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Interdisciplinarity in ferment

Filipa M.Ribeiro

What do subjects like personalized learning, curriculum reforms, research agendas and institutional frames have in common? Interdisciplinarity. Whether we discuss the duality of vocational versus general education or the impact of ideologies on research, interdisciplinarity is an in-between topic. Interestingly enough, it is often overlooked even if interdisciplinarity is one of the most hotly debated topics among academics and has spun a complex web of development strategies and theorizing. However, its lack of standardization continues to be an issue, namely in universities that have traditionally hermetic departments and a lack of communication embedded in the academic culture. The various definitions of  interdisciplinarity converge into two main axis: 1) powerfull insights found by applying intellectual resources of different disciplines to particular problems; or 2) rhetorical mechanisms that reinforce the discourses on productivity and competitiveness which, in turn, produce an ideological system that serves the economic regulation at universities, encouraging an overemphasis on research projects and courses (e.g., the proliferation of summer schools).


Favoring or disregarding interdisciplinarity?  

Interdisciplinarity is also at stake with regard to the practices put in place by the management bodies of research institutions, university departments or governing bodies to assist, seduce or repel the individual researchers. These practices include institutional restructuring, reorganisation of curricula, the implementation of information, communication technology, changing patterns in knowledge production, the changed role of education in societies, and new modes to manage and assess higher education and research. This is often explicitly phrased in prescriptive documents (e.g. strategic plans of universities and official documents that try to outline the  criteria and “good practices”, whose very title already implies a simplistic outreach to interdisciplinarity) that aim to assume a given role in civil society at large. Thus, the paradox arises: there is a conventional discourse in favor of interdisciplinary research and, at the same time, much indifference or even disregard for such research (Sperber, 2003).

Interdisciplinarity demands constant proactiveness, responsiveness and the ability to adapt to changing situations. As Sperber (2003) notes, often disciplinary boundaries and routines stand in the way of optimal research and that is why a common solution is to go ahead with new research programmes, which requires hasty institutional reshaping. In addition, research shows that constraints to interdisciplinarity are posed both in scientific terms (e.g.: Collinet et al.,2013) but also in institutional terms (e.g.: Su, 2014), especially concerning governance modes (Cooper and Farooq, 2013). As a matter of fact, the idea that interdisciplinarity in higher education is related to the framework of institutions, departments and courses is not new (e.g.: Carpenter, 1995; Pirrie et al, 1999; Becher, 2001; Wall and Shankar, 2008; Dykes et al., 2009). A less debated dimension of interdisciplinarity concerns the individual and social epistemology of knowledge and science. How and why interdisciplinarity emerges at the individual level? Andersen and Wagenknecht (2013) remind that interdisciplinarity involves epistemic dependence between researchers with different areas of expertise, the combination of complementary contributions from different researchers through shared mental models and conceptual structures, and shared cooperative activity with interlocking intentions, meshing sub-plans and mutual responsiveness.


Does belonging to a department increase interdisciplinarity?

My recent article “Interdisciplinarity in ferment: The role of knowledge networks and department affiliation”, published in Technological Forecasting and Social Change, posits that social networks shape interdisciplinarity because universities are formed by networked actors whose relations are not only centred on place-based affiliation (though highly shaped by them), but also on niche knowledge and skills affiliations. However, we lack enough empirical data on the knowledge networks of researchers to better understand how these networks shape the influence between faculty structures and knowledge creation in terms of interdisciplinarity and what the optimal structure for interdisciplinarity is. In other words, the paper addresses interdisciplinarity forwards rather than backwards, exploring the relation between the present and the future through the conditions from which interdisciplinarity arises. The focus is not the processes of network structure emergence and tie formation, but rather how those networks and ties affect interdisciplinarity. Based on a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the personal knowledge networks of academics of higher education institutions from Catalonia (Spain), the study used a mixed methods approach combining the delineation of personal networks with the analysis of the ties’ content, proposing a conceptual model specifically developed for this study.

Findings suggest a strong correlation between the network members nominated in the influence generator and interdisciplinarity. In fact, a quite surprising finding is that collaborators are not the ones who most influence either interdisciplinarity or individual knowledge creation. On the other hand, stronger ties (the ones with whom respondents have more affinity, more time of interaction and higher frequency of contact) seem to be more conducive of interdisciplinary research than weaker ties (if those strong ties do not belong to the same department of the respondent). Belonging to a faculty department may increase tie strength but reduces interdisciplinarity.

This study shows that the concept of interdisciplinarity itself is changing on the emergence of new modes of knowledge creation, especially the rise of peer production, which presents a stark challenge to conventional thinking about interdisciplinarity. Indeed, interdisciplinarity should not be understood only as the traditional concatenation of different disciplines. This study offers corroboration for the claim that interdisciplinarity is more about epistemological commitments and exchanges rather than disciplinary training. It is important to see these phenomena not as exceptions or ephemeral fads, but as indications of a fundamental fact about transactional knowledge forms and their relationship to the institutional conditions of knowledge creation.

Therefore, this new way of looking on interdisciplinarity reinforces a third form of transaction in higher education institutions: social sharing and exchange. On the other hand, we produce and exchange knowledge, but we do not count this exchange in our institutional design. This, in turn, may be the reason why social knowledge creation and interdisciplinarity have been shunted to the peripheries of academic organization landscape.


Filipa M. Ribeiro is in the final year of her PhD at the University of Porto. She has a diverse background in science and medical journalism, digital media, innovation, project management  and science communication. She graduated in Communication Sciences and has a master degree on Sociology of Science. She has been doing research on Higher Education since 2009 and was  a member of the Portuguese team in the ESF funded project TRUE (Transforming universities in Europe). She is also one of the co-founders and executive members of ECHER – Early Career Higher Education researchers’ network. Her current research involves topics on ubiquitous knowledge, sociology of science, social networks, interdiciplinarity and diversity in higher education.



Andersen, H., Wagenknecht, S. (2013) Epistemic dependence in interdisciplinary groups.Synthese, 190: 1881–1898. Springer.

Becher, B. (1987). Disciplinary discourse. Studies in Higher Education, 12: 261-274.

Carpenter, J. (1995) Interprofessional education for medical and nursing students: Evaluation of a programme. Medical Education ,29: 265–72.

Collinet, C., P. Terral, P. Trabal (2013) Forms and Modes of Apprehending Interdisciplinarity: a Socio-Computer Analysis of Sports Sciences. Bulletin of Sociological Methodology, 119(1): 61-78.

Cooper, A. F. and Farooq, A. B. (2013), BRICS and the Privileging of Informality in Global Governance. Global Policy, 4: 428–433.  doi: 10.1111/1758-5899.12077

Dykes, T., Rodgers, P., Smyth, M., (2009).  Towards a new disciplinary framework for contemporary creative design practice. CoDesign, 5 (2) 99-116.

Pirrie, A., S. Hamilton, V. Wilson (1999) Multidisciplinary education: Some issues and concerns. Educational Research 41(3): 301–314.

Ribeiro, Filipa M. (2015) Interdisciplinarity in ferment: The role of knowledge networks and department affiliation. Technological Forecasting and Social Change. doi:

Sperber, D. (2003) “Why rethink interdisciplinarity?”. In Heintz, C. (ed.), Rethinking interdisciplinarity. Paris: C.N.R.S. and Institut Nicod.

Su, X. (2014) Academic scientists’ affiliation with university research centres: Selection dynamics. Research Policy 43: 382-390.

Wall, S., Shankar, I., (2008). Adventures in transdisciplinary learning. Studies in Higher Education, 33 (5): 551–65.

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