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Abstract and Keywords

Interdisciplinarity links social work to other disciplines within complex domains of practice. Contrasted with multidisciplinary practice, in which social workers practice alongside other disciplines and professions, all of whom pursue their own intervention aims, interdisciplinarity requires a blending and combining of those practices distinctive within each of the disciplines in pursuit of a common set of outcomes. Interdisciplinarity requires collaboration, the integration of knowledge and action, and the formation of a common agenda of practice guided by unified goals. While interdisciplinary practice amplifies the distinctiveness of social work in a given domain, it underscores engagement of the profession in collaborative knowledge development, social learning, and innovation.

Keywords: interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, social work practice, knowledge development in social work

When the distinctive aspects or content of two or more disciplines are blended to address a particular problem, the conditions of interdisciplinarity are established. Interdisciplinarity requires various disciplines to understand and respect the contributions that each specific discipline can make within a given domain of action, and to appreciate how a particular discipline other than one's own can facilitate the achievement of outcomes the domain values. It requires considerable dialogue among the members of those diverse disciplines that populate a given domain (Kahane, 2004). Domain—formed by social issues, policy forces, historical factors, and institutions—organizes various disciplines into an action system, one devoted to the advancement of knowledge and practice focused on the resolution of specific issues (Gardner, 1993, 1995, 1997). Interdisciplinarity demands that practitioners overcome discipline-centricity within a given domain: The propensity to perceive one's discipline as the most valuable or to imbue that discipline with the highest status. The benefit is the possibility of seeing new relationships that various actors may not easily or readily discern through the lenses of their own disciplines (Capra, 2002). Interdisciplinarity requires an opening of one's mind to how and what other disciplines understand within a given domain and how these disciplines perceive challenges to knowledge development given the issues the domain prioritizes.

Creating new perspectives and new ways of taking action is inherent in the idea of interdisciplinarity, imbuing this practice with creativity and innovation (Scharmer, 2007); indeed, crossing disciplinary boundaries is essential for developing theories and conceptual frameworks useful in resolving issues facing humanity (Kline, 1995), which typically are complex and therefore no one discipline can offer a comprehensive response by itself. Interdisciplinarity can foster breakthrough thinking achieved through teamwork requiring considerable and sustained informal interaction among team members. Oftentimes teamwork can involve a rich dialogue among members who differ in discipline but who share a common perspective on action and a strong committment to domain-based innovation (Bohm, 1998).


The heritage of interdisciplinarity within social work demonstrates the possibilities for collaboration between the social work profession and other disciplines. Examples include the settlement house, in which social workers collaborated with specialists in the social sciences, public health, religion, and education; the mental hygiene movement, in which social workers collaborated with psychiatrists; and the enduring bond between social work and nursing. Charlotte Towle (Perlman, 1969) underscored the importance of interdisciplinarity to social work, identifying it as a central feature of the profession's process of helping. The preparation of students for interdisciplinarity is inherent in the social work curriculum, which seeks to educate students within fields of practice, foster their involvement in interdisciplinary seminars, and create practical experiences in interdisciplinary settings. At the graduate level of social work education, students may engage in domain based work through concentrations that emphasize models of interdisciplinary practice.

Unlike multidisciplinarity, in which disciplines work side-by-side within a given domain, with each discipline amplifying an aspect of problem from its own particular perspective, distinguishing itself from the other disciplines that compose the domain, and preserving discipline-centricity, interdisciplinarity requires an integrative feature: combining the perspectives of a number of disciplines into distinctive and unified models of thought or action (Klein, 1990). Interdisciplinarity is critical to unifying a particular domain by shaping common analytic paradigms that guide inquiry and action (Bohm, 1980). For social work, interdisciplinarity may dominate an entire domain of action, such as when social workers blend their knowledge and practice of community development with other professionals to bring about the conditions of a healthy community, or it may characterize a particular part of a domain, such as in oncology, where the psychosocial component is separate from the medical but where several psychosocial disciplines collaborate to facilitate the recovery of people living with cancer.

Nissani (1995) identifies four realms of interdisciplinarity: knowledge formation, inquiry, education, and theory. For social work, given the centrality of practice to the achievement of the profession's purpose, interdisciplinarity may come to characterize how social work undertakes collaborative action in the various settings in which it operates. Adding practice as a fifth realm of interdisciplinarity respects the centrality of action within social work.

