difficult to achieve the requisite precision.
13.2.6 CREATING COMMON GROUND
The step of creating common ground requires decisions about how to bring out latent commonalties
in the conflicting insights derived from the concepts, theories, or methods of different disciplines.
As explained in the preceding section, this step can be carried out directly by modifying the
concepts through which they are expressed, or indirectly by modifying the assumptions on
which they are based and then reassessing the insights in light of the modified concepts or assump-
tions. In either case, the challenge is to decide how to modify concepts or assumptions as
little as possible to bring out potential commonalties. Once common ground has been constructed,
the modified insights can be integrated into a more comprehensive understanding of the
complex problem.
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Most of the literature on interdisciplinary studies has seen this step as a creative and therefore
inexplicable act effectively taking place inside a black box. Spurred on by the recognition
that interdisciplinary study would never be respected as rigorous as long as its defining feature
of integration was unexamined and mysterious, I have attempted to identify the techniques of
integration (Newell, 2000) in exemplary interdisciplinary scholarship. My focus has been on
works that bring together the disciplines of economics and sociology because there is more
head-on conflict between their assumptions than anywhere else in the social sciences—so much
so that a Harvard economist once famously quipped, “Economics is all about how people make
choices. Sociology is all about why they don’t have any choices to make” (Duesenberry, 1960,
233). Because the development of common ground has been so poorly understood, the techniques
of redefinition, extension, organization, and transformation that I identified so far are set out below
in some detail.
Decisions about which techniques to use should be based on the nature and extent of the conflict.
One possible situation is that concepts and assumptions do not conflict at all, though commonalty is
still obscured by discipline-specific terminology or context. A second possibility is that concepts and
assumptions of two disciplines are different but not opposing; they merely represent alternatives. A
third possible situation is that concepts and assumptions are diametrically opposed. For most
complex problems, the challenge of creating common ground confronts the interdisciplinarian
with more than one of these situations; for problems that require input from the social sciences
and humanities, all three are likely to be involved. Some techniques of integrations are useful in
more than one situation, so the interdisciplinarian needs to understand the range of applicability of
each technique.
The technique of redefinition can reveal commonalties in concepts or assumptions that may be
obscured by discipline-specific terminology. This technique is useful whether or not disciplinary
concepts and assumptions are in conflict. For example, when Kenneth Boulding (1981) tried to
figure out how economics as well as sociology might contribute to an understanding of grants, he
was faced with the fact that economic theory focuses on exchanges and there is no quid pro quo in
genuinely altruistic grants, bequests, gifts, donations, etc. He created common ground by recog-
nizing the commonalty of grants and exchanges, namely that they both involve a transfer: grants are
one-way transfers while exchanges are two-way transfers. Because most disciplinary concepts and
assumptions are couched in discipline-specific jargon, the integrative technique of redefinition is
involved in most efforts to create common ground, in conjunction with other techniques of inte-
gration as well as by itself.
The technique of extension addresses differences or oppositions in disciplinary concepts or
assumptions by extending the meaning of an idea beyond the domain of the discipline into the
domain of another discipline. Robert Frank (1988) felt that economics could join sociology and
evolutionary biology in the study of altruistic behavior, even though economics focuses on self-
interested behavior and tends to reject claims of altruism as disguised self-interest. He came up with
the idea of extending the meaning of self-interest from its short-term context in economics to the
long-term for an individual, namely a lifetime. Because of the “commitment problem,” he argued,
some behavior that is self-interested in the short-run actually undermines long-run self-interest
because it discourages others from entering into contracts with the person who has developed a
reputation for placing short-run material self-interest ahead of honoring contracts or following a
moral code. For the same reasons, behavior that would be termed altruistic in the short-run can
actually enhance long-run self-interest. He then extended the meaning of self-interest even further
to the long-term for the species as a whole, connecting it to ideas from evolutionary biology.
