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date: 01 June 2020

Interdisciplinarity: Its Meaning and Consequences

Summary and Keywords

Interdisciplinarity is an analytically reflective study of the methodological, theoretical, and institutional implications of implementing interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and research. Interdisciplinarians are those who engage in the scholarly field of interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary approaches in the social sciences, meanwhile, involve the application of insights and perspectives from more than one conventional discipline to the understanding of social phenomena. The concept of interdisciplinarity gained prominence during the early 1970s to solve the problem of how knowledge can be unified and what the implications of such unity are for teaching and research in the universities. Though there were many differences between scholars, they all shared the thought that the scientific enterprise had become less effective due to disciplinary fragmentation, and that a countermovement for the unification of knowledge was the proper response. There are many ways of differentiating between types of interdisciplinary approaches, and they can be classified as multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and transdisciplinary. Multidisciplinary approaches involve the simple act of juxtaposing parts of several conventional disciplines in an effort to get a broader understanding of some common theme or problem. Cross-disciplinary approaches involve real interaction across the conventional disciplines, though the extent of communication and thus combination, synthesis, or integration of concepts and/or methods varies considerably. Transdisciplinary approaches, meanwhile, involve articulated conceptual frameworks that seek to transcend the more limited worldviews of the specialized conventional disciplines.

Keywords: academic discipline, area studies, interdisciplinary approaches, interdisciplinarity, interdiscipline, multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary

Historical Context

The noun interdisciplinarity made its professional debut in a 1972 publication from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The report, entitled Interdisciplinarity: Problems of Teaching and Research in Universities (Apostel, 1972), was sponsored by the OECD’s Parisian-based Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. The report had chapters written by scholars from six different European countries: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Although there were many differences between them, they all shared the thought that the scientific enterprise had become less effective due to disciplinary fragmentation, and that a countermovement for the unification of knowledge was the proper response. The problem was “how to unify knowledge and what the many implications of such unity are for teaching and research in the universities . . .” (Apostel, 1972, p. 11). Unification “means the integration of concepts and methods in these disciplines” (pp. 11–12). A number of unifying schemas were proposed, including mathematics, linguistic structuralism, Marxism, and general systems. Although the authors had different “transdisciplinary” proposals, they all agreed that “[i]nterdisciplinarity is a way of life. It is basically a mental outlook which combines curiosity with open mindedness and a spirit of adventure and discovery . . . It is practiced collectively . . . It teaches that there can be no discontinuity between education and research” (p. 285).

In addition to a number of important theoretical articles, the OECD report had a major emphasis on the design and implementation of interdisciplinary universities. The authors of this section, Professors Asa Briggs of Sussex University and Guy Michaud of the University of Paris, gave as their sample model an interdisciplinary university with a special emphasis on international relations (IR). They believed that because the field of international relations had the most complex connections, it necessarily involved the study of many methods, disciplines, issues, languages, and geographical areas. All students of their proposed university were expected to be familiar with the basic approaches and concepts of anthropology, politics. economics, international law, ecology, geography, history, sociology, and ethno-psychology (Apostel, 1972, pp. 253–257). The founders of the International Studies Association (ISA) in 1959 shared this interdisciplinary vision. The mission statement states that the ISA “promotes interdisciplinary approaches to problems that cannot fruitfully be examined from the confines of a single discipline.”

Chronologically, the next major book that addressed the general issue of interdisciplinarity in the university setting was entitled Interdisciplinarity and Higher Education. It was published in 1979, and its editor was Professor Joseph Kockelmans, the Director of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Program at Pennsylvania State University. Possibly because he was European-educated, his orientation was similar to the authors of the OECD Report. He argued that only through “philosophical reflection” can the society’s intellectuals approach the “totality of meaning.” In order to overcome the fragmented worlds that they have created, they need to reach agreement not only on the position of the sciences, but also on “religion, morality, the arts and our sociopolitical praxis” (Kockelmans, 1979, pp. 153–158). However, Kockelmans was opposed to using a pre-existing framework, such as the ones listed previously in the OECD Report, or the logical positivism of the Unification of Science movement spearheaded by the Vienna Circle in the 1930s. None of them fulfilled the comprehensive vision that Kockelmans advocated.

In October 1984, OECD, in collaboration with the Swedish National Board of Universities and Colleges, decided to hold a conference to revisit the concept and experience of interdisciplinarity. More than half of the participants were from Sweden, and almost half of them were from one university, Linköping. Linköping University was especially interested in the topic because it had instituted a doctoral program based on four interdisciplinary themes (technology and social change, water in environment and society, health and society, and communication). The proceedings of the conference were published under the title Interdisciplinarity Revisited: Re-Assessing the Concept in the Light of Institutional Experience (Levin & Lind, 1985). Essentially the conferees agreed that the early enthusiasm for an interdisciplinary revolution was dampened by the realities of societal and institutional politics. Interdisciplinary research and teaching were still happening, but they were easier to accomplish if the participants did not boldly label them as such. The advisability of keeping a low profile was because the “magical slot” from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s in which interdisciplinary innovation had flourished was replaced by a more conservative period in which disciplines reasserted their authority. George Papadopoulos of the OECD concluded that “interdisciplinarity, even when it succeeds in unscrambling existing curricula, remains a hostage to the disciplines” (Levin & Lind, 1985, p. 208).

The first major work on interdisciplinarity by an American-educated scholar was published in 1990 by Julie Thompson Klein, a professor of humanities at Wayne State University. Her book is entitled Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory and Practice. Rather than making an argument for a particular approach, Klein provides a compilation of all the existing literature across all fields of knowledge. She concludes her extensive survey by observing (Klein, 1990, p. 196):

Interdisciplinarity has been variously defined in this century: as a methodology, a concept, a process, a way of thinking, a philosophy, and a reflexive ideology. It has been linked with attempts to expose the dangers of fragmentation, to reestablish old connections, to explore emerging relationships, and to create new subjects adequate to handle our practical and conceptual needs. Cutting across all these theories is one recurring idea. Interdisciplinarity is a means of solving problems and answering questions that cannot be satisfactorily addressed using single methods or approaches. Whether the context is a short-range instrumentality or a long-range reconceptualization of epistemology, the concept represents an important attempt to define and establish common ground.

