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11 Interdisciplinary Thinking

A discipline is a field of knowledge claimed to be the special province of those who agree it is theirs for studying in particular ways. The community of people who are experts in the field of knowledge agree on the phenomena worthy of study within the discipline as well as the tools, theories, and methods through which those phenomena will be studied. And they use the tools, theories, and methods to expand the knowledge about the phenomena. For example, experts in scientific disciplines such as biology, physics, chemistry, and so on agree that knowledge about those disciplines is expanded through the use of the scientific method, a set of techniques based on the use of empirical evidence gained through formulating and testing hypotheses. Although these sciences share some tools and methods, they are considered different disciplines because they focus on different phenomena to study. Sometimes, different disciplines study the same phenomena but use different tools.

In college, you will learn about the tools, theories, and methods of a particular discipline when you declare your major. Some majors, however, represent a small piece of a larger discipline. For example, the discipline of social science has many sub-disciplines, such as anthropology and sociology (and many others!). This dividing of knowledge and the tools for adding to it has led to narrower and narrower fields of study, spurring debate about where the boundaries between them lay. Narrowly defined disciplines ensure a high level of expertise (which is a very good thing!) but also has resulted in creating what some call a “silo” effect.  This is where a set of experts in a field have become so focused on the details of their disciplinary approach to an issue that they ignore other disciplines – even those that might be examining a different angle of the very same issue.

The boundaries that define a particular discipline are constructed socially by the experts in that discipline. Sometimes, approaching a phenomenon using multiple disciplines can illuminate the phenomenon in helpful ways. Interdisciplinary thinking is the ability to consider multiple disciplinary perspectives concerning the phenomenon under study, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of those perspectives, and integrate their insights to produce a new, more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon.  Ideally, interdisciplinary thinking will yield a synthesized solution, a new application, or point to new ways to better understand the phenomenon.

Because the First Year Seminar is focused on a wicked problem, interdisciplinary thinking is crucial to the class. Wicked problems are so complex that they defy easy solutions that might be suggested by individual disciplines. Instead, we will need to look at the wicked problem from as many disciplinary perspectives as we can and integrate the insights from those perspectives to better understand the problem and suggest possible solutions.

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Interdisciplinary Thinking by Cathie LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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