Likewise, Kenneth Boulding (1981) used utility analysis from microeconomics to shed light on
altruistic behavior by extending the concept of self-interest. Under his reformulation, an individ-
ual’s utility (or amount of satisfaction) extends beyond the goods and services that an individual
consumes to include the well-being of others towards whom the individual feels benevolence
or malevolence. Thus, if A feels benevolent towards B and gives B a gift, A’s utility will rise if
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A perceives that B is better off. The integrative technique of extension can be used to create
common ground by extending a concept or assumption not just in time (Frank) or across individuals
(Boulding), but across the boundaries of cultures, races, ethnicities, genders, ideologies, nations,
regions, classes, or any other classification.
Because interdisciplinary studies have a different focus than the disciplines on which they draw
(namely they focus on a complex whole, not just on a part of that whole), interdisciplinary studies
place disciplinary concepts in new contexts. Those contexts are likely to challenge the assumptions
on which individual disciplines are predicated by extending beyond their range. By paying explicit
attention to the definition of disciplinary concepts, the assumptions on which they are based, and the
way the context challenges that definition and those assumptions, the interdisciplinarian can set up a
redefinition or extension that creates the appropriate common ground for integration.
The integrative technique of organization not only identifies a latent commonalty in meaning of
different disciplinary concepts or assumptions and redefines them accordingly; it then organizes,
arranges, or arrays the redefined insights or assumptions to bring out a relationship among them. For
example, Boulding (1981) recognized that both benevolent behavior (studied by sociologists) and
malevolent behavior (studied by political scientists) can be understood as other-regarding behavior
(positive and negative, respectively). He then arrayed them along a continuum of other-regarding
behavior. The self-interested behavior studied by economists became the midpoint on that conti-
nuum because its degree of other-regarding behavior is zero. Thus, he set out a way to transform the
debate about whether human nature in general is selfish or altruistic into a choice of where on the
continuum of motivations people are likely to fall in the particular complex problem under study.
By combining into a single continuum with self-interest the motivations of love and hate/fear that
support or threaten the integrative mechanisms binding societies and polities together, Boulding
used the technique of organization to integrate the differing conceptions of human nature under-
lying economics, sociology, and political science.
The integrative technique of organization can be expanded from individual concepts and
assumptions to large-scale models, major theoretical approaches, and even entire disciplines. For
example, Amitai Etzioni (1988) argued that there are several identifiable large-scale patterns of
interrelationship between the “rational/empirical” factors studied by economics and the “normative/
affective” factors studied by sociology. One such pattern I call an envelope. Here the rational
behavior studied by economists is bounded, limited, or constrained by the normative factors
studied by sociologists. Thus, rational economic behavior functions within a normative sociological
envelope. Another pattern might be called inter-penetration. Some sociological factors directly
influence economic behavior, while some economic factors directly influence social behavior.
Thus, social relationships can have an effect on how economic information is gathered and
processed, what inferences are drawn, and what options are considered. And a third pattern can
be referred to as facilitation. Etzioni points out that the “free individuals [studied by economists] are
found only within communities [studied by sociologists], which anchor emotions and morals” (xi).
Thus, sociological factors such as communities can actually facilitate individual economic behavior.
Similarly, the anthropologist Dorothy Lee (1959) made the case that structure is freeing. Like their
small-scale counterparts, these macro-level applications of the integrative technique of organization
can bring out the relationship among commonalties of meaning within contrasting disciplinary
concepts or assumptions.
The integrative technique of transformation is used where concepts or assumptions are not
merely different (e.g., love, fear, selfishness) but opposite (e.g., rational, irrational). Etzioni (1988)
believed that “dichotomies are the curse of intellectual and scholarly discourse” (203).