Nowhere in Julie Klein’s extensive bibliography (97 pages long) is there mention of the term international relations or international studies, although she does have a section on area studies.

In 1997 the Academia Europaea and the European Commission organized a conference in Cambridge, England, around the topic “Interdisciplinarity and the Organisation of Knowledge in Europe.” The conference proceedings were published in 1999 under the same title. There were 24 contributors from 11 countries, with most (9) coming from the United Kingdom. Several contributors referred back to the seminal article by Erich Jantsch in the 1972 OECD pioneering publication. Collectively, they agreed that modern disciplines were a product of the scientific revolution of the 19th century. The specialized research entities of the University of Berlin seem to have been the origin of the disciplinary structure of knowledge. “Focusing scholarly attention on the essence or nucleus of the individual subject led inevitably to the putting-up of barriers” (Rüegg, 1999, pp. 34–35). The division into insular, specialized disciplines was seen by sociologists as an almost inevitable outcome of the differentiation associated with the process of industrialization. John Ziman argued that the impetus toward greater and greater specialization had to do with the scholarly requirement for originality, asserting that it’s easier to be a “big frog in a small pond” (Ziman, 1999, pp. 74–75). He concluded his essay by contending that “disciplines stand for stability and uniformity,” whereas “interdisciplinarity is a code word for diversity and adaptability” (pp. 81–82).

In the United States, some young scholars in international relations observed the disciplinary narrowing of the field and decided to publish a book in 2000 entitled Beyond Boundaries: Disciplines, Paradigms, and Theoretical Integration in International Studies. A review appearing in the newsletter of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies observes that the book does not deliver on its promise to meaningfully discuss disciplines, paradigms, and theoretical integration; however, it does juxtapose different theoretical positions, while calling for IR scholars to be tolerant and willing to cross boundaries between disciplines and schools of thought (Miller, 2001).

In 2002 an English academic, Joe Moran, published a book that he simply titled Interdisciplinarity. Though broad in comprehension, it focuses on English and cultural studies. He argues that the institutional implications of openly pursuing interdisciplinary approaches are inevitably political, both in the hierarchy of knowledge and in the allocation of material resources (Moran, 2002). Oxford University Press decided to enter this academic realm by publishing the Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity (Froderman, Thompson-Klein, & Mitcham, 2010). None of the 37 chapters are primarily on international studies, although one of the chapters uses area studies as an example (Calhoun & Rhoten, 2010).

In 2009 Professor Pami Aalto of Tampere University in Finland embarked on a major project to discuss and showcase interdisciplinary approaches in international studies. Two books emerged from the project. The first was International Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches (2011), and the second, Global and Regional Problems: Towards an Interdisciplinary Study (2012). Professor Aalto and his fellow editors argue, “We want to assert that International Studies—as a wider field of studies than International Relations—must necessarily be more interdisciplinary than International Relations ever was during its golden era from the 1950s onwards” (Aalto, Harle, & Moisio, p. 3). They observe that in the interwar period, international studies was an interdisciplinary field with materials and perspectives drawn from many fields and disciplines. They note that this sense of the field was spelled out in the 1939 League of Nations publication University Teaching of International Relations (Zimmern), as well as Professor Quincy Wright’s magnum opus The Study of International Relations (1955). Despite Wright’s extraordinary effort to synthesize over 20 fields into the study of international relations, his influence over the subsequent development of the field has been minimal. International relations, especially in the United States from the 1950s on, has become more and more embedded in political science. A key reason for this evolution was the focus on the Cold War power conflict. Ironically, a major intellectual force in this development was Professor Hans Morgenthau, a colleague of Quincy Wright at the University of Chicago (2011, pp. 11–19).

Professor Aalto and his fellow editors and authors believe that now that the Cold War era is over, the opportunity for the rediscovery of a broader, more diverse interdisciplinary approach to international matters has emerged. Two American scholars, Steve Yetiv and Patrick James, are taking advantage of this perceived opening with their book, Advancing Interdisciplinary Approaches to International Relations (Yetiv & James, 2017). On the other hand, the American Political Science Association has noted the increasing popularity of interdisciplinary rhetoric and practice, and in 2007 they established a task force to study it. The report of the task force was published under the title Interdisciplinarity: Its Role in a Discipline-Based Academy (Aldrich, 2014). The report is interesting because of the obvious tension that permeates the document between proponents of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. The first chapter reiterates the value of disciplines. The task force chair, Professor John Aldrich, argues that disciplines are the foundation of knowledge and the academy. In his view, interdisciplinary efforts often lack valid and reliable measures for judging scholarship and teaching and thus are inherently inferior. Nevertheless, in a subsequent chapter, four pioneers of interdisciplinary scholarship argue for the superior merits of interdisciplinary approaches: professors David Easton (systems), R. Duncan Luce (cognitive science), and Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph (area studies). In fact, Professor Easton states, “I don’t see anything that can possibly be exciting and not be interdisciplinary. I think the disciplines have sort of exhausted their contributions to our understanding of politics” (Aldrich, 2014, p. 55). Professor Lloyd Rudolph concludes his interview by offering this reflection: “I realize that it is not only that I value interdisciplinarity but also that I value being allowed to think out of the box of disciplinary methods. New concepts reveal new realities” (Aldrich, 2014, p. 72).

Although the Task Force Report does make some effort to describe what it means by an academic discipline, it does not give a comprehensive definition. What follows is an effort to provide such a definition.

Academic Discipline

Disciplines are the basic units in the structure of knowledge that have been “historically delineated by departmentalization. Within each discipline there are rational, accidental, and arbitrary factors responsible for the peculiar combination of subject matter, techniques of investigation, orienting thought models, principles of analysis, methods of explanation and aesthetic standards” (Miller, 1982, p. 4). They constitute the bureaucratic subcultures of the modern university.

