What is Transdisciplinarity?

Learners entering the Polytechnic Incubator's new program will no doubt hear the terms "multidisciplinary (arity)” and "interdisciplinary (arity)” thrown about somewhat indiscriminately. Interestingly, we administrators, faculty, and staff also use these terms rather loosely and too often without carefully considering their underlying meaning.

Disciplinarity -> Multidisciplinarity -> Interdisciplinarity -> TransdisciplinarityRecently I gave a talk about yet another disciplinarity: "transdisciplinarity." The purpose of the talk was to share with colleagues from around the country the opportunities and challenges associated with developing a truly transdisciplinary environment in an institution of higher education. During a meeting after I returned, the terms "multi", "inter", and "trans" disciplinary(arity) were being thrown around, and it was clear that the meanings of the terms were not clearly understood. Hopefully this blog entry will help shed some light on the subject. By the end, if you are an incoming student, a student considering the new program, or a parent, it should be clearer as to what transdisciplinarity is and why you might prefer it over a strictly disciplinary, multi, or even interdisciplinary experience.

First, I am not an expert in the various “disciplinarities.” The ideas and descriptions that follow are not mine and have been around for decades, with many books and articles written on the subject. Yet my Polytechnic Incubator colleagues and I believe in these ideas and in their advantages and constraints, and they serve to motivate the design of the Incubator's transdisciplinary environment.

In 1992, Hugh G. Petrie wrote a seminal article1 for the American Educational Research Association that articulates the meaning of these ideas. Later, in 2007, A. Wendy Russell, Fern Wickson, and Anna L. Carew contributed an article2 discussing the context of transdisciplinarity, prescriptions for transdisciplinary knowledge production and the contradictions that arise, and suggestions for universities to develop capacity for transdisciplinarity, rather than simply investing in knowledge "products." The following sections attempt to capture the essence of these two works.


Before embarking on a discussion of the “disciplinarities,” it might be useful to ground the conversation by developing a rough idea of what characteristics comprise a “discipline.” Think of a discipline like English Literature, Dance, Philosophy, Physics, or Computer Graphics Technology. According to Petrie,1 “The idea of a discipline today connotes a number of things, including:

  • A specialization of knowledge within some sort of overriding unity of cognitive endeavor.
  • The fact that the unity of a discipline seems to come from a common set of core metaphors and concepts defining the field of inquiry, a particular set of observational categories for structuring experience in the field, specialized methods for investigation, a specification of the means for determining the truth or justification for claims made within the field, and, perhaps most important of all, an idea of the purposes to be served in investigating the field (e.g., in physics, the desire to understand the nature of the physical world in which we find ourselves).
  • An organized grouping of people who study the discipline, train other practitioners, and form the social mechanism for arbitrating among varying truth claims within the discipline.”

One can get the idea here, as well as deduce that the notion of disciplines has been and may always will be useful, even if not entirely needed. In fact there are those who have written compelling arguments strongly favoring narrowly focused disciplines. What is much less clear is how disciplines change over time, evolving, and in some cases all but disappearing (think blacksmiths, farriers, and buggy whip makers), while some get resurrected (think welders and electricians). How does one adapt in an ever-changing, technology-driven world, where the half life of some technologies can be short (consider tube television sets, 2G digital cellular telephone networks, or desktop personal computers)?


Petrie1 discusses multidisciplinarity as “the idea of a number of disciplines working together on a problem, an educational program, or a research study. The effect is additive rather than integrative. The project is usually short-lived, and there is seldom any long-term change in the ways in which the disciplinary participants in a multidisciplinary project view their own work.”

Another way of looking at this is that participants can be isolated in the way they view knowledge and its acquisition (i.e. specialized methods for investigation, a specification of the means for determining the truth).

Moreover, Petrie writes, “Traditional distribution requirements in high school or college curricula are typically of this nature. Any integration is simply assumed to take place in the heads of individual students rather than there being a carefully thought-out system of general education.” Finally he states that “It is group work rather than team work.” 


Moving to extend the idea of multidisciplinarity to include more integration, rather than just addition, Petrie writes about interdisciplinarity in this way:

“Interdisciplinary research or education typically refers to those situations in which the integration of the work goes beyond the mere concatenation of disciplinary contributions. Some key elements of disciplinarians' use of their concepts and tools change. There is a level of integration. Interdisciplinary subjects in university curricula such as physical chemistry or social psychology, which by now have, perhaps,themselves become disciplines, are good examples. A newer one might be the field of immunopharmocology, which combines the work of bacteriology, chemistry, physiology, and immunology. Another instance of interdisciplinarity might be the emerging notion of a core curriculum that goes considerably beyond simple distribution requirements in undergraduate programs of general education.”

