Arts Sciences


More about interdisciplinarity

Q: What does ‘interdisciplinary’ mean?

A: Put simply, interdisciplinary means ‘combining subjects together in new ways.' Literally, interdisciplinary means ‘working between different academic disciplines.’

Q: Why is interdisciplinarity important?

A: Many of the world’s great problems require an interdisciplinary approach in order to solve them. This is true of problems in the ‘real world’ – e.g. problems to do with health, politics, engineering or cities – but also important intellectual problems – e.g. the relation between reasoning and emotion, the study of culture and identity, the link between music and learning.

Q: What is the link between interdisciplinarity and creative thinking?

A: Much research has shown that the most creative thinkers are those people who can make links between different areas of study, thought, commerce, arts etc. For example Prof Sir Ken Robinson says, 'Creativity depends on interactions between feeling and thinking, and across different disciplinary boundaries and fields of ideas' (Robinson, Ken; 2011; Out of Our Minds; Capstone).
It is these sorts of creative thinkers that are most valued in business, politics, media, creative industries, engineering, research etc. See Careers for further examples.

Q: Can you give some examples of interdisciplinarity?

A: Here are just two examples. One from Health, one from Art History:

1) Let’s say we want to find out why a particular disease is spreading among a community. You need to know about the disease, so you need some aspects of biomedicine. If the disease reoccurs at different times and in different places, you may need to use statistics and computer modelling to understand better how it is spreading. You may notice that the disease spreads more where people live in close communities or have a particular diet. So you may need to investigate the economics or politics of the situation that obliges people to live in a certain way. Finally, if the disease is concentrated in a non-English speaking country, you may need a non-English language to understand properly what is going on. Thus, for a full understanding, you may need to combine the subjects of Biomedicine, Computer Modelling, Economics, Politics and a foreign language.

2) Let’s say an art historian wants to find out about the materials used by an ancient artist and is lucky enough to get her hands on some of the original painting materials and a piece of canvas. First, the art historian will do her historical research, reading the necessary original texts, finding out which materials were used at the time, comparing other paintings of the same time etc. But she can also do chemical and spectroscopic analysis in a chemistry lab. This will enable her to find more detail about the chemicals used in the paint and, perhaps, the origin of the canvas – what it is made of, where it comes from etc. So, for a deeper understanding of the life and work of a great artist, you may need to combine Art History, History, Chemistry and, again, a foreign language.

There are, of course, a great many other examples. We will work with you to discover the sorts of areas and problems you are interested in and we will advise you on the interdisciplinary learning you will need to approach and tackle these problems.

Q: If I take an interdisciplinary approach, won’t I just learn a little bit about everything and not much about anything?

A: On Arts and Sciences, you cannot learn as much in one particular discipline as you can on a single-subject degree. There are only 24 hours in a day. But your breadth of knowledge, and the interdisciplinary approach you have followed, will give you different, and arguably more widely valued, strengths.

Importantly, it also depends on what you think is a 'thing' worth studying! For example, to be a world expert in Cities, it would be best to know something at least about history, geography, engineering, politics and maybe also health. This shows that to study some things in proper depth you need to combine existing subjects in interdisciplinary ways - ways which do not appear on traditional college curricula. It is important to bear in mind that the disciplines are not set in stone. Indeed, over history they change frequently; some come and go and some are unrecognisable from 100 or even 30 years ago.

Arguably the explosion of information on the web is questioning disciplinary boundaries as never before. It is certainly possible (indeed, some may say it is desirable) to become an expert in your subject of interest by taking modules from several different university disciplines. See also the above examples in: Can you give some examples of interdisciplinarity?

Q: Choosing the right modules in order to make interdisciplinary links sounds hard. How will I do this?

A: You will be guided by experienced academic staff so that your module choices support each other. These academics and teachers are all from interdisciplinary backgrounds, so they have an idea of what is academically achievable and what combinations would be interesting and fruitful. These mentors will give you expert advice on your choices.