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Author: Liz Marr

Interdisciplinary study: disciples of disciplines?

Updated Monday, 7 February 2022
What are 'disciplines' and what is 'interdisciplinary study'?


Colourful direction sign with different subjects on In 1959, C.P.Snow gave a lecture on which he later expounded in publication and which became a seminal work, still discussed and debated fifty years later. Snow’s thesis concerned the ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension ’ (Snow, 1965) between those who followed the sciences and those who saw the arts and humanities as their natural home. Each ‘sect’ saw their own disciplines as being superior in their contribution to humanity and believed that disciples of the other were only able to engage with ideas from their own field of expertise.

It is, perhaps, in this debate that we can see how distinctions between ‘disciplines’ emerge – disciples or followers fight for their belief in the ontological and epistemological ‘truths’ associated with their way of seeing and experiencing the world. Snow was arguing that members of the two camps needed to learn to communicate with each other but that the answers to human problems, health, security, food, water etc lay in the hand of scientists and this was thus the most important language. His challenge was taken up by the renowned literary critic, F.R Leavis, and an acrimonious debate ensued which has re-emerged periodically in letter pages of the quality press until the present day.

What are ‘disciplines’?

The term discipline implies both the aforementioned idea of a subject which has disciples or followers and - in the Foucaultian sense - discipline which forces a particular way of seeing the world and behaving in it. Writing about the discipline of education itself, for example, Bridges suggests that:  ‘Discipline meant that enquiry was conducted in accordance with some established rules and procedures which provided the basis for among other things distinguishing truth from falsity, warranted from unwarranted belief.  The requirement for disciplined enquiry became translated into the ‘disciplines’ which embodied such enquiry.’  (Bridges, 2004)

Holley (2009) proposes three ways in which academic disciplines might be understood as: as

  1. fields of study;
  2. bodies of knowledge associated with fields of study;
  3. communities of scholars engaged in specific fields of knowledge.

The problem with such definitions is that the disciplines as we know them are not immutable. Whilst criminologists, for example, might see themselves as distinct from sociologists they often share fields of study, bodies of knowledge and community membership. Communities of criminologists often emerge from sociology communities but forensic criminologists may well have emerged from schools of psychology. The boundaries would appear to be forming and re-forming over time. A second difficulty is that disciplines may also contain ‘factions’ with contradictory ontological stances. In Sociology, for instance, positivists and interpretivists share a field of study and engage in the same specific field of knowledge but have very differing views on what counts as  ‘truth’ and how it can be discovered.

An alternative approach to understanding the notion of disciplinarity might be found in the ideas of Auguste Comte and his three stage concept. In his words The law is this: -that each of our leading conceptions, -each branch of our knowledge, -passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological, or fictitious; the Metaphysical, or abstract; and the Scientific, or positive.’ (Comte, 1853, p1). The first phase refers to blind belief in what we are told, the second to the beginning of questioning and the third to the finding of answers. Through this process, Comte identified a hierarchy of scientific knowledge, from Astronomy to Sociology, each new branch depending for its emergence on the development of its predecessor and increase in complexity. This might go some way to explaining the explosion of disciplines in the last century – the more we know and understand, the more we find to investigate. And the more complexity we uncover, the more the inter-connections between disciplines become apparent. Thus we see groups of disciplines such as humanities, social sciences, arts and natural sciences, emerging.

Following the logic of this trajectory we can see how forms of interdisciplinarity might emerge. Holley identifies ‘three variations of knowledge production that extend across disciplinary boundaries ….. cross-disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity’. (Holley, 2009)

  • Cross –disciplinarity is where related disciplines come together to address a problem which evades study from a single epistemological standpoint.  For example, sociologists ‘borrowed’ the tools of ethnography from anthropologists in order to develop knowledge and understanding about the behaviour of ‘tribes’ within mainstream societies.
  • Multidisciplinarity is where two or more disciplines collaborate for a specific purpose, for instance when computer scientists, psychologists and sociologists cooperate in the design of human/computer interfaces.
  • Holley (ibid) links the concept of transdisciplinarity to Gibbons’ (1994) ideas of  Mode 2 knowledge which ‘encourages cooperative interaction between scholars and practitioners’. (Holley, op cit)


Bridges, D.  (2004) The disciplines and discipline of educational research, Paper presented to British Educational Research Association Annual Conference Manchester Metropolitan University

Comte, A.  (1853) The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte (trans. Harriet Martineau; London, Chapman 1853), Vol. I

Gibbons, M. 1994 The New Production of Knowledge: The dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Holley, K., 2009, Understanding Interdisciplinary Challenges and Opportunities in Higher Education, San Francisco, Wiley Subscription Services.

Snow, C.P. (1965) The Two cultures and a Second Look, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press


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