“In many ways, the integrative thrust of interdisciplinary thinking is often a central feature of efforts to reform general education rather than a frill. Turning to the schools, there are a number of national efforts to turn the 'layer cake' (first biology, then topped by chemistry, then topped by physics) approach to American science education on its side. These efforts would require an interdisciplinary approach to teaching science since, at any given time, a combination of biology, chemistry, and physics would be studied. The various interconnections among these traditional disciplines would then need to be emphasized, and fundamental principles, including mathematics, could be taught and learned more efficiently and effectively.”

What’s interesting here is that the combinations of narrow disciplines Petrie discusses that eventually form interdisciplinary thinking are relatively close to each other. When I look at the disciplines that make up immunopharmocology, for example, I notice combinations of biology and chemistry, two reasonably close disciplines. So then one could wonder, how does one gain cultural empathy for say, those in western Africa facing an Ebola pandemic in the study of immunopharmocology? Enter transdisciplinarity.


Petrie1 writes about transdisciplinarity in this way: “The notion of transdisciplinarity exemplifies one of the historically important driving forces in the area of interdisciplinarity, namely, the idea of the desirability of the integration of knowledge into some meaningful whole. The best example, perhaps, of the drive to transdisciplinarity might be the early discussions of general systems theory when it was being held forward as a grand synthesis of knowledge. Marxism, structuralism, and feminist theory are sometimes cited as examples of a transdisciplinary approach. Essentially, this kind of interdisciplinarity represents the impetus to integrate knowledge, and, hence, is often characterized by a denigration and repudiation of the disciplines and disciplinary work as essentially fragmented and incomplete.

If we now look at these rough and ready distinctions through the lenses of the three conceptual strands noted above, some interesting results emerge. First, consider the theoretical-practical wisdom distinction. Strictly disciplinary activities tend primarily to be concerned with theoretical understanding, while multidisciplinary activities, and perhaps even some interdisciplinary projects, are more concerned with practical results. Transdisciplinary activities, to be sure, tend toward addressing questions of theoretical understanding, especially those of the unity of knowledge, but the distinction between theoretical concerns and practical questions in interdisciplinary work seems worth making.”

This is an interesting paradox if we think about immunopharmocology, cultural empathy, and combine it with sustainability in the context of the recent Ebola outbreak in western Africa. Sustainability enters into this context when we consider that it would be useful to the people to keep Ebola out of western Africa once the pandemic has been addressed. Clearly there may be more disciplines, spanning the liberal arts, engineering and technology (think scalable antidote delivery systems) and even the fine arts -- if one considers how these tribes and cultures communicate, it is often through music, dance, and art.

Transdisciplinarity and the Polytechnic Incubator

“Transdisciplinarity has been described as a practice that transgresses and transcends disciplinary boundaries, … and seems to have the most potential to respond to new demands and imperatives. This potential springs from the characteristic features of transdisciplinarity, which include problem focus (research originates from and is contextualized in ‘real-world’ problems), evolving methodology (the research involves iterative, reflective processes that are responsive to the particular questions, settings, and research groupings) and collaboration (including collaboration between transdisciplinary researchers, disciplinary researchers and external actors with interests in the research).”2

One of the core ideas of the Polytechnic Incubator is to intentionally integrate knowledge acquisition and skill development into a more meaningful whole. Beginning learners will be immersed in group environments that promote the ideas of design thinking and project management, culture, and communication narratives that transcend many forms, including audiovisual. Besides learners being immersed in these group environments, faculty from these diverse fields will also be immersed in these environments. Discipline-specific skills can be acquired “just-in-time” from a faculty mentor (or mentors), and in the context of larger, real-world problems. This has at least two advantages:
1) Relevance: The learner can identify with the skills needed to address open-ended problems, making them relevant, and
2) Timeliness: The knowledge or skill is acquired when it is needed, not “in case” it is needed.

These two advantages help one to enhance his natural curiosity, promoting a characteristic that education calls “life-long learning.” Regardless of your preference, it is this characteristic that helps individuals be more adaptable and responsive to changes in the labor force over a lifetime.

We do not wish to put the burden of integrating diverse knowledge domains solely on the students. We do wish, however, for each student to drive her own path, be it with emphasis on a specific discipline or two to establish proficiency and work toward mastery, or one that seeks knowledge and skill in several domains so as to influence the world in many different ways.


1 Petrie, Hugh G., Interdisciplinary Education: Are We Faced with Insurmountable Opportunities? , Review of Research in Education, Vol. 18 (1992), pp. 299-333, American Educational Research Association, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1167302 .

2 Russell, A. Wendy, Wickson, Fern, Carew, Anna L., Transdisciplinarity: Context, contradictions and capacity, Science Direct Futures 40 (2008) 460-472, Elsevier, Stable URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016328707001541