Many scholars have tried their hand at the task of explicating the characteristics of an academic discipline, but the list provided by Arthur King and John Brownell in their 1966 publication, The Curriculum and the Disciplines of Knowledge still seems among the clearest and most comprehensive. Here is this author’s version of their original list:

  1. 1. Field of demarcated study (subject matter boundaries, inclusions, and exclusions)

  2. 2. Shared set of underlying premises (basic assumptions about how the world works)

  3. 3. Shared set of concepts (jargon)

  4. 4. Shared set of organizing theories/models (explanatory frameworks)

  5. 5. Shared set of truth-determining methods (what counts as data—how to make sense of them, i.e., research protocols)

  6. 6. Shared set of values and norms (preferred approaches to the material field that is studied by the discipline, e.g., economists prefer the approach of the free market; also preferred conduct by the practitioners of the discipline)

  7. 7. These six qualities cumulatively come together as a unique perspective—a coherent worldview—a disciplinary paradigm or matrix

  8. 8. Community of scholars who share this world view (professional identity—academic “tribes”)

  9. 9. Shared set of literature and great scholars in the discipline

  10. 10. Agreement on what to teach (structure and content of the basic texts and curriculum from the introductory course to the advanced graduate seminars)

  11. 11. Means of reinforcing the “professional” standards (graduate training, hiring and tenure control, associations, conferences, peer-reviewed journals, and grant-making processes)

  12. 12. Departmental home in a college/university (bureaucratic recognition, resource allocation, and territorial ownership)

Ideal-type conceptualizations of this nature have great heuristic value, but applying them in the real world becomes problematic. After all, every group of faculty organized around a defined academic interest, which has aspirations for permanence, and wish to be known, at least eventually, as a discipline. Recognition as a discipline means more prestige and the prospect of more dependable institutional support. A working solution to this definitional problem is to limit the designation of “discipline” to those departmental groupings that appeared at the beginning of the 20th century and have institutionally solidified their presence in the academy over the past 100 plus years. John Ziman calls them the “Grand Old Disciplines” (1999, p. 73). Thus, in the social sciences, the conventional and building-block disciplines would be anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, psychology, and sociology. Without some kind of limitation on the use of the designation discipline, even the distinction between discipline and interdisciplinary can become meaningless. Nevertheless, the solution proposed is admittedly an arbitrary one, but the historical process that created these disciplinary conglomerates in the first place was also a relatively arbitrary process. Eric Wolf (1982) argues that the field of classical political economy was divided into the specialized disciplines of economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology in a process that lost touch with the real world. “Ostensibly engaged in the study of human behavior, the various disciplines parcel out the subject among themselves. Each then proceeds to set up a model, seemingly a means to explain ‘hard,’ observable facts, yet actually an ideologically loaded scheme geared to a narrow definition of subject matter” (Wolf, 1982, p. 10). The establishment of these specialized disciplines at the beginning of the 20th century has been called the “academic enclosure” process. In a few decades these disciplines had enclosed themselves in departmental organizations that gave them long-term bureaucratic protection.

Interdisciplinary Approaches

Interdisciplinary approaches in the social sciences involve, at a minimum, the application of insights and perspectives from more than one conventional discipline to the understanding of social phenomena. Interdisciplinarity, on the other hand, is an analytically reflective study of the methodological, theoretical, and institutional implications of implementing interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and research. Interdisciplinarians are those who engage in the scholarly field of interdisciplinarity.

There are many ways of differentiating between types of interdisciplinary approaches, and in fact, of defining the basic term, interdisciplinary. For instance, the National Academies of Science (2005, p. 39) propose:

Interdisciplinary research is a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice.

This definition privileges the process of “integration” as well as identifying “disciplines” as the primary source of the ingredients to be integrated. Lisa Lattuca, in her faculty-interview study Creating Interdisciplinarity (2001) argues that poststructuralists, like herself and all the humanities professors and most of the social science professors in her study, reject both of these privileging assumptions. They argue that integration presumes harmonious order, whereas reality may be full of oppositions and contradictions, and that using disciplines as the basic raw material legitimizes their monopoly over knowledge. On the other hand, all the natural scientists in her study were comfortable with the type of definition proposed by the National Academies (Lattuca, 2001). The Political Science Task Force Report also accepted it. Nevertheless, interdisciplinary approaches could be broadened to include the processes of juxtaposition, application, synthesis, and transcendence as well as integration. However, it is difficult to imagine what these processes would be associated with other than academic disciplines.

By utilizing this broader definition of interdisciplinary approaches that includes processes other than integration, the logic of the original OECD typology retains its efficacy. That typology divided interdisciplinary approaches into multidisciplinary, crossdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary. What follows is this author’s version of that typology.

Multidisciplinary approaches involve the simple act of juxtaposing parts of several conventional disciplines in an effort to get a broader understanding of some common theme or problem. No systematic effort is made to combine or integrate across these disciplines. This is the weakest interdisciplinary approach, and it actually enhances the stature of the participating disciplines because their identities and practices are not threatened. They do not need to change any of their protocols, and yet they can claim their openness to interdisciplinary cooperation. Cafeteria-style curricula, team-taught courses, ad hoc research teams, and conference panels could be examples of this approach.

Crossdisciplinary approaches involve real interaction across the conventional disciplines, though the extent of communication and thus combination, synthesis, or integration of concepts and/or methods varies considerably. Since the variety of crossdisciplinary approaches is so great, this author has created a further six-fold typology. The six subcategories of crossdisciplinary approaches are: (a) topics of social interest, (b) professional preparation, (c) shared analytical methods, (d) shared concepts, (e) hybrids, and (f) shared life experiences (Miller, 1982). Hundreds of crossdisciplinary combinations have been created over the course of the last 100 years. Some of these combinations have been ephemeral, some are long lasting but poorly articulated, and some have developed an institutionalized coherence that rivals the conventional disciplines. The latter in this author’s taxonomy are the interdisciplines. Professor David Long (2011, pp. 52–59) calls them “neodisciplines.”

