Interdisciplinary research has become an increasingly common method of study in education. Through this lesson, you will gain insight into what interdisciplinary research is and how it is applied.
What Is Interdisciplinary Research?
For so many people, college is, as we are often told, one of the best and most exciting times of our lives. While this is true for very many people, college comes with its own set of anxieties, like having to declare a major. Though it is not the case for everybody, deciding on one field of study for the duration of college, and generally beyond, can be an intimidating and overwhelming thought. Fortunately, over the last several decades new approaches to research and academia have emerged that allow for more flexibility, such as the interdisciplinary approach.
Interdisciplinary research is a type of study or research that draws from two or more disciplines in order to gain a more well developed perspective, or discover something new. For example, American studies involves a considerable amount of interdisciplinary research in fields such as sociology, history, anthropology and political science.
Other examples of fields that involve interdisciplinary research are women's studies, environmental studies, and neuroscience, all of which draw from different disciplines in order to enhance their understandings of particular issues, or offer an original theory or concept. Although interdisciplinary research is very common within the social sciences and humanities, it is becoming increasingly common in physical sciences as well.
How Does Interdisciplinary Research Work?
Depending on the subject being researched, interdisciplinary research can either be easily applied or difficult to process. For example, a robust project on the development of American identity in the 19th century would require looking at American history as well as concepts and theories from sociology, anthropology, and political science. Because something like identity is a fairly complex thing, there was no way to develop a strong thesis by operating from a single discipline. In this case, interdisciplinary research was easy to apply because these fields have natural overlap and many things in common.
For a field like environmental studies, on the other hand, interdisciplinary research can be a challenge. Because it is a physical science, environmental studies may employ quantitative methodologies, like surveys, which are used to collect large amounts of observational or statistical data. Although this is common in most physical sciences, environmental studies also involves people and their attitudes towards nature, which could be understood through a sociological or legal perspective. Unlike the previous example, this type of research would require going from a physical or life science to a social science, which has a very different way of collecting or analyzing data.
Working between physical science and social science can be a challenge because the perspectives are often very different, and in some cases, conflicting. For example, a scientist that is used to collecting and analyzing soil samples in a lab may find it challenging to switch to qualitative interviewing, which requires conducting in-depth interviews with individuals to gain different perspectives on a specific question or event.
Benefits & Challenges
Interdisciplinary research is motivated by the belief that by drawing from different fields or employing different types of methodologies, a person can gain a broad understanding and produce a new perspective on an existing issue. For example, many decades ago race would have been something addressed by historians or sociologists, which would have provided a viewpoint from only one perspective. With the emergence of African American studies, however, perspectives and insights are drawn from many different areas, which has produced a more accurate and well-rounded perspective on the African American experience.
As much as interdisciplinary research does provide new insight and exciting approaches, it is not without its challenges or critics. For example, to begin an interdisciplinary study of American political history, one would likely employ different methods to gather qualitative data for the study on perceptions of political events or theories, and testimonials related to people's experiences with politics. Because qualitative data tends to be somewhat subjective or related to individual experiences, it is more narrative or theoretical than it is empirical.
And, because of these challenges, many critics of interdisciplinary research claim that it can be a soft science approach to inquiry, which implies that a particular approach is not as rigorous as other traditional disciplines, or is too biased to provide objective, useful data.
In academics, interdisciplinary research is a type of inquiry that draws from several different fields of study, such as American studies, which is informed by sociology, history, anthropology, and political science. As a type of research, interdisciplinary research operates on the belief that drawing from multiple disciplines will provide researchers with a broad or more well informed perspective. For example, interdisciplinary research might use quantitative methodology, like a survey, to support the more in-depth data gathered through qualitative interviewing.
Although it has the potential to produce new understanding and insight, interdisciplinary research requires researchers to employ a wide variety of theories and frameworks in order to be effective. In cases where qualitative data is collected, the information may be subjective rather than empirical, which has led critics to label interdisciplinary study as a soft science approach to scholarly inquiry.