the rationale for interdisciplinary research

All across the world, an increasing number of research institutions are opting to promote and practice interdisciplinary research. This is the result of a global trend in academia that recognizes the need for a type of research that can bring together different disciplines, break disciplinary boundaries, and integrate findings into broad syntheses.

Traditionally, and especially in the scientific paradigms of the twentieth century, research has been done within the scope of a single discipline. Specific aspects of the world—such as its past, its economic relations, or its biological phenomena—are typically isolated and then investigated by respective disciplines, such as history, economics, or biology. Disciplines are usually characterized by their specific area of inquiry and a common set of tools for research, such as concepts, theories, methods, techniques, and sometimes even languages (e.g., mathematics). The importance of disciplinary tools is reflected by the fact that a commitment to disciplinary standards ensures that specific research is conducted scientifically, i.e., in accordance with the methodologies and principles of an established scientific practice. Those tools are used by disciplines to discipline the world into their own boundaries.

Although disciplinary approaches have incredible merits and produce outstanding results, they also have drawbacks and limitations. For one thing, a disciplinary approach is typically sensitive only to those aspects of a phenomenon that can be handled and modeled by the tools of that discipline. Consequently, a disciplinary approach may end up overlooking some crucial aspects of certain investigated phenomena, only because those aspects fall outside the scope of the methodological tools of that discipline. We often face problems—global pandemics, climate change, the social implications of biomedicine, or the economic consequences of technoscientific advance—that are so complex and multifaceted that a single discipline alone does not have the means to provide a satisfactory solution.

Moreover, disciplinary approaches encourage a mode of knowledge production that is fragmented and compartmentalized. A rigid division of research into independent disciplinary bundles produces a lack of communication between different researchers and different disciplines. As a result, valuable connections across different areas of knowledge often get lost or overlooked, which is detrimental to both the applied research dealing with real world problems and basic research aiming at the deeper understanding of the complexity of the world.

Recognizing that the problems of the twenty-first century require complex solutions, at SAS we hope to produce research that will actively integrate perspectives and approaches from across the disciplines.

value of interdisciplinary research at SAS

Interdisciplinary research addresses problems that are intractable from the perspective of a single discipline

When a broad and complex problem falls outside the scope of a single discipline, researchers from different disciplines need knowledge and resources that come from outside their discipline. Interdisciplinary approaches integrate information, concepts, theories, and methods that come from two or more disciplines. As a result, what is intractable from the perspective of a single discipline becomes the subject of integrated analysis and collaborations between researchers with complementary skills.

Interdisciplinary collaboration strengthens the foundations of the disciplines involved

Although interdisciplinary research goes beyond the boundaries of the single disciplines, disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity should not be seen as opposites. On the contrary, interdisciplinary studies can be beneficial for the single disciplines. In fact, the direct access to information, theories, and methodologies of other disciplines can be insightful and even transformational for the methods of a discipline involved in interdisciplinary research. Foundational research – research that investigates and questions the very axioms, basic assumptions, basic tools of a discipline – is almost by nature interdisciplinary: when leaving the strict borders of a discipline to change it, one necessarily moves onto the territory of another discipline. This is the reason why some of the most ground-breaking research is interdisciplinary: in one meaningful sense, scientific creativity can be defined as “thinking-out-of-the-disciplinary-box.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration creates new fields of inquiry and helps formulate new research questions

The practice of interdisciplinary research generates new intellectual territories that are created by the merging of different traditions coming together. The integration of different voices brings to the fore entirely new problems that were never considered before. A key advantage of interdisciplinary research is that it may create new, emerging fields, where few people have been before, and where creativity can be gratified more easily. Newly emerged interdisciplinary fields such as biophysics, neuropsychology, quantum computation, cognitive science, neurosociology, econophysics can become some of the most thriving fields in their original discipline or be considered genuinely new disciplines.