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

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4 Why study multiple subjects?

We should encourage arts and science to meet. I studied ancient history not technology, but you can get a long way just by being curious and asking questions.

Martha Lane-Fox, Chancellor of The Open University (Gale, 2016)

It is important to remember that the traditional academic subjects that are referred to today, such as chemistry, music and geography, are simply artificial boxes used to understand the growing awareness of our lives and universe. People have always tried to make sense of our world by trying to organise our knowledge into compartments. Over time, these compartments have changed and multiplied, and as a result, we have ended up with distinct subjects such as history, mathematics and business.

Some subjects have developed so much that they have now been divided up into new areas of knowledge. History, for example, can be broken down into fields such as archaeology, European history and Roman history. Sometimes, new areas of knowledge develop at the boundaries of more than one subject. For example, biochemistry, which applies elements of both chemistry and biology.

When a new subject is created, groups of ‘experts’ form around one particular area of knowledge, which can lead to a different style of language and specific notations that are unique to that area. These are used by experts in the field, as well as by teachers and students, as a shorthand for discussing a particular subject efficiently. However, this also creates barriers that prevent others from easily understanding the subject and its discussion. Learning the different languages and notations of more than one subject and bringing them together is therefore a key challenge when adopting a multidisciplinary approach to study.

Most study undertaken in an undergraduate degree is within a single subject area, for example chemistry or history. There are sound reasons for this. Any subject becomes more complex as the body of knowledge accrues over time, therefore to gain an in-depth understanding, it is necessary to study within the confines of that subject and build up your knowledge of it. However, to get the most out of the different ways each subject looks at an issue, it can often be useful to combine two or more academic subjects, taking elements from each to create a new understanding or insight.

Studying different subjects can therefore bring a different perspective to many different issues. For example, climate change can be examined through a range of different subject ‘lenses’, as shown in Figure 3.

Described image
Figure 3 The problem of climate change demands an interdisciplinary approach.

Although knowledge is often organised into clearly defined, subject-specific ‘boxes’, there is still a lot of knowledge that falls between these discrete categories. It is within these gaps that multidisciplinary experts work as it is clear that many of the world’s greatest challenges cannot be solved by a single subject alone. This is one of the great strengths of studying in this way, because people who have a breadth of knowledge across more than one subject can provide the glue to bring together those subjects and address these challenges.

Activity 2 Applying interdisciplinary learning to different contexts

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

What other examples can you think of where studying different subjects could help to answer a global issue? Write down one problem and the subjects that could contribute to investigating this issue further.

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Here are some of the global issues that you may have listed in your answer. This list is not exhaustive and there are lots of other global issues that you may have considered that aren’t detailed here.

Issue Subjects may include
Withdrawal of the UK from the European Union (Brexit) Politics, history, economics, finance, geography, business, sociology, modern languages
Nuclear armament International relations, history, politics
Natural disasters Physical geography, physics, history, anthropology
Over population Human geography, healthcare, history of medicine, sociology
Poverty Psychology, childhood studies, sociology, economics, history
Sustainable agriculture Biology, chemistry, earth Sciences, technology, economics, politics, geography, business studies
Future pandemics Chemistry, Biology, medicine, politics, economics, logistics, business studies
Refugee crises Politics, economics, geography, history, business studies, logistics, law, education