Opportunities and Future Directions

What was once considered an important feature of social work—that practice often occurred within what have been termed host settings—can be reframed as the presence of interdisciplinarity within the profession.

Social work's collaboration with other disciplines is important given the complexity of the domains in which the profession operates. Since social work has much to offer other disciplines in addressing the psychosocial components of daily life, the profession itself is central to many action settings in which human needs are fulfilled, whether in fostering the achievement of physical, mental, social, or cultural well-being or in lowering the influences of negative psychosocial factors. Social work can address effectively the oftentimes diverse psychosocial causes and consequences of the issues people face. This can heighten the relevance of the profession's knowledge and practice within a given domain, thereby increasing the likelihood that other professions will seek out social work as an interdisciplinary partner.

Blending what social work knows and can do with the knowledge and practice base of other disciplines in distinct domains or fields of practice strengthens the relevance of interdisciplinarity within the profession. Such blending may express itself as systems of inquiry or action in which multiple disciplines collaborate through programs with encompassing questions driving assessment, intervention, and evaluation within a domain (Abbott, 1988). In this manner, interdisciplinarity is synthetic: It joins what may seem disparate into a unified whole form of thought independent of any one discipline (Bohm, 1992). High levels of interdisciplinarity within a given domain suggest maturation of thought and action among those disciplines that interact to advance practice. Blending knowledge and action can potentially unify and enrich a domain, can harmonize interaction among various disciplines that share a common agenda, and reduce the dominance of any one discipline. In this manner, interdisciplinary is both consistent with the world view and ethics of social work, a profession that prizes collaboration, cooperation, equality, teamwork, and ultimately, effective action.

Still, there are additional factors making interdisciplinarity a meaningful and likely aspect of social work. Social work is a synthetic profession, similar in many ways to engineering or urban planning, in which social workers combine and blend various knowledge bases into intervention theory, models of action, and organizational frameworks. Importing theory, knowledge, and tools from other disciplines, converting these instrumentalities into distinctive applications, and putting them to use in new situations exemplifies the creative process within the profession. Such a process suggests that social work itself may be an interdiscipline. And such synthesis may create new forms of knowledge and practice and offer other disciplines new tools for achieving important outcomes valued by the multiple members composing a particular domain.

Interdisciplinarity in this context suggests that social work imports knowledge strategically, modifies or transforms it intentionally for specific applications, and exports it for the use by other disciplines or professions. Through such knowledge transformation, the profession can construct innovative ways of taking action; so in this manner, interdisciplinarity serves as a form of knowledge management, but this knowledge is only enabled through rich interactions among diverse partners (Von Krogh, Ichijo, & Nonaka, 2000).

By operating in dense fields of collaboration, typically in team structures, disciplines learn directly about how other ones operate within a given domain and how to capitalize on the distinctive practices different disciplines or professions use to address human needs. In many settings social workers operate within team structures, collaborating with a diversity of professionals, and shaping multiple, distinct sources of knowledge into a unified perspective on action. Social workers are educated and socialized to work effectively within team structures offering to other disciplines their expertise in psychosocial factors, and their considerable knowledge of the causes and consequences of social distress. Such insight may be indispensable in crafting a holistic practice theory in which common goals are pivotal. And here teamwork serves as an essential expression of interdisciplinary practice.

The incorporation of knowledge and practice from other disciplines into a particular discipline's own repertoire of action is yet another hallmark of interdisciplinarity. Such incorporation underscores how disciplines in team structures engage in social learning, often times learning vicariously from how other disciplines take action and effect change, and modeling core practices of other disciplines within their own work. Fluidity of roles, innovations in collaboration, and diverse communication strategies inherent in mutual and vicarious learning can serve as the infrastructure of interdisciplinarity. When a physician incorporates aspects of social work practice into her work, for example, the role of the family or the patients' cultural background, and shares the information or insights she derives from its application with the social worker, interdisciplinarity takes form through a process of social learning. When the social worker and physician intentionally collaborate to integrate their perspectives and create new tools each uses together or independently, interdisciplinarity is strengthened through collaborative inquiry (Mizrahi & Abramson, 2003).