Next, the six crossdisciplinary subcategories are explicated:

  1. 1. Important social topics frequently attract members from several disciplines. They start out as multidisciplinary groupings, but over time continuous communication creates a new crossdisciplinary field of study. Examples would include environmental studies, cognitive science, gerontology, labor studies, peace studies, urban studies, etc. The study of geographical regions, area studies, is an interesting topical example because of its close relationship to international relations. In fact, in the period after World War II, due to Cold War–driven funding, the area studies centers in U.S. universities overshadowed the field of international relations. More on area studies is discussed later in this article.

  2. 2. Another organizing principle for crossdisciplinary combinations is relevant knowledge for professional preparation. Examples include business management, diplomatic studies, education, public administration, health services, policy studies, etc. There are undoubtedly more students, faculty, and practitioners in this professional category than in any of the other categories, but the self-conscious attention to their interdisciplinary nature is very limited. Nevertheless, there are exceptions; for instance, Donald Schön, in his book The Reflective Practitioner, observes that the professions are split between the rational technocratic view of the more theoretical and conventional perspective versus the more particularistic uncertainty of the actual field situations (Schön, 1983). He tries to find a middle ground between these extremes by proposing a reflexive approach that combines theory and practice. He argues that professionals should be aware of the frames within which they operate so that they are open to critiquing the one they are using and even shift to another if the situation requires it. Schön’s proposed approach is similar to the interdisciplinary method of comparative worldviews or multi-perspective analysis (Miller, 1982).

Policy studies, a growing field in recent years, manifest this internal tension rather dramatically. In the early 1950s Professor Harold Lasswell expressed his belief that through a rational and scientific process, the best policy options could be identified and implemented toward the betterment of democratic objectives. Some of the analytical methods he advocated, such as benefit/cost analysis, are still being applied today. However, his approach has been criticized as being undemocratic, that is, “scientists know better,” and incredibly unrealistic as the political decision-making process is anything but rational. Studying the “different perspectives that underlie conflict in public policy arenas . . . is more illuminating and ultimately more practical than quixotically tilting at scientific windmills” (Smith & Larimer, 2009, p. 18).

  1. 3. Similar research methods, especially the quantitative ones, are often shared across the disciplines. They provide a basis for bringing methods-oriented faculty members together in more permanent crossdisciplinary associations. These groups have conferences, journals, and even academic programs. Examples of these shared analytical methods include statistics, computer modeling, game theory, information theory, etc. (Miller, 1982). However, despite the potential cost savings, conventional disciplinary departments are usually unwilling to replace their own method’s courses with the more generic ones from these crossdisciplinary programs.

  2. 4. There are some major concepts that appear in many disciplines that have the potential for crossdisciplinary integration. Classic examples of shared concepts include energy, value, flows, role, evolution, development, cycles, etc. (Abbey, 1976). George Homans, a sociologist in Harvard’s crossdisciplinary Social Relations Department in the 1960s and 1970s, used exchange as his main integrating concept. The source of his inspiration was rational exchange theory from the discipline of economics (today it would be called “rational choice theory”). He made an explicit effort to use benefit/cost exchange as the basis of a theory of human behavior that could integrate across disciplines. Homans argued that although the specifics of exchange relationships may vary across different types of human experience, their overall interactive form may be quite similar (Homans, 1974).

The concept of development was dominant in the social sciences in the 1950s and 1960s under the crossdisciplinary umbrella of modernization theory. Modernization theory grew out of the need to achieve some degree of coherent coordination between the different and sometimes contradictory development strategies proposed by the separate social science disciplines. Economists argued that development would occur if sufficient amounts of capital investment are made and markets are developed. Political scientists argued that development requires modern bureaucracies, effective governance, and political participation. Sociologists argued that modern social institutions such as factories, schools, and mass media are key components in any development plan. Anthropologists argued that the residents of poor countries had to change their traditional cultural values into modern ones if development were to occur. Psychologists argued that individual personality development is the key, shifting the orientation from ascription to achievement. Modernization theory tried to bring all of these diverse perspectives together. It was the central organizing theory of the crossdisciplinary field of development studies.

  1. 5. The most widely recognized type of crossdisciplinary approach is undoubtedly the hybrids. Hybrids combine parts of two existing, related disciplines to form interstitial new crossdisciplines that attempt to bridge perceived gaps between disciplines (Miller, 1982). Well-known examples include social psychology, political economy, biogeography, historical sociology, etc. Sometimes the hybrid crossdisciplinary fields generate new theories whose promise is so great that they are borrowed back into their constituent disciplines. Social psychology’s symbolic interaction theory is a case in point. In fact, Dogan and Pahre (1990) argued that hybrid activity is the most likely source of innovative advances.

One of the most important hybrids in the interdisciplinary realm of international relations is political economy, especially in the form of international political economy (IPE). IPE uses the multi-perspective approach mentioned previously. It juxtaposes the competing explanatory perspectives of the market model from economics, institutionalism from political science, and historical materialism from classical political economy (Miller, 2008). The differing perspectives provide a rich treasury of insights, understandings, critiques, and research strategies. More on IPE is presented later in this article.

  1. 6. The basic premise in crossdisciplinary programs based on shared life experiences is that certain groups have shared a common experience of oppression that gives them a shared identity, a shared rejection of mainstream knowledge that reinforces this oppression, and a shared political agenda to replace the unjust social conditions with an egalitarian society. Three major examples of this category are women’s studies, ethnic studies, and postcolonial studies. These crossdisciplinary fields entered the academy as outgrowths of the social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. They started out as multidisciplinary challengers to the disciplinary/departmental power structure of the university, yet over the past four decades women’s studies and ethnic studies have evolved increasingly into discipline-like programs, in other words, interdisciplines. According to some observers, one of the costs of this institutional acceptance was the loss of one of the early objectives of these movements: social-change activism in the community (Messer-Davidow, 2002).