He addressed the problem of opposite axiomatic assumptions by transforming them into continuous
variables; e.g., opposing assumptions about the rationality (economics) or irrationality (sociology)
of humans are resolved by changing a dichotomous assumption about rationality (that is exogenous
to the model) into a continuous variable (that is endogenous to the model)—the degree of
rationality. By studying the factors that influence rationality, one could then determine in principle
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the degree of rationality that is likely in the complex problem under study. Etzioni devoted an entire
chapter to identifying factors that influence the degree of rationality in any given situation. Where
feasible, those factors could even be measured in the context of the complex problem under study to
determine empirically the degree of rationality. Likewise, Etzioni treated trust and governmental
intervention as continuous variables whose determinative influences can be explored and estimated
in any particular context, rather than as dichotomous assumptions to accept or reject. By trans-
forming opposing assumptions into variables, then, we push back assumptions and expand the
scope of the theory. The effect of this strategy is not only to resolve a philosophical dispute but
also to extend the range of the theory. This integrative technique of transformation can be applied to
any dichotomy or duality, and our culture is replete with them.
What typifies the decisions involved in the step of creating common ground is that they replace
the either/or thinking, which is characteristic of the disciplines, with both/and thinking. Inclusive
thinking is substituted for dualistic thinking. Because these decisions require abstract thought about
shades of meaning, they have a philosophical character to them. And because they require the
creation of new meaning, they epitomize the hackneyed managerial skill of “thinking outside
the box.” Indeed, intellectual flexibility and playfulness are more useful than logic at this step in
the integrative part of the interdisciplinary process.
The goal of creating common ground is not to remove the tension between the insights of
different disciplines, but to reduce their conflict. Differences will remain, reflecting the differences
in principles by which the various sub-systems operate, but the commonalties that are brought out
should reflect the principles according to which the system as a whole operates, in particular the
non-linear linkages between variables in different sub-systems.
13.2.7 IDENTIFYING LINKAGES AMONG DISCIPLINES
The identification of linkages between variables studied by different disciplines involves decisions
about what substantive information is missing about the complex problem under study. Interdisci-
plinarians need to be alert throughout the interdisciplinary process for unexamined linkages
between disciplines and should identify as many as possible before attempting to construct a
more comprehensive understanding. If integration is successful, the remaining linkages will be
identified during the construction of a more comprehensive understanding.
It should come as no surprise that linkages between the variables of different disciplines are
largely unknown and thus unexamined. Each discipline focuses on uncovering the linkages among
its own variables, but no one (other than the interdisciplinarian) takes the responsibility to study
behavior that falls between the disciplines or that transcends them. The divide-and-conquer strategy
of disciplinary reductionism simply ignores cross-disciplinary linkages, yet they provide the glue
that holds a complex system together and give it what coherence it has. Without these linkages,
there would be no overall system, merely small independent systems studied by individual disci-
plines. So there would be no overall problem, merely separate problems adequately studied by
separate disciplines. And the reductionist strategy of the disciplines would suffice, without the need
for holistic thinking.
It is reasonable to expect that most of the linkages between the sub-systems studied by different
disciplines will be nonlinear. Disciplines use simplifying assumptions that point scholars towards
compatible (non-conflicting), complementary variables. And the tools (e.g., descriptive and infer-
ential statistics, mathematics such as the calculus) typically used to determine the relationships
among those variables work well when those relationships are orderly, simple, and linear, and tend
to break down, yield messy results, or become insoluble when the relationships become too
nonlinear. Disciplines are opportunistic and imperialistic, expanding their domain as far as their
tools and theories permit. When they encounter behavior that cannot be explained using those tools
and theories, or extensions and variants thereof, they stop their expansion. Thus, it seems likely that
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relationships that cross disciplinary boundaries are not linear, or at least more nonlinear than
traditional disciplinary tools are designed to accommodate.
