Key Characteristics Of Interdisciplinary Research And Writing Handout

Allen F. Repko, author of Interdisciplinary Research: Theory and Process, notes that “interdisciplinarians typically describe the doing of interdisciplinary research as a ‘process’ rather than ‘method’ because process allows for greater methodological flexibility…” (2008, 12). In particular, he refers to interdisciplinary research as a decision-making process in which the researcher considers which disciplines—with their respective viewpoints, tools, and methodologies—might be pertinent to the problem, concept, or issue at hand, and then decides which insights from those disciplines are most useful for further developing “an integrated and purposeful understanding” (Repko 2008, 12).

Repko lists the key characteristics of interdisciplinary research and writing:

While interdisciplinary research provides certain advantages over disciplinary research, interdisciplinary researchers are also faced with challenges that a disciplinary researcher may not face.

As an interdisciplinary scholar and writer, you are making a commitment to deliberately and purposefully overcome these challenges by developing a program of study that strategically incorporates two or more disciplinary viewpoints to approach your key topic(s).

Your research and writing should embrace this approach as well. Whereas in writing for a specific discipline, you might adhere to a standard format and methodology (e.g., the scientific method or a lab report) to research your topic and write about it, when taking an interdisciplinary approach to your writing you will need to find the right balance of disciplinary perspectives to inform your analysis, and then simultaneously let those distinct disciplinary perspectives shine through while intertwining the two (or more) to make connections, observations, and conclusions that are only possible by building upon and between the disciplines. Sounds tough, doesn't it?

It is tough. And it takes practice to become an interdisciplinary thinker and writer. One of the first and most important steps you can take to become an interdisciplinary writer is to become a better critical thinker. Reading, thinking, and researching with a questioning mind will help reveal the holes in current knowledge about your topic left by single-disciplinary research. Doing so will also help you identify the valuable contributions that these disciplines provide. But, this does take a lot of work. You will have to do a lot of planning and background research to learn enough about several disciplines to be able to use their concepts and methodologies well.

As an interdisciplinarian, you will have to be especially aware of your audience when you write. In academic writing for a single discipline, the primary audience are peers in that discipline. This allows a writer to assume much more about her audience's knowledge of the theories, methodologies, and terminologies (jargon, if you will) used in academic discourse than you will be able to when writing for an interdisciplinary audience. Writing interdisciplinarily means learning to explain and apply multiple disciplinary principles in a way that integrates, not alienates readers from many backgrounds. Moreover, in interdisciplinary scholarship, you will find yourself writing for many different sets of audiences, depending on the objective of each piece you write. View the Determining Your Audience Handout for more information.

Finally, to help you get started in planning your program of study, research, and/or writing projects, take a look at Repko's 10 steps of the interdisciplinary research process:

  1. Define the problem or state the focus question
  2. Justify using an interdisciplinary approach
  3. Identify relevant disciplines
  4. Conduct a literature search
  5. Develop adequacy in each relevant discipline
  6. Analyze the problem and evaluate each insight into it
  7. Identify conflicts between insights and their sources
  8. Create or discover common ground
  9. Integrate insights
  10. Produce an interdisciplinary understanding of the problem and test it (2008, 142).

Needless to say, there is plenty of work involved in each of these steps. Your MALS core courses will help you articulate your key "focus question" as well as help you understand the foundations of interdisciplinary scholarship.

Works cited: Repko, Allen F. Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008.