The power and pitfalls of interdisciplinarity explored
Interdisciplinarity is often presented as the solution to answer some of the major questions of today. Master student Djuna Buizer reflected on the subject in a post.
Figure 1: The pitfalls of interdisciplinarity. Source: http://iameffed.com
In July 2015, The Moscow Summer Academy on Economic Growth and Governance of Natural Resources” (MSA), was co-organized by members of the CEES Marine Ecology Group as part of the GreenMAR project. The MSA brought together people from different disciplines; there were marine biologists, ecologists, economists and mathematicians from all over the world to follow lectures and do group work. One of the participants, Djuna Buizer, a Master student in International Development Studies at Wageningen University shared her thought about the strengths and weaknesses of interdisciplinarity.
"As a student coming from a university where interdisciplinarity seems to be the magic word, I have grown a bit stuffed with the word. Why are there still separate disciplines when in the end everything has to be interdisciplinary? When everything is melted into one interdisciplinary pot, the advantages of interdisciplinary research in the first place will slowly disappear. The pitfall of interdisciplinarity is that one knows little about a lot. Specialized knowledge is avoided, as it only creates unnecessary jargon, causing others to not understand you.
Admittedly, in the MSA I have discovered that it does make you more flexible being educated in this way. Some mathematicians thought that the real world problems were only obstacles for finding the perfect mathematical problem. Many would say: “I do not know anything about economics, all these concepts are so new to me, so please just let me stay in my own comfort zone.” But for everyone there was a reason to go to the MSA in the first place: learning from fellow PhD students/researchers with whom you do not normally all get in contact with, due to distinct disciplines, due to distinct places. It is a good way to understand other people, appreciate their skills and the way they view the world and it is a good reminder of what it feels like to learn something new. A mind-set can be changed in the space of time of a short conversation if you are open to it. Do not be scared to seem stupid, ask questions, those are the people we need while working in interdisciplinary teams.
Many real world problems are on the nexus of many different disciplines and it can create synergy to solving the problem when these disciplines interact. Especially problems with an environmental element call for an integrated view. The study of complex marine systems is a perfect example where interdisciplinary teams are really needed. Understanding their capabilities of adapting to growing stress factors requires the consideration of both the social and ecological components of the system.
I came across an article called: ‘Ten Heuristics for Interdisciplinary Modelling Projects’ by Nicolson et al. (2002). They use the experience of working together with natural scientists, social scientists and local residents to investigate the sustainability of small indigenous communities in the Arctic, to illustrate these ten rules of thumb. The main lesson I learned from this article is that the best specialists are not always the best interdisciplinary team members. A research at the nexus of various disciplines needs people with high reputations in their own field but also with curiosity and feeling for integrating their own discipline with other disciplines, not being afraid of simplifying their own field and exploring not so well-defined linkages. Interdisciplinary researchers are thus a kind of pioneers looking for the unknown, taking risks. But do not forget your own discipline exploring the wonders of the interdisciplinary sea, you will need that tower of strength when the sea gets rough. “
Nicolson, C., Starfield, A., Kofinas, G., & Kruse, J. (2002). Ten Heuristics for Interdisciplinary Modeling Projects Ecosystems, 5 (4), 376-384 DOI: 10.1007/s10021-001-0081-5