13.2.8 CONSTRUCTING AND MODELING A MORE COMPREHENSIVE UNDERSTANDING
The decisions involved in constructing a more comprehensive understanding are about the connec-
tions between parts and whole, between partial theoretical insights and overall empirical
information. The empirical information about the complex problem as a whole is examined to
identify patterns of behavior of the complex system producing the problem. The partial theoretical
insights come from the disciplines that study the various sub-systems of which the complex system
is constructed. What little information that is available about the linkages between those sub-
systems probably comes largely from interdisciplinarians. The general challenge in constructing
a more comprehensive understanding is to develop a model of that complex system consistent with
the theoretical disciplinary insights, with any available interdisciplinary insights into the linkages
among sub-systems, and with the overall pattern of behavior of the complex system. That model
should produce behavior consistent with observed overall patterns and emerge from the constituent
sub-systems studied by individual disciplines. The interdisciplinarian goes back and forth between
parts and whole, asking how disciplinary insights might be modified or postulating additional
interdisciplinary linkages, so that the behavior they predict is consistent with the observed behavior
of the complex system.
The challenge is complicated by the fact that the linkages between the sub-systems are typically
nonlinear, so the system as a whole is complex, and complex systems are only partially ordered,
determined, and predictable. Thus, it may not be readily apparent how the linked theoretical parts
produce the observed whole, even if the sub-systems have been fully and accurately portrayed by
the disciplines that study them, the linkages between sub-systems are all known and accurately
characterized, and the overall pattern of behavior is fully and accurately observed. Because these
conditions are unlikely to be fully met, the challenge of interdisciplinary integration is
formidable indeed.
The more comprehensive understanding should be responsive to each disciplinary perspective,
but beholden to none of them. That is, each discipline should contribute to that understanding, but
no one disciplinary perspective should dominate it. The goal is to achieve a balance among
disciplinary influences on the more comprehensive understanding.
The complex system modeled by the interdisciplinarian has at least some unity and
coherence, or it would not be a system at all. One possible test of whether that unity and
coherence has been captured in the more comprehensive understanding is to develop a meta-
phor that brings out the defining characteristics of that understanding without denying the
remaining conflicts that underlies it. Metaphors are particularly useful in the humanities,
where relationships are seldom usefully expressed by systems of simultaneous equations,
computer simulations, or formal models, but the natural and social sciences make a surprising
amount of use of metaphors as well (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). If that metaphor is consistent
with the contributing disciplinary insights as modified to create common ground, the inter-
disciplinary linkages found, and the patterns observable in the overall behavior of the complex
system, then a more comprehensive understanding has been reached. Whether it is an
adequate understanding, however, must be determined in the final step in the interdisciplinary
process.
The decisions underlying the construction and modeling of a more comprehensive under-
standing are characteristic of business and politics more than of the academy. Playing both ends
against the middle, balancing out conflicting constituencies, and reconciling expert advice with
actual practice involve decisions associated more with expediting, logistics, policy-making and
management than with scholarship and teaching. They are more characteristic of the real world than
the ivory tower. Indeed, the challenge of integration requires the interdisciplinarian to confront
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real-world complexities that disciplinarians can partially avoid through the use of
simplifying assumptions.
13.2.9 TESTING THE MORE COMPREHENSIVE UNDERSTANDING
The decisions involved in the final step in the interdisciplinary process relate to the real-world
application and pragmatic evaluation of the more comprehensive understanding. In interdisci-
plinary studies, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: does the more comprehensive
understanding allow more effective action? Does it help solve the problem, resolve the issue, or
answer the question? It is the interdisciplinarian who develops the more comprehensive under-
standing, but it is practitioners concerned with that particular complex problem, issue, or question
who must decide if the more comprehensive understanding is useful to them. Thus, interdisci-
plinary study (the final step in the interdisciplinary process in particular) serves as the bridge
between the ivory tower and the real world.
If pragmatic judgments of practitioners are that the more comprehensive understanding lacks
utility, or that it has limited value because of a serious weakness, then the interdisciplinarian must
correct the weakness by revisiting the earlier steps in the interdisciplinary process. While any step
might contain the source of the inadequacy, the weakest step is usually the identification of linkages
between disciplines because the least work was probably done on this step beforehand. As pointed
out earlier, relatively little is known about linkages between disciplines because most scholars are
disciplinarians and focus their scholarship on topics of interest to their discipline. The next most
common source of failure or inadequacy is a missing perspective, either because a potential
disciplinary contribution has been overlooked or because a discipline does not yet exist, or a
phenomenon overlooked by the disciplines. In any case, a sub-system has remained unexamined.
