Understanding Interdisciplinarity


We use ‘interdisciplinarity’ in a broad sense, referring to those kinds of knowledge work that involve several established knowledge fields and foster connections between them [1]. Mode-2 knowledge production [2] and other forms of knowledge co-creation with people outside formal disciplines (e.g. service users) are also examples of interdisciplinarity: fostering new kinds of relationships between science and society [3].

We use ‘expertise’ in a similar way to its use in cognate streams of theorisation on ‘interactional expertise’ [4], ‘relational expertise’ [5] and ‘adaptive expertise’ [6].

‘Interdisciplinary expertise’ emphasises the actionable and relational nature of expert performance: the capacity to enact and generate new productive ways of knowing—that may or may not be formal knowledge or method—in relation to the encountered situation, in order to make productive connections between several bodies of knowledge.

Understanding interdisciplinary expertise in the context of epistemic cultures

The educational research literature describes capacities needed for interdisciplinary work in diverse ways: ‘interdisciplinary cognition’ [7], ‘interdisciplinary thinking’ [8, 9], ‘interdisciplinary understanding’ [10], ‘interdisciplinary competencies’ [11], etc. This literature lists 3 to 8 components making up these capacities, e.g. “disciplinary grounding,
integration, teamwork, communication, and critical awareness” [12]. These are normally seen as a universal ‘core’, applicable across all interdisciplinary fields, though the literature is vague about what each capability entails. In contrast, studies of interdisciplinary work in professional settings show that ways of working, and challenges faced by people working at the boundaries, are highly diverse and textured. They are woven into existing cultural patterns of constructing disciplinary knowledge and specific social and material practices [8, 13, 14, 15]. Lack of precision in describing the capacities needed for interdisciplinary work makes it difficult to specify what students need to learn to do [16]. Our project will move beyond the view of interdisciplinary expertise as a broad and hard-to-pin-down universal capability. Instead, we will test and develop the view that groups working and learning on particular
disciplinary boundaries co-create their own ‘epistemic cultures’ [17, 18, 19]. Their characteristic practices and arrangements will serve as a productive focus for constructing more precise and actionable conceptualisations of interdisciplinary expertise. We will adapt and test a concrete conceptual framework for depicting interdisciplinary practices and arrangements that emerge at different disciplinary boundaries. This more precise reconceptualisation of interdisciplinary expertise and the framework to depict its features will be our first major contribution. (See description of Strand 1 for details of research approach and outcomes.)

Understanding the socio-material nature of interdisciplinary learning

Most conceptualisations of interdisciplinary learning emphasise mental capacities, such as cognition [7]; social competencies, such as communication [11]; or both [9, 10]. In contrast, research in workplace settings shows that much interdisciplinary work does not just happen “in the head” and is not just a linguistic activity: it is accomplished through interaction and skilful use of shared material and digital environments, including specific tools and co-constructed objects (sketches, prototypes, etc.), and it evolves over time [18, 20, 21]. Research in higher education has focussed more on students’ cognition and communication and is almost silent about the embodied and material nature of this work. We need a much sharper understanding of how interdisciplinary learning is intertwined with socio-material engagement. Therefore, our project makes the materiality of interdisciplinary learning an explicit focus of investigation. It will construct a much stronger understanding of how learning in interdisciplinary teamwork is accomplished through participants’ interactions with tools, objects and environments and how this evolves over time. This is key for research team leaders and teachers: the materiality of knowledge-creating practices makes knowledge work more visible and provides concrete leverage for designing environments conducive to productive interdisciplinary work and learning [22, 23]. (See Strand 2 for details).


  1. Australian Research Council, Interdisciplinary research: ARC statement of support for interdisciplinary research. 2016, Canberra: ARC.
  2. Nowotny, H, P Scott, & M Gibbons, Rethinking science: Knowledge in an age of uncertainty. 2001, Cambridge: Polity.
  3. Barry, A, G Born, & G Weszkalnys, Logics of interdisciplinarity. Economy and Society, 2008. 37(1): 20-49.
  4. Collins, H & R Evans, Rethinking expertise. 2007, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Edwards, A, Being an expert practitioner: The relational turn to expertise. 2010, Dordrecht: Springer.
  6. Smith, EM, JK Ford, & S Kozlowski, Building adaptive expertise: Implications for training design, in Training for a rapidly changing workplace: Applications of psychological research, MA Quiñones & A Ehrenstein, eds. 1997, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association: 89-118.
  7. Nikitina, S, Pathways of interdisciplinary cognition. Cognition and Instruction, 2005. 23(3): 389-425.
  8. Spelt, EJH, et al., A multidimensional approach to examine student interdisciplinary learning in science and engineering in higher education. European J of Engineering Education, 2017. 42(6): 761-774.
  9. Shen, J, S Sung, & D Zhang, Toward an analytic framework of interdisciplinary reasoning and communication (IRC) processes in science. Int J of Science Education, 2015. 37(17): 2809-2835.
  10. Boix Mansilla, V, Interdisciplinary learning: A cognitive–epistemological foundation, in The Oxford handbook of interdisciplinarity, R Frodeman, et al., eds. 2017, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 261-275.
  11. Woods, C, Researching and developing interdisciplinary teaching: Towards a conceptual framework for classroom communication. Higher Education, 2007. 54(6): 853-866.
  12. Borrego, M & LK Newswander, Definitions of interdisciplinary research: Toward graduate-level interdisciplinary learning outcomes. The Review of Higher Education, 2010. 34(1): 61-74.
  13. Graff, HJ, Undisciplining knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the twentieth century. 2015, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  14. Keating, P & A Cambrosio, Biomedical platforms: Realigning the normal and the pathological in late-twentieth-century medicine. 2003, Cambridge: MIT.
  15. Derry, SJ, CD Schunn, & MA Gernsbacher, eds. Interdisciplinary collaboration: An emerging cognitive science. 2005, Mahwah: LEA.
  16. Goodyear, P & M Zenios, Discussion, collaborative knowledge work and epistemic fluency. British J of Educational Studies, 2007. 55(4): 351-368.
  17. Smith-Doerr, L, et al., Epistemic cultures of collaboration: Coherence and ambiguity in interdisciplinarity, in Investigating interdisciplinary collaboration: Theory and practice across disciplines, S Frickel, et al., eds. 2017, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press: 65-83.
  18. Knorr-Cetina, K, Epistemic cultures: How the sciences make knowledge. 1999, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  19. Nerland, M, Professions as knowledge cultures, in Professional learning in the knowledge society, K Jensen, et al., eds. 2012, Rotterdam: Sense: 27-48.
  20. Kasali, A & NJ Nersessian, Architects in interdisciplinary contexts: Representational practices in healthcare design. Design Studies, 2015. 41: 205-223.
  21. Goodwin, C, Co-operative action. 2018, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  22. Nicolini, D, J Mengis, & J Swan, Understanding the role of objects in cross-disciplinary collaboration. Org Science, 2012. 23(3): 612-629.
  23. Leonardi, P, B Nardi, & J Kallinikos, eds. Materiality and organizing: Social interaction in a technological world. 2012, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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