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Chapter Discussion: Differing Definitions of Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity

How should we approach the multiplicity of definitions for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research? Can we harness these dialogues to strengthen our understandings of the fields and, in turn, better support the integration of AHSS perspectives into STEM?

These are some of the overarching questions Dr Bianca Vienni-Baptista, senior researcher and lecturer at the Transdisciplinarity Lab at ETH Zürich, Switzerland, addresses in “Disentangling Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity: The Beauty of Differing Definitions,” her chapter in the recently published Springer edited collection, Theory and Practice in the Interdisciplinary Production and Reproduction of Scientific Knowledge. The chapter is is based on findings of the SHAPE-ID project. Sitting down with the SHAPE-ID communications team, Dr Vienni-Baptista highlighted the importance of forging further integration between the disciplines and within policy.

Published in January 2023, Vienni-Baptista’s chapter explores the wide array of definitions and discussions found in contemporary academic literature and policy documents relating to interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. She argues that the plurality of understandings constitutes an asset rather than a hindering factor to the development of the fields. However, she points out, there is currently a concerning lack of communication between communities in relation to definitions of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, which is an obstacle to further collaboration. Her chapter therefore shows that there needs to be stronger awareness of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity across academic writing and policy alike.

When writing the chapter, Vienni-Baptista focused on a small part of an extensive SHAPE-ID literature review she and her colleagues had conducted on the current landscape of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary writing. Using both qualitative and quantitative methods, partners from the Institute of Literature in Poland applied bibliometric methods to the corpus of literature. Following this, Vienni-Baptista and Dr Isabel Fletcher from the University of Edinburgh worked on a qualitative analysis, in which they “coded and read, did a selection of the main important papers, reanalysed them.”

Doing so, they built a corpus and a code book on how to approach the analysis. “I think the interesting thing was discussing with colleagues in Poland the topics they were able to pick up from the literature,” Vienni-Baptista notes. With a more detailed understanding of the papers, they discovered huge differences between how even the Humanities view interdisciplinary research, a finding that could only be achieved through a qualitative perspective.

This collaborative, mixed-methods approach also enabled them to contrast the scientific or academic literature, which had nuanced complex ways of understanding phenomenon of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration, against policy literature. “We found there were very few of these connections in the policy literature,” she reports. After presenting these findings in 2019 at the Association for Information Systems (AIS) Conference as part of a SHAPE-ID panel, she was approached by previous collaboration partner, editor Prof. Olga Pombo, who invited Vienni-Baptista to contribute to the upcoming collection. Theory and Practice in the Interdisciplinary Production and Reproduction of Scientific Knowledge itself demonstrates a multiplicity of perspectives, with submissions in Philosophy, Logic, the Philosophy of Science, alongside Vienni-Baptista’s own background in Anthropology.

A key finding in “Disentangling Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity,” then, is that “the rich understandings and perspectives from academia need to be translated for policy.” As demonstrated by the SHAPE-ID findings, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are still considered “buzzwords.” Often, Vienni-Baptista says, a big funder will include these terms, “so it’s putting pressure on researchers to do interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research. But often, this movement isn’t accompanied by the right strategies to support the best interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research.”

Additionally, not all of the Humanities or Social Science disciplines have the same understanding or way to approach interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity. In her chapter she references her colleague Dr Julie Thompson Klein’s concern on “the outdated supposition that interdisciplinarity is a fad or fashion.” This is still a problem, Vienni-Baptista agrees, citing Dr Diana Rhoten as an example of further examination on the topic. There is still a lot of misunderstandings and confusion about the field. “From my perspective,” she says, “interdisciplinarity is a way of enriching research, but many people feel they’re still threatened by it, that we want to erase boundaries.”

Why is this a problem? Why does it matter if there are different understandings between differing areas of literature? As Vienni-Baptista argues, although there are many funding agencies interested in integrating interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity, they need to understand the fundamentally different approaches that such research requires. The time you need for interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research is different. It’s hard being constrained by two or three years when researchers need one year alone to establish connections with colleagues and stakeholders. If we really believe interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research can address urgent and serious problems, then we need to support it properly.

Additionally, Vienni-Baptista argues that the multiplicities of understandings of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity constitute an asset to the fields. Building on Prof. Felicity Callard and Prof. Des Fitzgerald’s discussion of the prefix “inter,” Vienni-Baptista writes in her chapter that “Focus has to change from definitions that apply a normative vision on how interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity must be done to an analysis of the different ways to ‘inter-’ disciplines, bodies of knowledge, epistemologies, ontologies, methods, etc.” During the interview, she describes this “inter” as “the space that you can create for collaborations.”

Indeed, a very enlightening aspect of the SHAPE-ID project, according to Vienni-Baptista, is the process of collecting and systematising “the places that were fruitful collaborations of integrating AHSS with STEM.” This “inter” means “so many interesting ways for not just collaborating but understanding how integration can be done.” Collaborative projects, she points out, need a minimum agreement over what interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary means.

What does Vienni-Baptista propose? Sometimes it’s a matter of more resources needed, and sometimes it’s the schemes that need to be adjusted. One positive example is Trinity College Dublin’s interdisciplinary Human+ programme, which acknowledges the space and time needed by early career researchers. Programmes like this need to be replicated elsewhere. There are practical aspects of interdisciplinary work which are challenging as you need the right people at the right moment, both researchers and stakeholders. She points out that sometimes it is not much different to a disciplinary setting. “But sometimes you need more time, which needs to be reflected in funding measures.”

Will these challenges be met? Vienni-Baptista believes so. We now have close to a whole generation of early career researchers who are more embedded in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches. They are better trained, know better methods, have better resources such as the SHAPE-ID toolkit. “There is more scholarship behind us. And this is pushing the field.” However, challenges remain and sometimes it is hard for early career researchers to find a clear pathway. But this is being addressed too. Vienni-Baptista works in the Transdisciplinary Lab at EZH where doctoral researchers work in collaboration with stakeholders. “The leader of our lab points out that when these students finish their PhDs they have set of competencies which means they can understand each other, build common goals, have much open career paths to industry, NGOs, working in policy.” There are still challenges, but there are successful structured approaches to interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity that will hopefully be replicated in the future.

Summing up, Vienni-Baptista reflects that her chapter is “trying to find ways to say it does matter how we name this collaboration, but at the end it is possible to work together even though we have different ways of understanding interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.” Rather than relying on fixed definitions, academia and policy alike need to be able to harness a plurality of connections that will lead to more beneficial research processes.

For other publications from Dr Bianca Vienni-Baptista, see:

Reconfiguring interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary spaces for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences integration

Interdisciplinary Collaboration Within Medicine-Based Informatics and Engineering for Societal Impact

Institutionalizing Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity: Collaboration across Cultures and Communities

Embracing heterogeneity: Why plural understandings strengthen interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity

– Article written by Dr Sarah Cullen

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