Virtually all of the over 700 women’s studies programs in the United States teach feminist theory, an integrating perspective that focuses on socially constructed gender systems and standpoint analysis. Standpoint theory contends that how one perceives any human condition depends on the position that one occupies in the society. Those who are being oppressed are going to see things very differently than those who are doing the oppressing.

According to Professor Ann Tickner, feminism challenges the neo-positivist and state-centric orientation of international relations in the United States. The unequal relationships that pervade the world are socially constructed and vary from place to place, with women suffering universally from male-dominated exercises of power. Furthermore, dichotomies such as those that “separate the mind (rationality) from the body (nature) diminish the legitimacy of women as ‘knowers’” (Tickner, 2014, p. 86). Knowledge should not be pursued for its own sake or for the benefit of the state, but in order to facilitate the emancipation of the oppressed.

Theorists in African-American or Africana studies have made a deliberate effort to incorporate the perspective of women in their key concept, “Afrocentricity.” The meaning of Afrocentricity is somewhat contested within the interdiscipline, but there is no doubt about what it opposes, namely Eurocentrism. Among the specified features of Eurocentrism are reductionism, individualism, and domination over nature, whereas Afrocentricity is associated with holism, community, and harmony with nature (Azibo, 2001). Karanja Keita Carroll (2008) contends that the “Afrikan worldview” has embedded within it an African culture-specific axiology, epistemology, logic, cosmology, ontology, teleology, and ideology that necessitate a research methodology that is consistent with these components. Instead of the Eurocentric approach that emphasizes objective detachment, separation between the knower and the known, material reality as primary, either/or logic, and knowledge for knowledge’s sake, the Afrikan worldview emphasizes full engagement, the blending of knower and known, the spiritual essence of reality as primary, both/and logic, and knowledge for the betterment of African peoples. Africana research is about participation, relationships, interdependence, and the liberation of Africana people (Carroll, 2008, pp. 4–27).

Transdisciplinary Approaches

Starting with Jantsch’s classic essay (1972), transdisciplinary approaches have been understood to involve articulated conceptual frameworks that seek to transcend the more-limited worldviews of the specialized conventional disciplines. Advocates for transdisciplinary approaches often directly challenge the efficacy of conventional disciplines, claiming that they are part of the problem rather than the solution, especially when the objective is the mitigation of complex social problems. Proponents of transdisciplinary approaches frequently accuse the hegemonic conventional disciplines of protecting the status quo rather than promoting progressive change. The framers of some transdisciplinary approaches see them as providing alternatives to the worldviews of the conventional disciplines that they would replace. Examples of discipline-replacement transdisciplinary approaches would be general systems theory, Marxism, and cultural studies. Examples of transdisciplinary approaches that could supplement rather than replace conventional disciplines would be symbolic interactionism, rational choice theory, and gender theory (Miller, 1982).

General systems theory, the transdisciplinary approach that Jantsch favored, contends that nature is a hierarchy of similar structures up through the whole succession of physical, biological, and social systems. There are similar developmental patterns throughout nature, but there are different paths that can lead to the same destination. Through the organization of energy from the environment (negative entropy) and communication with the environment (negative feedback), systems seek to maintain dynamic equilibria. This theory conceives of nature as a holistic set of relationships that thrives on diversity.

Professor David Easton introduced systems thinking to political science in the 1950s and 1960s because he felt the discipline was too narrow. “I am not a political scientist but rather a social scientist interested in political problems” (Aldrich, 2014, pp. 52–53). Currently, Professors Carolyn and Patrick James continue Easton’s systems approach with their application of “systemism” to foreign policy analysis. However, in their view, systemism moves away from Easton’s bias toward homeostatic proclivities and emphasis on the macro level. Systemism includes both the macro and the micro and all forms of interaction between them (James & James, 2015).

Since the 1960s, general systems theory has been the main transdisciplinary approach of environmental or ecological studies (Costanza, 1990). Today, this field is most likely to be called “sustainability studies.” In a major conference on transdisciplinarity held in Switzerland in 2000, sustainability was put forward as not only the major reason for the necessity of transdisciplinarity, but also as a transdisciplinary approach in itself (Klein et al., 2001). Egon Becker argues that sustainability studies is a “transdisciplinary field” that is more of a “conceptual and heuristic framework” than a general theory (1999, pp. 284–285).

The lack of an agreed-upon general theory for engaging in the intellectual process of integrating across disciplines led Professor William Newell to search for the most comprehensive and functionally effective transdisciplinary theory. He decided on general systems. But the first difficulty that Newell faced was deciding on which version of general systems theory to embrace. He identified eight possibilities: chaos, complex systems, fractal geometry, nonlinear dynamics, second-order cybernetics, self-organizing criticality, neoevolutionary biology, and quantum mechanics (Newell, 2001). After studying them all, he chose complex systems as the preferred approach. Newell (2001, p. 7) explains:

Specifically, the theory of interdisciplinarity studies that I am advocating focuses on the form of complexity that is a feature of the structure as well as the behavior of a complex system, on complexity generated by nonlinear relationships among a large number of components, and on the influence of the components and relationships of the system on its overall pattern of behavior.

Newell presented his preferred theory to a panel of well-known interdisciplinarians for their reactions. None agreed with his suggestion, primarily because they did not believe that the range and diversity of interdisciplinary possibilities could be captured within one theoretical framework (Newell, 2001).

In Europe, the transdisciplinary movement has taken several different directions. The Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences conference discussed previously promoted a process form of transdisciplinarity that not only transcended disciplinary boundaries, but also the boundary between the scientific establishment on the one hand and the users of the results of scientific research on the other hand. Users include government agencies, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and members of the general public. Since all these groups are stakeholders in the solution of the societal problems that science has an obligation to address, they should all be present at the table in the research process. In fact, the more stakeholders involved, the more “robust” the research. “We take the contributions to the informing and the rationalizing of actions in their societal context to be the main performance of problem-oriented research, and by implication, also of transdisciplinary research” (Zierhofer & Burger, 2007, p. 57). In other words, according to the Swiss school, the purpose of transdisciplinary research is to seek and facilitate the implementation of solutions for societal problems, such as violence, poverty, global warming, etc., that serve the common good (Pohl & Hadorn, 2008). Norwegian professor Willy Ostreng, in his major book on interdisciplinary research, agrees, adding that as transdisciplinarity traverses the boundaries between science and stakeholder expertise, it creates a new, “post-normal” science (2010, pp. 29–33).