Interdisciplinarity often operates within organizational systems designed intentionally to bring together a diverse array of disciplines into shared physical or virtual locations (Stacey, 1996). Through such flexibility of interaction inherent within these locations networks form in which sustained interactions among diverse disciplines serve as the cement of interdisciplinarity. This enables the integration of knowledge and action and creates organizational capital as an engine of innovation. Networks become adept at both blending discipline-specific knowledge and developing new knowledge that is largely independent of discipline.

In such contexts discipline identity and role are less important than the knowledge a professional uses to effect positive changes in the circumstances of a person, group, or community. An additional sign of effective interdisciplinary practice is engaging in innovation and bringing about outcomes that were once thought to be impossible by any single discipline. Creating successful action by blending the strengths and distinctiveness of particular disciplines is a central property of interdisciplinarity (Korazim, Korosy et al., 2007).

The number of disciplines involved in the enterprise of integrating knowledge, the amount of practice integration a domain brings about, the level of innovation, and the reduction of social distance among the various disciplines are measures of the extent a particular helping system enacts interdisciplinarity (Nissani, 1995). Interdisciplinarity offers the potential for realizing within a given domain the ideal of unity (Klein, 1990; Nissani, 1997). Interdisciplinarity is at its best when there is interplay among the disciplines that are joined together in a sociotechnical enterprise to create effective processes of change, new structures, and valued outcomes. Sustaining this enterprise are networks through which collaboration among members is realized. Teams and networks become synonymous within interdisciplinary efforts, although various members may differ in the amount and timing of their contributions

Mastery of interdisciplinarity may yield a movement toward transdisciplinary practice, a form of action in which the boundaries demarcating specific disciplines evaporate, roles become fluid, and knowledge is unified with a focus on mutual engagement within context, common processes, and unified structure (Scharmer, 2007). Central to transdisciplinary practice is the achievement of a shared understanding and a common framework of action that joins and unifies and that resists the division of multiple disciplines into segmented collectives (Bohm, 1998). A sure sign of transdisciplinarity in the human services is visible when physicians, nurses, social workers, counselors, and other disciplines collaborate harmoniously in their efforts to engage in the unification of their action and the pursuit of a common set of outcomes. Discipline titles fade in importance and more encompassing concepts are embraced: all professionals, for example, become providers, and recipients are less concerned with the professional titles of those with whom they interact since they possess considerable confidence in all members of a team. Recipients themselves may become providers of service or care bringing their knowledge of the lived experience and recovery to bear in innovative ways (Mowbray, Moxley, Jasper, & Howell, 1997). Within transdisciplinary practice, even the physical environment may change to incorporate new signs and symbols related to intervention further reducing barriers that once separated one discipline or profession from another. Office space opens, walls are dropped, informal interaction is fostered, and group life dominates. A unified lexicon emerges, which integrates the work of all members unifying communication and forming common intervention culture.

Challenges to Social Work

Interdisciplinarity poses a significant challenge to social work: While the profession is open to blending its knowledge- and practice-base with other disciplines, social workers must nonetheless engage in identifying what is distinctive about social work knowledge and practice within a given domain. Within interdisciplinarity, discipline remains important, but social workers face the challenge of blending what they know and do with the work of other disciplines. Distinctiveness suggests that social work has knowledge and practice that other disciplines find meaningful to take informed action, and address the questions that are central within the domain.

Perhaps interdisciplinarity and the movement toward transdisciplinarity will create a paradox for social work: How does the profession strengthen its identity at the same time that this identity becomes less meaningful within systems of intervention and action that are fluid and flexible?

Principles of interdisciplinarity suggest that social work's relevance is found in what it knows and can do within the psychosocial component of a given domain and through the linkage of the psychosocial component to other components populating the domain, including physical and environmental health. By fostering the adoption of its practices by other disciplines, social work will likely become a central actor in any interdisciplinary system of action.


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                                        Further Reading

                                        Alvarez, A. R., Gutierrez, L. M., Johnson, A. K., & Moxley, D. P. (2003). The journal of community practice: A social work journal with an interdisciplinary perspective. Journal of Community Practice, 11(2), 1–12.Find this resource:

                                          Korazim-Korosy, Y., Mizrahi, T., Katz, C., Karmon A., Garcia, M. L., & Bayne-Smith, M. (2007). Toward interdisciplinary community collaboration and development: Knowledge and experience from Israel and the USA. Journal of Community Practice, 15(1/2), 13–44.Find this resource: