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Multidisciplinary study: the value and benefits
Multidisciplinary study: the value and benefits

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1 Definitions

Understanding the terminology used to describe studying in more than one subject and the differences between them is important, as you will often come across these terms used interchangeably. For example, the word ‘discipline’ itself used to be related to the specific rules and processes that had to be followed in order to become an expert in a particular subject. Now, however, the terms ‘subject’ and ‘discipline’ are used interchangeably, as you will learn throughout this course.

Firstly, let’s explore meanings of, and differences between, the terms ‘multidisciplinarity’ and ‘interdisciplinarity’.

Multidisciplinarity is where two or more academic disciplines collaborate for a specific purpose, for instance, when computer scientists, psychologists and sociologists cooperate in the design of human/computer interfaces. Although a multidisciplinary approach uses the skills and knowledge from more than one academic discipline, the use of knowledge from different disciplines remains distinct, even though the differences between the disciplines can be quite subtle. For example, architects, engineers and quantity surveyors commonly work together on construction projects, each applying their specialist knowledge to their own area of expertise. When a project is completed, each of the specialists return to their own area of expertise to start other projects.

A multidisciplinary approach is also often used in healthcare and social work, where patients’ clinical and healthcare needs are met by a multidisciplinary team; for example, nurses, social workers, general practitioners and psychotherapists may work together in multidisciplinary teams to address such problems as the rehabilitation of stroke patients (SIGN, 2002).

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Figure 1 An example of a multidisciplinary approach in healthcare

In the context of The Open University, our ‘Open’ qualifications are considered to be multidisciplinary, as you study individual courses independently of each other. There is no formal requirement for students to bring together the knowledge and skills gained from each course, but they can all contribute to their overall qualification).

Interdisciplinarity differs from multidisciplinarity because the different disciplines work together to produce new knowledge and understanding. This can yield new understandings that would not have been possible if different experts had worked only in their own discipline area. For example, sociologists may work with psychologists and economists to examine issues affecting women returning to work after having children and the impact of this on society. Researchers from different disciplines therefore bring their own methods and insights to a particular project, or to solve a particular problem.

Studying in this way offers a unique opportunity to understand how this knowledge could be brought together in an interdisciplinary way and applied in different contexts, and the importance of this to real-life scenarios. It is therefore important for you to be able to make these connections, even if you are not technically studying in an interdisciplinary way.