The GIS 2030 Instructional Team


The word interdisciplinarity is actually made up of two words: inter and disciplinarity. Now inter means between, in the midst of, connecting. For example, international is something involving two or more nations. Similarly, psychology, mathematics, history, or music are all disciplines. Each has its own set of specialists and sub-specialists, each is typically taught by one or another department within a university, and each deals with its own distinct subjects. Thus, psychologists study such things as emotions and perceptions while mathematicians study such things as numbers and triangles.

As long as mathematicians confine themselves to the likes of numbers, triangles, and cones, they are engaged in a purely disciplinary work. But sometimes mathematicians need to bring together parts of different disciplines. They may study, for instance, the psychology of solving mathematical problems. When they do that, they put on their interdisciplinary caps. Thus, interdisciplinarity may be defined as combining in some fashion components of two or more disciplines.


Interdisciplinarity is typically encountered in four contexts:

Interdisciplinary knowledge involves familiarity with aspects of two or more disciplines. If you know that 1 + 1 = 2 (mathematical knowledge) and that Thomas Jefferson lived in the 18th century (historical knowledge), then you possess interdisciplinary knowledge. Isaac Asimov wrote a book about Shakespeare (literature) and a book about the star alpha centauri (astronomy), so he too possessed interdisciplinary knowledge.

Interdisciplinary research combines components of two or more disciplines in the search for new knowledge or artistic expression. For instance, in his efforts to understand how the planet Mars moves about the Sun, the astronomer Johann Kepler combined meticulous observations about Mars (astronomy) with his knowledge of conic sections (mathematics).

Interdisciplinary education combines components of two or more disciplines in a single program of instruction. Nursery rhymes may be taught in language classes. Addition, multiplication, and powers are taught in arithmetic classes. But an interdisciplinary-minded fifth grade teacher may choose to teach both topics by reciting to her students the following ancient nursery rhyme, inviting them to summarize it, and then asking them to figure out the number of kits, cats, sacks, and wives (or the number of people going to St. Ives--try this!):


As I was going to St. Ives,

I met a man with seven wives;

Every wife had seven sacks,

Every sack had seven cats,

Every cat had seven kits.

Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,

How many were going to St. Ives?

cats.jpg (109645 bytes)

Finally, some scholars like to talk about interdisciplinarity itself. They ask such questions as: What is it? What is it good for? How should we convince others of its value? These scholars are interdisciplinary theorists. The little essay you are reading right now provides one example of interdisciplinary theory.


Some people feel that interdisciplinarity is useless. We shall now see that such disparaging views betray a profound misunderstanding of the intellectual, social, and personal rewards of interdisciplinarity:

Creative Breakthroughs: Creativity often involves linkage of previously unrelated ideas. Kepler combined astronomical and mathematical concepts, and was thus able to show that planets describe elliptical orbits about the sun. Leonardo da Vinci secretly dissected human cadavers and studied them, and this anatomical knowledge informed his work as a painter. The novelist Ernest Hemingway borrowed his greatest novel's title (For Whom the Bell Tolls) from the poet John Donne. Moreover, set in Spain, this novel owes much to Hemingway's thorough familiarity with Spanish culture, language, politics, and geography.

Crossdisciplinary Oversights: Disciplinarians often commit errors which can be best detected by people familiar with two or more disciplines.

One example out of hundreds will have to suffice here. A large-scale recent survey found that women wearing bras 24 hours a day are more likely to contract breast cancer than women wearing bras less than 12 hours a day. A respected physician, writing in a mass circulation magazine, assured his readers that the bra-cancer link is "so ludicrous it isn't even worth commenting on." This link may indeed turn out to be mistaken, but its outright dismissal was unwarranted. The world is a far more complicated place than this specialist imagines it to be.  First, history tells us that genuine advances had often been greeted with scorn and disbelief. Second, history tells us that true observations had often been disbelieved because they could not be explained. Third, sociology tells us that the medical establishment sometimes prefers its own interests to the public's.

Thus, in this case, a holistic perspective can readily spots a disciplinary slip-up. It thus raises the possibility that, in 1995, the bra-cancer link was being spurned because the medical establishment is demonstrably capable of resisting new ideas, shrugging off inexplicable but solid observations, and protecting its turf.

Intellectual, Social, and Practical Problems: Many problems require holistic approaches. The economist Herman Daly puts it this way:

Probably the major disservice that experts provide in confronting the problems of mankind is dividing the problem in little pieces and parceling them out to specialists. . . .  Although it is undeniable that each specialty has much of importance to say, it is very doubtful that the sum of all these specialized utterances will ever add to a coherent solution, because the problems are not independent and sequential but highly interrelated and simultaneous. Someone has to look at the whole, even if it means foregoing full knowledge of all of the parts.

The intellectual, social, and personal price of narrow compartmentalization has been often remarked upon. Indeed, history might have been different if the experts who developed aerosol sprays examined their impact before setting them loose on the ozone layer (and thereby possibly harming, throughout the next century, the health of as many as one-quarter billion people); if the people who put together Egypt's Aswan Dam had been trained to remember the large picture; if the people who marketed thalidomide looked beyond its tranquilizing and economic potential. An interdisciplinary background may have not caused industry experts to adopt a more balanced view of the tobacco/cancer link, but it might have tempered their outright advocacy of smoking.

A poem by John Godfrey Saxe (which is based on an Indian fable) humorously captures the same idea:

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined

Who went to see the elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

The first approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

"God bless me! But the Elephant

Is very like a wall!"

The second blind man touches the tusk and concludes that an elephant "is very like a spear" and so on to the sixth blind man who touches the tail and concludes that the elephant "is very like a rope." The poet then goes on to say:

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

Thus, many complex or practical problems can only be understood by pulling together insights and methodologies from a variety of disciplines. Those who forget this simple truth run the intellectual risk of tunnel vision and the social risk of irresponsible action.

Unity of Knowledge: It is of course impossible to become an expert in everything. But if we mistake disciplinary knowledge for wisdom; if we forget how much we don't know; if we forget how much we cannot know; if we don't set for ourselves, in principle at least, the ideal of the unity of knowledge; we lose something of great importance. By tenaciously attempting the impossible task of knowing everything, interdisciplinarians help us see the various components of human knowledge for what they are: pieces in a panoramic jigsaw puzzle.

Familiarity with other cultures enables us to see deficiencies in our own:

The modern mind divides, specializes, thinks in categories: the Greek instinct was the opposite, to take the widest view, to see things as an organic whole. . . .  It was arete that the [Olympic] games were designed to test--the arete of the whole man, not a merely specialized skill. . . .  The great event was the pentathlon, if you won this, you were a man. Needless to say, the Marathon race was never heard of until modern times: the Greeks would have regarded it as a monstrosity. As for the skill shown by modern champions in games like golf or billiard, the Greeks would certainly have admired it intensely, and thought it an admirable thing--in a slave, supposing that one had no better use for a slave than to train him in this way. Impossible, he would say, to acquire skill like this and at the same time to live the proper life of a man and a citizen. It is this feeling that underlies Aristotle's remark that a gentleman should be able to play the flute--but not too well.

More Knowledge and Pleasure for your Time: Imagine that you have been a photographer for the past twenty years and then decided to quit. Let's say you never read much literature before, and chose it as your next specialty. Couldn't we say that now, after making this move, you are learning more in one day than you learned before in one month? Couldn't we say that you are now expanding your horizons at a faster rate and having more fun to boot? Isaac Asimov, for one, would concur:

I found myself doing research on a biochemical topic. In that area of study I obtained my Ph.D., and in no time at all I was teaching biochemistry at a medical school. But even that was too wide a subject. From books to nonfiction, to science, to chemistry, to biochemistry--and not yet enough. The orchard had to be narrowed down further. To do research, I had to find myself a niche within biochemistry, so I began work on nucleic acids. . . .  And at about that point, I rebelled! I could not stand the claustrophobia that clamped down upon me. I looked with horror, backward and forward across the years, at a horizon that was narrowing down and narrowing down to so petty a portion of the orchard. What I wanted was all the orchard, or as much of it as I could cover in a lifetime of running. . . . I have never been sorry for my stubborn advance toward generalization. To be sure, I can't wander in detail through all the orchard, any more than anyone else can, no matter how stupidly determined I may be to do so. Life is far too short and the mind is far too limited. But I can float over the orchard as in a balloon.


Our goal in writing this short defense of interdisciplinarity is not disparaging disciplinarity and disciplinarians; our society needs chemists and photographers. Moreover, most specialists are perfectly content to remain where they are for the rest of their lives, and they have every right to do so. We are only saying that both disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity are valuable. The world of art, culture, and science would be in a poor state indeed without both.

As a student or scholar, you must choose between specialization and holistic thinking--between a disciplinary and an interdisciplinary major or topic. It's perfectly OK to choose either one, as long as you bear in mind that the choice is not final and that reality itself is not divided into neat disciplinary blocks: the world is one.

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