As the population of Earth quietly soared passed 7 billion recently, a few more people bumped shoulders and came to appreciate the finite nature of this magnificent planet. Perhaps more interestingly, a few more lifted their gaze from what they had always perceived as reality and looked up for the first time to realize that their view of the world, their paradigm, is but one perspective in a sea of possibilities. And that no matter how much they wanted to hold onto the idea that their paradigm was the ‘right’ one, they could not help but acknowledge the possibility that it was not, nor the idea that perhaps the notion of ‘right’ was a complete fallacy. And finally, that uncertainty is ok. It is my belief, that as our world grows smaller with every newborn child (and every activated cellphone) that more people will come to see the world as the rich tapestry of worldviews that it is. In academia, I believe that the increasing use of the concepts of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are a reflection of this much larger phenomenon that is unfolding all around us as a result of a rapidly changing world (Refer to an article by Choi and Pak (2006) for concise definitions of these terms). While academics might be tempted to pat themselves on the back for having come to appreciate the value of these integrated approaches to research, it is the tardiness of their arrival that worries me.
As an interdisciplinary researcher myself, I am experiencing firsthand just how little communication occurs between researchers of the various disciplines that are approaching inter-related phenomena; each one from a different angle and through a different lens. Some see the intricacies at the atomic level, others on the social or economic level and yet others on the ecological level, embedding the entire story into the fabric of the living and non-living. Only now are we beginning to realize that we are often all looking at the same thing and that in appreciating the entire spectrum of perspectives that exist, we can get a most comprehensive view of reality. Huby and Adams (2009) recognize that while we appreciate this as the ideal, so far we have largely failed at actually putting it into practice.
One might suspect that academics would have recognized the need for an integrative approach years, if not centuries, ago and surely that by now we would have many success stories from which we could draw upon as examples. In my view, aboriginal peoples of the world had been practicing transdisciplinary ways of life for millennia before Western science arose. And now it has taken centuries for Western science to come to realize that while specialization can put a human on the moon, it falls far short of offering the sort of integrated perspective we require if we are to overcome the complex challenges we now face as a species. Certainly we are spending a great deal of energy on trying to understand these new concepts, and even so, we struggle to agree on a definition of interdisciplinarity just within the health sector (Aboelela et al., 2006), let alone one for its abstract cousin transdisciplinarity.
Because we as academics have been so late in the game in acknowledging the necessity of these holistic approaches, while cultural neuroscientists investigate potential sociocultural and biological interactions (Chiao, 2009) to explain our delay, I would suggest that we agree to disagree on the specifics of their definitions and begin getting our hands dirty actually applying whatever it is we think they mean to us. One thing I think we can agree on is that they show notable potential for tackling some of today’s most complex challenges. Perhaps by its very nature, the beast of transdisciplinarity is not one that can be caged, defined and filed away but one that deserves to be left alone in the wild to continually confuse, wonder and inspire us as we work towards our individual and collective goals. I have an ironic image in my head that I hope does not manifest itself, one of a world that is going up in flames, so to speak, while the greatest thinkers of our time focus their energy on trying to reach a consensus on a definition of an abstract term that they struggle to conform to their worldviews; a term that seeks to describe the very process that would have saved the world from disaster, had it actually been applied.
Aboelela, S., Larson, E., Bakken, S., Carrasquillo, O., Formicola, A., Glied, S., Haas, J. & Gebbie, K. (2007). Defining interdisciplinary research: Conclusions from a critical review of the literature. Health Services Research, 42; 329-346.
Chiao, J. (2009). Cultural neuroscience: a once and future discipline. Progress in Brain Research, 178; 287-304.
Choi, B. & Pak., A. (2006). Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in health research, services, education and policy: 1. Definitions, objectives, and evidence of effectiveness. Clin Invest Med, 29; 351-364.
Huby, M. & Adams, R. (2009). Interdisciplinarity and participatory approaches to environmental health. Environ Geochem Health, 31; 219-226.