If the more comprehensive understanding is useful but has an identifiable shortcoming, the nature
of the inadequacy may suggest which steps need to be reexamined.
Unfortunately for interdisciplinarians, as pointed out earlier, the complex nature of the problem
means that even a model that is accurate and complete may produce a more comprehensive under-
standing that predicts less well than practitioners demand. The complexity of the problem means
that it is only quasi-ordered, quasi-determined, and quasi-predictable; moreover, it may evolve
unexpectedly to produce a new pattern of behavior. Thus, at best interdisciplinary studies may
produce more comprehensive understandings that are of only limited utility. But the difficulty lies
in the nature of the problems studied by interdisciplinarians, not in the process they use to study
them. Interdisciplinary studies get the most utility possible out of the disciplines, but whether that
utility is sufficient to usefully guide human decision making depends on the degree of complexity of
the problem itself.
13.3 CONCLUSION
This chapter has set out the basic cognitive skills, strategies, sensibilities, and competencies under-
lying the decision making involved in the interdisciplinary process. While the nature and
underlying characteristics of decisions have been identified for each step separately, there are
some overall observations that need to be made about the process as a whole.
First, many of the decisions involved in the conduct of interdisciplinary inquiry are rather
ordinary (though perhaps not customary); none of them are so esoteric that the entire enterprise
seems infeasible. In short, interdisciplinary study is viable.
Second, the kinds of decision making vary widely. Some are familiar to disciplinarians, but
many others go beyond the normal conduct of disciplinary inquiry. Thus, interdisciplinary study is
far from “business as usual” in the academy.
Third, some decisions required by the interdisciplinary process, in particular those involved in
integration, actually run counter to the disciplinary approach and thus to the academy as a whole.
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The holistic, both/and, anti-dualistic thinking involved in interdisciplinary integration directly
opposes the overall reductionist, divide-and-conquer strategy of the disciplines. But the interdisci-
plinary process is as much about drawing on disciplines as it is about integrating their insights.
Thus, interdisciplinary study should be understood as complementary to the disciplines, as utilizing
and then transcending but not rejecting them. Indeed, interdisciplinary study is best understood as a
corrective to the disciplines; together, disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity produce a balance
between reductionism and holism.
Finally, the decisions involved in interdisciplinary study are ultimately pragmatic. The test of
the appropriateness of any one decision is whether it enhances the overall real-world utility of the
more comprehensive understanding it produces. As such, interdisciplinary study constitutes a
bridge between the academy and the rest of society.
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Author Queries
BOOK: BK13824
CHAPTER NUMBER: 13
Q1 Please note that Wolfe and Haynes (2003) has been found in text. But not provided in reference
list.
Q2 Please check the word academia or acadamy in the sentence “In the academy........”.
Q3 Please note that Szostak 2003 has been found in text. But not provided in references list.
Q4 Please note that Davis and Newell, 1981 has been found in text but in reference list it is given as
Davis and Newell (1990). Please check.
Q5 Please note that references Davis and Newell (1990) and Szostak has been uncited. Please
check.
Q6 Please provide the year details.
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Este texto examina los principios metodológicos básicos de los estudios interdisciplinares para discutir estrategias de colaboración científica disciplinar entorno al estudio integrado de la imagen. Explora tres áreas específicas de investigación: el principio de definición del posicionamiento especializado de la investigación interdisciplinar y su pertinencia con escenarios de estudio de la imagen; el principio de la integración disciplinar, y el uso de variables sociodemográficas en el abordaje de medios y redes sociales en línea y el principio de reconciliación de conflictos aplicado al estudio integral de la imagen en Instagram, Facebook y Twitter.
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Includes results of an institutional review comparing students in St.Olaf College and its Paracollege
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