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Interdisciplinary research requires joint problem framing – argues Prof. Peter Mollinga of SOAS at LIDC’s Inaugural Lecture on Interdisciplinarity and International Development

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 - 18:00 to 20:00

On 15th January 2014, LIDC inaugurated a new lecture series on Interdisciplinarity and International Development. This new series of annual lectures draws on LIDC’s five-year experience of stimulating interdisciplinary research in international development across Bloomsbury Colleges.

The series will feature prominent speakers from Bloomsbury Colleges and beyond who will present new thinking on interdisciplinary research, engaging with three main questions:
1.    What is interdisciplinarity?
2.    What can an interdisciplinary approach add to your own research?
3.    How can interdisciplinary research inform projects on the ground?

The speaker in the inaugural lecture was Peter Mollinga, Professor of Development Studies from SOAS, University of London, an expert in political economy of irrigation, water management, agrarian change and technology, and inter- and transdisciplinary approaches to natural resources management.

We are all victims of disciplinary stereotypes

Mollinga started by explaining how his own professional and academic trajectory has shaped his interests in inter- and transdisciplinarity in international development. After having worked on irrigation issues as an engineer, he turned to social sciences to pursue critical water studies.

Then Mollinga reflected on the notion of interdisciplinarity in development studies, which has to a large extent focused on problematising the hegemony of economics within development studies, and does not really address the differentiation between interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity.  

Subsequently the speaker showed an image of three individuals and asked the audience to guess who was an economist, a natural scientist and a social scientist. This quiz revealed entrenched stereotypes about disciplinary affiliations, i.e. the economist had to be a man wearing a tie and a woman could not be anyone else than a social scientist. This led to the conclusion that thinking about interdisciplinarity is not only about knowledge, but also requires moving beyond stereotypes and cultural images.

Origins of (inter)disciplinarity

Until 1700s, knowledge was divided into very few academic disciplines. From late 19th century onwards, the number of fields in science grew considerably, notably due to the specialisation process during the industrial revolution, the explosion of admission into universities as well as decolonisation and the subsequent increase in areas studies. As Mollinga pointed out, this suggests that disciplines are not naturally given but represent dynamic, historically evolving social constructs. New disciplines are being created all the time through processes of hybridisation (mergers of parts of disciplines, such as in Ethnobotany), which actually supports the trend towards specialisation. Interdisciplinarity may even be seen as a natural trend in science.

Disciplines as tribes

The term ‘discipline’ derives from the word ‘disciple’, to follow, which implies control. Following Becher and Trowler, disciplines can be seen as tribes that create and sustain cultural, institutional and discursive boundaries (‘territories’) that are difficult to transgress. Disciplines are therefore unable to address ontological, societal and analytical complexity. As Mollinga put it, single disciplines can address ‘tame’ problems, but only an interdisciplinary approach can tackle ‘wicked’ problems – complex ones. For Mollinga, one of the biggest challenges of interdisciplinarity is how to bring together natural and social sciences. This is due to the fact that we tend to see nature and society as fundamentally separate and opposed to each other.

Disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity - a continuum

Mollinga presented a typology of approaches to disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity that form a continuum. Disciplinarity involves separate disciplines working in isolation. Multidisciplinarity happens when disciplinarians define their problem separately and then work together. Interdisciplinarity involves the process of joint problem framing, a shared research question and the development of integrated knowledge and theory across different disciplines. Transdisciplinarity goes even further and crosses not only disciplinary but also scientific/ academic boundaries to involve non-academic participants.

How to make interdisciplinarity a reality?

When do we need interdisciplinarity and/ or transdisciplinarity? According to the speaker, the added value of interdisciplinarity is that it can better address complexity, it can help solve important societal problems, and it sometimes makes it easier for academics to get funding for their work – as it is often funders who drive interdisciplinary approaches. Lastly, interdisciplinarity protects against territorialism and tribalism.

Is it easy to be an interdisciplinarian? The main issues interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary researchers are likely to face are:
-    Language: definitions may vary across disciplines
-    Paradigms: different philosophical standpoints amongst researchers may impede the production of a joint problem framework
-    Organisation and incentives: e.g. interdisciplinary work may make it harder for early-career researchers to obtain tenure
-    Inclusion/exclusion of 'stakeholders' in research framing and implementation.

However, as the speaker pointed out, these issues can be overcome and there are examples of this being done successfully. For instance, the website of the Network for Transdisciplinary Research of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences contains useful resources and best practice on interdisciplinary research.

Ultimately, interdisciplinarity is not really about disciplines, said Mollinga. Rather than think about disciplines, one will be better off thinking about scientific communities and how to bring them together.

Boundary crossing - a new framework

To conclude, Peter Mollinga proposed his own framework to make inter- and transdisciplinary research work. He stated that that boundary crossing requires boundary work: interdisciplinarity is about finding ways to productively negotiate knowledge, cultural, institutional and political boundaries.
To do so, one needs to:
-    Develop boundary concepts: think (analytical work)
-    Configure boundary objects: act (instrumental work)
-    Shape boundary settings: enable (organisational work)

Download the PowerPoint presentation

Listen to the audio recording of the lecture


Watch the video of the lecture
Read an interview with Prof. Mollinga by SciDev.Net 'Breaking from the barriers of narrow research'
Read a SciDev.Net feature article based on the lecture 'Research without fixed boundaries'