Another European school of transdisciplinarity is centered around Basarab Nicolescu, a French academic. His group is organized around the International Center for Transdisciplinary Research. The movement’s objective is the achievement of the totality of meaning across all the sciences, art, religion, and cultural perspectives. That endeavor involves the search for relations and isomorphisms across all realms. The French school’s epistemology is explicitly non-Aristotelian in that it wishes to go beyond lineal and binary logic. They recognize different levels of reality in which different modes of understanding prevail. They start with the differences between classical physics and quantum physics, between reason and intuition, between information and consciousness, and between linear and nonlinear logics. Nonlinear logic is explained as the unity of oppositions, the inclusion of the excluded middle, and the evolutionary process of ever more comprehensive syntheses. Manfred Max-Neff calls this epistemology “strong transdisciplinarity.” He sees some of it in the natural sciences, especially in quantum physics and complexity theories. However, he does not see any of it in the social sciences. He sees economics as the most retrogressive and therefore one of the biggest obstacles to a unified, spiritually evolved, sustainable future (2005, pp. 5–16).

There are some interesting analogies between “strong transdisciplinarity” and the field of cultural studies, for which many claim transdisciplinary status. Both approaches are strong critics of the excessive reliance on rationality and analytic reductionism, as well as of the fragmented specialization of the structure of knowledge. The location of cultural studies at the interface of the humanities and the social sciences enables its practitioners to bring together their different concepts of culture and then to add the additional dimension of everyday meanings and practices present among the broader population.

It is generally agreed that the institutional origin of cultural studies was at Birmingham University in 1964. The founders had an anti-establishment orientation informed by Italian neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci and French poststructuralist Michel Foucault. The Birmingham group wished to understand and challenge the power over the general population that the cultural elites exercised through the mass media and the power that the intellectual elites exercised through their control of the structure of knowledge, that is, the departmental/disciplinary structure of the academy. When cultural studies diffused to the United States, the field lost some of its political agenda; however, it retained its emphasis on popular culture. Numerous academic fields are identified as contributing to cultural studies, including cultural anthropology, textual criticism, art and social history, linguistics, sociology, aural and visual culture, philosophy of science, political economy, communication studies, psychology, feminism, etc. These multiple sources led Joe Moran (2002, p. 50) to comment, “Cultural studies could be said to be synonymous with interdisciplinarity itself.” It is both ironic and instructive then that the founding enclave of cultural studies, the Birmingham Centre, was shut down by the higher education authorities of the United Kingdom in 2002, presumably because of the “low quality of its research production" (Klein, 2005, pp. 52–53).


Advocating explicitly for interdisciplinary approaches in a discipline-controlled environment can be risky. It can be politically risky for administrative units and personally risky for faculty, especially for junior faculty. Interdisciplinary approaches do have implications for the structure and politics of knowledge. They have implications for international relations, especially if the study of international relations is considered an interdisciplinary field. A recent publication assessing the field came to this conclusion (Puchala, 2002, pp. xvi–xvii):

While there seems to be little problem in designating international relations as a “field,” the symposium left unclear whether this field is most properly a subfield of political science, a subfield of several disciplines, an amalgam of the subfields of multiple disciplines or an academic discipline in its own right.

The dominant location for international relations in the United States is as a subfield of political science (Aldrich, 2014, p. 5). In the United Kingdom, however, the field of International Relations is more often treated as a separate discipline (Waever, 1998). How the field is conceptualized and institutionalized does have implications for its intellectual strategies, the identities of its practitioners, and its access to resources, both on and off-campus. Professor David Long, in a presentation at the 2009 ISA Convention, argued that “it matters whether IR is considered a discipline in its own right or not. It matters in teaching and research not only by what is cut off, but what is encouraged” (Long, 2009). Professor Rudra Sil warns that “inflexible disciplinary structures may very well come to constitute a hindrance to whatever ‘progress’ is possible in our collective efforts to understand aspects of international life” (Sil & Doherty, 2000, p. 6). Nevertheless, American political scientists are firmly committed to keeping international relations within their fold. A recent doctoral dissertation tells the tale of how in 1986, the political science department at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) successfully absorbed the multidisciplinary graduate program in international relations. It is an interesting tale of money and powerful personalities, and it would probably be more accurately described as a hostile takeover (Plantan, 2002).

Even though the author of the dissertation, Frank Plantan, uses the language of interdisciplinarity, he does not employ the conceptual distinctions presented previously. That is partly because the graduate program of international relations at Penn was just a multidisciplinary collection of volunteer faculty members from 10 different departments with no separate, dedicated financial support. By centering his analysis on the Penn case study, Plantan limits the operational meaning of interdisciplinary to this loose arrangement of multidisciplinary specialists, an unstable and vulnerable setup. Yet in his discussion of the intellectual development of the field he mentions several integrating strategies that have crossdisciplinary and even transdisciplinary qualities. His examples include realism, functionalism, behavioralism, neoliberal institutionalism, rational choice, and constructivism. However, in his historical analysis Plantan sees these theoretical perspectives as ideas to fight over rather than as integrating strategies. In his experience the competitive departmental environment triumphed over interdisciplinary cooperation. Plantan (2002, pp. 374–375) concludes, “The hefty sunk costs of an existing tenured faculty and staff, and a historic mission (however dubious) in the colleges or university’s broader curriculum, accords them a staying power, an inertia, that no interdisciplinary program can hope to achieve whatever its intellectual merit.”

In 2007, the president of the American Political Science Association, Professor Robert Axelrod of the University of Michigan, established a task force on interdisciplinarity and political science. His sense of interdisciplinary research is borrowing across disciplinary boundaries, both importing and exporting, but especially exporting (Axelrod, 2008). As previously mentioned, the task force, led by Professor John Aldrich of Duke University, issued a book-length report in 2014 entitled Interdisciplinarity: Its Role in a Discipline-Based Academy. Their starting point is the existing disciplinary structure in the university. Interdisciplinary work begins with faculty who are prepared with accumulated deep knowledge in a discipline. The authors of the report do distinguish between multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary in that the latter involves some integration across disciplines, but none of the other distinctions discussed previously are addressed. In order to ensure that none of this interdisciplinary teaching and research endangers the institutional power of the conventional disciplines, they placed a major emphasis on discipline-based peer review. They contended that peer review is the preeminent means by which “the value of scientific knowledge can be established,” and peer review is credible only if it comes from an established discipline (Aldrich, 2014, pp. 13–23). The continue, “Disciplinarity has not yet been successfully transcended as a means to address key values of scholarship—particularly to resolve contested claims about knowledge, to anchor peer review and the authority it carries with it to protect academic freedom, or to manage the labor market” (p. 23).

Interdisciplinarians would find this reasoning self-serving at the very least. After all, one of the main reasons for engaging in truly innovative interdisciplinary activity is to break free of the narrow, restrictive, and presumably inadequate contexts of the established disciplines. The National Academies Report argues that there are four “drivers” for interdisciplinary research: the inherent complexity of nature and society, the need to explore areas that are not confined to a single discipline, the need to solve societal problems, and the power of new technologies (p. 40). This report gives several examples, but the most comprehensive is the case of climate change. Research on this complex and vital issue involves 10,000 scientists in 80 countries from more than 20 disciplines, including agricultural scientists, archeologists, atmospheric chemists, biologists, climatologists, ecologists, economists, environmental historians, geographers, geologists, hydrologists, mathematicians, meteorologists, plant physiologists, political scientists, oceanographers, remote sensing scientists, and sociologists (p. 31).

The established disciplines have been attacked by the poststructuralists for being Eurocentric, sexist, racist, pseudoobjective, status quo–protective, and structured in a way that is disconnected from reality. To this group of critics, both the ontologies and epistemologies of the conventional structure of knowledge are unacceptable (Moran, 2002). Paradoxically, some of the academics who espouse these views have managed to find an institutionalized niche in the university in departments or centers of cultural studies, ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, women’s studies, etc. However, in the process of institutionalization, they seem to have followed the advice of the political science task force report: If interdisciplinary projects want to be successful (i.e., to achieve bureaucratic recognition with regular budgets and assigned faculty positions), you need to behave like an established discipline (Messer-Davidow, 2002). Besides those interdisciplines that have successfully entered the university structure since the 1960s, there were many generic interdisciplinary programs that also evolved into departments, even though they were founded as challengers to the disciplinary/departmental system. Evidently, the generic-interdisciplinary departments were perceived by the established departments as the most threatening, as well as the most vulnerable. As a consequence, whenever conventional departments found sympathetic administrators they embarked on a campaign for their abolition. In The Politics of Interdisciplinary Studies, the stories of several of these “assassinations” are told. They include programs at Wayne State, Miami of Ohio, Appalachian State, San Francisco State, and other institutions (Augsburg & Henry, 2009).

The political science task force report also describes how the discipline-based peer-review process works in the federal grant-making process, the largest source of extramural funding in the United States. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is probably organized the most pervasively around the conventional or established disciplines. Therefore, disciplinary criteria are used to evaluate most grant proposals submitted to the NSF. There are small programs within NSF that seem to facilitate interdisciplinary projects: the Measurement, Methodology, and Statistics program and the Human and Social Dynamics program.

Although the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is organized functionally, its reviewing process also relies largely on disciplinary faculty and their criteria for quality. Federal funding agencies reflect and respect disciplinary boundaries, although they do seek ways to attack new problems through interdisciplinary efforts (Aldrich, 2014, pp. 101–111). However, the ostensibly integrative interdisciplinary projects they fund frequently end up as merely multidisciplinary.

A group that studied the grant-making experience of the Academy of Finland from 1997–2004 discovered, to its surprise, that almost half of the grants (42%) had some degree of interdisciplinarity despite the disciplinary orientations of the review boards. The study authors’ solution to the disciplinary/interdisciplinary divide is to consider all research interdisciplinary. They reason that since disciplinary boundaries are so amorphous and so frequently permeated, maintaining these distinctions is artificial and inhibitive of creativity in research (Bruun, Hukkinen, Huutoniemi, & Thompson Klein, 2005, p. 169). However, ignoring disciplinary boundaries and their associated departmental bureaucracy seems not only unrealistic about the confining power of the disciplinary structure of knowledge, but also politically naive as well.

A further interesting dimension of the interdisciplinary domain involves the crossdisciplinary fields represented by the sections of the ISA. For instance, how exactly does the field of international relations relate to, incorporate, or get transformed by security studies, peace studies, or women’s studies? For years, the leadership of the ISA seemed to just presume, despite the organization’s claim to multidisciplinarity, that all the section program chairs could gather at the annual Political Science Convention in order to review the draft program of the upcoming ISA Convention. The implicit assumption in this past procedure was that all ISA members were political scientists always struck this author as contradictory to the organization’s own mission statement.

The history of the relationship of area studies to international relations is a fascinating one in itself. The ISA section sponsoring this contribution, the Comparative and Interdisciplinary Studies Section, was originally established by area studies scholars according to Professor Fred Riggs, one of its founders. In the 1970s, his group was contemplating founding a separate umbrella organization for all area studies programs, but they were persuaded to stay within the ISA as an independent section. As mentioned previously, area studies centers were established in elite universities after World War II as part of a national Cold War strategy. They were “among the most far-reaching interdisciplinary projects in American higher education” (Aldrich, 2014, p. 89) Their responsibility was to provide information on the geographic regions of the world in support of the national interests of the United States. Participating faculty came mostly from language, literature, anthropology, history, and political science (international relations) departments. The centers, despite their holistic aspirations, were multidisciplinary in form and particularistic in methodology. Money and guidance ostensibly came from private sources, such as the Ford Foundation and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), but they actually came from the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency (Cumings, 2002).

In the first few decades after World War II, the study of international relations was significantly oriented to area studies because the money flowing into the universities supported an area studies type of knowledge. The legacy of that emphasis is reflected in a 2006 Teagle Foundation survey that found that in the responding 109 liberal arts colleges, half of the top 10 interdisciplinary majors were in area and international studies. Since the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, extramural teaching and research support has dwindled significantly for area and international studies. Lloyd Rudolph comments that “after the close of the Cold War, the disciplines and the ‘methodists’ succeeded in attacking and defeating the area studies orientation of Ford and via Ford the SSRC” (Aldrich, 2014, p. 70). Area studies programs have had to endure criticism from those who see them as a “colonial enterprise” (faculty in postcolonial and ethnic studies programs) while many in the disciplines see them as lacking any theoretical coherence and methodological rigor. From the perspective of conventional disciplinarians, their region-centric particularism and their multidisciplinary structures make them the poster examples of what ails interdisciplinary programs (Miyoshi & Harootunian, 2002; Szanton, 2004).

On the other hand, despite the continuing identity crises in area studies, the field has managed to survive. The latest restoration positions it as part of the internationalization of the academy, presumably made necessary by the knowledge demands of globalization and regional hot spots such as the Middle East. However, the continuing viability of area studies remains uncertain. As one observer notes, the different area studies faculties are as separated from each other as the members of disciplines are from each other. “By and large, the world area studies tribes inhabit relatively watertight intellectual domains” (Lambert, 1991, p. 184). Nevertheless, David Szanton hopes that participation in area studies programs have helped to “deparochialize” disciplinary faculty, although it does not seem to have lowered the heights of the disciplinary walls. Maybe by being one of the first interdisciplinary programs to use “identity” as one of its key concepts, area studies may have prepared the way for ethnic studies, women’s studies, and postcolonial studies (Szanton, 2004).

The case of IPE also raises a number of interesting interdisciplinary issues. In its recent reincarnation over the last four decades or so, it fits in the category of crossdisciplinary hybrids. IPE’s location in the structure of knowledge is as confused as international relations. The disciplines of economics, political science, and sociology all claim IPE as a subfield. However, Marxists, in the tradition of classical political economy, see political economy as an overarching, holistic frame in which cultural, economic, political, and social dimensions are interrelated subsets. According to Marxists, the establishment of the specialized disciplines around these dimensions is a part of the hegemonic strategy of capitalism to obfuscate the oppressive nature of the capitalist system.

The late British political economist Susan Strange, a non-Marxist, complained about the lack of knowledge across disciplinary boundaries. She was especially critical of the way in which economists and political scientists ignored each other and their respective knowledge domains. She accused American scholars of international relations of being too narrowly connected to state-centric political models that did not include serious economic analysis. In fact, she argued, “Far from being a subdiscipline of international relations, IPE should claim that international relations are a subdiscipline of IPE” (Lawton, Rosenau, & Verdun, 2000, p. 412). Strange is among the “Magnificent Seven” that Professor Benjamin Cohen singles out in his recent intellectual history of IPE (Cohen, 2008, p. 8). She was the leader of the British school, which is more holistic, interdisciplinary, and explicitly normative in contrast to the American school, which is more positivistic in orientation. Professor Cohen continues his geographic schools of thought analysis of IPE in a 2014 publication, Advanced Introduction to International Political Economy. In response to criticism of the limitations of his original dichotomy, he adds schools of thought based in continental Europe, Latin America, and China. He also recognizes leftist or heterodox schools in the United States and the British Commonwealth. However, his geographic schools of thought approach focuses primarily on national/regional and cultural differences, rather than theoretical.

Members of all schools of IPE would probably be comfortable having their field identified as an “interdiscipline” (Underhill, 2000). As defined previously, an interdiscipline is a crossdisciplinary field that approximates the characteristics of an academic discipline, but it does not qualify as a 20th-century conventional discipline. In fact, maybe international relations would also best be characterized as an “interdiscipline.” However, that identification still leaves unanswered where international relations fits in the power hierarchy of knowledge.

According to Barry Buzan and Richard Little, members of the English or British school of international relations, the widespread placement of international relations in the United States as a subfield of political science has significantly limited its theoretical potential. Buzan and Little (2001) argued that American international relations is dominated by an ahistorical, Eurocentric, Westphalian, political/military model. One of the consequences of this approach is the preference for “fragmentation into the anarchy of self-governing and paradigm-warring islands of theory rather than integration into the imperial or federative archipelago of theoretically pluralist grand theory” (Buzan & Little, 2001, p. 31). Margaret Hermann, in her 1998 ISA presidential address, expressed seemingly similar sentiments about fragmentation: “The field has become an administrative holding company rather than an intellectually coherent area of inquiry or a community of scholars” (Hermann, 2002, p. 16). However, her solution is a respectful dialogue that builds a “mosaic of multiple perspectives” around problems that are issues of “world politics” (pp. 31–33). She does not seem to be recommending “grand theory,” nor going beyond political science. Thus, hers is an intradisciplinary rather than an interdisciplinary solution. On the other hand, Hermann does seem to embrace the “interdisciplinary mental outlook” advocated by the authors of the pioneering OECD report mentioned earlier.

Understanding the different types of interdisciplinary approaches and their differentiation from disciplinary approaches gives one deeper insight into the knowledge production and transmission process. If international relations is to be a truly independent, interdisciplinary field that can take full advantage of multiple perspectives and methodologies in order to deal more effectively with global problems, it needs to liberate itself from the embrace of confining disciplines, especially political science.


The author wishes to thank the following for helping to improve this article: Stanley Bailis, Felicia Krishna-Hensel, Tina Mavrikos-Adamou, and Anja K. Miller.


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