As someone who likes to do interdisciplinary research and teaching, I've given a lot of thought to the practicalities of such work in academia. There are a wide range of ways that organizations deal with interdisciplinary work. Some would say that, traditionally, interdisciplinary work has been discouraged. This is a somewhat restricted definition of "tradition," meaning something like "in the last few decades". Certainly, there was a time when academic disciplines were not so well-defined, and thus work was by its nature interdisciplinary.
Be that as it may, these days institutions often prefer that work be clearly defined to fall within a well-understood discipline. There are some good reasons for this:
- When the decision is made to hire someone, faculty need to consider the area of inquiry within which to recruit. On the one hand, there is a desire to build up critical mass in one or more areas; on the other, to maintain intellectual diversity. These decisions are made at the start of the search, and so there must be a conscious decision made to hire someone whose work spans disciplines. Even in that case, the precise disciplines involved will likely be decided ahead of time.
- Decisions by sources of external funding are made in a similar way, based on needs perceived within the funding community. These needs are often evaluated within a disciplinary structure. Thus, securing extramural funding for interdisciplinary work may be difficult.
- At some point in time, your colleagues need to evaluate the quality of your work. If you're a computer scientist (such as myself) publishing in biology, neuroscience, or physics journals (which I do), how are your colleagues to do this? The answer is "with great difficulty," since they are unfamiliar with these venues. Instead of using the shorthand, "I know that this work is of high quality because it has passed review for this publication which I know is rigorous," information about publication quality must be sought. Colleagues may or may not be able to judge the quality of one's work firsthand, as they may lack the requisite background. I know that, when asked to review papers for interdisciplinary journals, I sometimes have to punt on certain aspects: let the editors know that I'm only reviewing the paper from one point of view because I lack the background in some area.
- Interdisciplinary work often involves close collaboration with colleagues in other areas. How does one explain the nature and extent of each collaborators contribution when each one's contribution was necessary to the whole? Faculty are intellectual entrepreneurs, and collaboration can be difficult to reconcile with this entrepreneurial bent.
There are a number of ways to respond to these difficulties, whether or not you consider them to be legitimate or fundamental. Note that I am in no way someone who has given great thought to this from any point of view than a personal, practical level. You will know almost as much as me of the theoretical thought behind interdisciplinarity by reading Wikipedia. The response that seems of most practical utility to me is what some would call the "traditional" approach (they would, I suspect, likely use that word in a pejorative sense): individuals from multiple fields coming together to work on problems that span their expertise.
There are a host of other ways of looking at this matter, however. At the extreme, you may have people who consider disciplinary work to be invalid, or even dangerous. Thus, you have statements such as the "Charter of Transdisciplinarity" that to me, frankly (and please excuse me if you find this offensive), appears to be an intellectually vacuous, Luddite screed against science and technology. (To entertain yourself, read the comments on Wikipedia for the "transdisciplinarity" entry.) Or, similarly, treatises that seem more focused on ideology and the semantics of the "trans-" prefix than learning about the natural world around us.
OK, I am no doubt being unfair and demonstrating the ignorance of a person who thinks more like a craftsman doing interdisciplinary work than a researcher who thinks deeply about the nature of interdisciplinary work. But I am also a computer scientist and a smart-ass, and so I note the following. As of Sunday evening, December 3, 2006, the Google hits for the following words were:
- interdisciplinarity: 733,000
- transdisciplinarity: 161,000
- multidisciplinarity: 128,000
- pluridisciplinarity: 821
- metadisciplinarity: 195
- exodisciplinarity: 0
Update 12/11/06: A week later, with no Google hits showing for "exodisciplinarity," I linked to this page from my blog. The next day, there were two hits for "exodisciplinarity".
Update 1/14/07: About a month later, and there are eight Google hits. One is even for a web page that isn't mine, though it is a page that is an automatic synopsis of science blogs that match certain terms.
Update 10/9/07: The forces of exodisciplinarity appear to be losing mindshare:
- interdisciplinarity: 286,000
- transdisciplinarity: 58,600
- multidisciplinarity: 43,100
- pluridisciplinarity: 2,230
- metadisciplinarity: 173
- exodisciplinarity: 3
Update 12/9/08: A little more than a year has gone by, and we're up to five hits, including one mention in a Belgian mathematics research project that appears to have also coined the term "endodisciplinarity" (hopefully, unrelated to endoscopy). Also, "multidisciplinarity" has passed "transdisciplinarity" in number of hits. Here are the stats: