Some notes from the history of interdisciplinarity

Frank 1988 p 146

From Frank, 1988, p. 146

It is not difficult to notice that epistemic fluency has its roots in interdisciplinarity. But what are the roots of interdisciplinarity? Some historical writings trace the origins of interdisciplinarity back to the mid-1920s (Frank, 1988; Sills, 1986; Graff, 2015). These exquisitely written historical texts nicely show that interdisciplinarity has been one of most ambitious and challenging intellectual projects for more than nine decades. During this time, interdisciplinary has celebrated some great achievements, but equally often it has also struggled to fulfil its promises.

Yes, during last few years, interdisciplinarity (again) has become a hot topic and (again) made its way into research funding schemes and university’s curriculums. But let’s not forget that it has been trying to do so for 90 years. What astonishes is that we know so little about how people learn to do this complex work.

Below are some insights that worth knowing and/or not forgetting.

Origins of interdisciplinarity

Roberta Frank (1988), tracing historical adventures of the word “interdisciplinarity”, writes:

“Interdisciplinary” was probably born in New York City in the mid-1920s, most likely at the corner of 42nd and Madison. The word seems to have begun life in the corridors and meeting rooms of the Social Science Research Council as a kind of bureaucratic shorthand for what the Council saw as its chief function, the promotion of research that involved two or more of its seven constituent societies. (p. 139)

The notion of interdisciplinarity in research discourses perhaps appeared much before the word. As Frank (1988) writes, with increasing focus on “cooperative research” many published books already emphasised “inter” nature of research activities of that time:  

the “interrelation,” “mutual interdependence,” “interpenetration,” “intercommunication,” “cross-relationships,” “interfiliation,” and, of course, “interaction” of the various disciplines, along with the need to explore “twilight zones” and “border areas,” “to fill any unoccupied spaces,” and to encourage the “active cultivation of borderlands between the several disciplines. (p. 141)

Since the beginning, the road of interdisciplinarity was not without challenges. David Sills (1986) quotes the following disillusioning text from the report to SSRC about the Council’s interdisciplinary agendas:

It may also be said the Council has allowed itself to some extent to become obsessed at times by catchphrases and slogans which were not sufficiently critically examined. Thus there is some justification for saying that much of the talk in connection with Council policy, especially in the early years, about cooperation and interdisciplinary research turned out to be a delusion. (SSRC, August 1937, p. 145, cited in Sills, 1986, p. 86)

Interdisciplinarily and interdisciplinarities

Frank 1988 p 143

From Frank, 1988, p. 143

The notion of interdisciplinarity has also changed through the history. As Frank (1988) writes:

“Interdisciplinary” started out with a reasonably bounded set of senses. Then, subjected to indecent abuse in the 50s and 60s, it acquired a precocious middle-aged spread. Now not only is the word everywhere but no one can pin down what people have in mind when they utter it. (pp. 139-140)

Already in the late 1960s it was well realised that this term is far too broad and vague for describing diverse kinds of research activities that have just one broad common feature: something that comes from two or more disciplines. One of OECD reports on interdisciplinary problems of teaching and research published at that time makes enlightening fine-grained distinctions between different kinds of “inter-” disciplinarities, such as “interdisciplinary, metadisciplinary, extradisciplinary, multidisciplinary, pluridisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, nondisciplinary, adisciplinary, and polydisciplinary” (OECD, 1972, quoted in Frank, 1988, p. 143). It also discriminates between seven brands: “teleological, normative, purposive, subject-oriented, problem-oriented, field-theory, and General Systems theory”. (loc. cit.).

While such taxonomies and classifications are often seen as unpractical, in many ways they are powerful tools that allow us to see beyond surface similarities and start appreciating that there hardly can be one “true” form of interdisciplinarity or one “right” way for doing interdisciplinary work. This ignorance to the distinctiveness and complexity of interdisciplinary work, however, is common. As Harvey Graff (2015) writes about history of “interdisciplinary disciplines”[i]:

Interdisciplinarity is regularly and profoundly misunderstood. (p. 215)

He explains:

Doing interdisciplinary work differs from “talking” interdisciplinarity. < . . . > There is no single organization, form, pattern of institutionalization, or set of rules that signifies interdisciplinarity. This history warns us of the dangers of exaggeration, excessive claims of novelty, and imitation, especially of a simplified model of scientific research. It emphasizes the centrality of humility, learning the basics, doing one’s homework, and recognizing and appreciating variety and variability. (p. 236)

Interdisciplinarity does not always mean “big science” and does not always mean “collaborative”. Rather, it is a way of thinking, doing and relating to other kowledges in the world. Disciplines and interdisciplines are historical constructs: their notions change, they co-evolve together, and their borders are always in flux. It’s easy to accuse some classical disciplines as being notoriously old and resistant to change. However, sometimes it might be far harder to say whether somebody’s (theoretically and methodologically nontrivial) work contributes to an established discipline like Medieval Studies, or expands interdiscipline like Medieval Studies (cf. Frank, 1988, p. 143).

Interdisciplinary education

Interdisciplinary education, has similarly long history. The first reference to “interdisciplinary education” appeared in 1933, in an SSRC fellowship notice referring to research training that preferably should be “of an interdisciplinary nature” (Sills, 1986, p. 18). And since the origins of interdisciplinarity, education has been an integral part of a larger challenge. As Frank (1988) writes, we are taught that “if we are to have interdisciplinary achievement, we must have interdisciplinary language” and that students would profit from “courses giving an interdisciplinary (sic!) introduction to the disciplines (sic!) judged by experienced scholars to be essential” (op. cit., p. 145). Educators also allude that interdisciplinary learning is not only about disembodied, decontextualized knowledge:

“Interdisciplinary research (or activity) requires day-to-day interaction between persons from different disciplines . . . and the interchange in an interactive mode of samples, ideas, and results. (Rustum, 1979, p. 170, cited in Frank, 1989, p. 143)

While it quickly appeared that it is extremely difficult to become skilful at “speaking” fluently different disciplinary languages and day-to-day interaction does not always naturally lead to success, yet it is strange that up till now there has been little attention to understanding what makes interdisciplinary learning so notoriously difficult. It seems took years to invent the word “interdisciplinarity” and then get a sharper understanding what it actually means, but it has been taking much longer to create a vocabulary that allows us to describe (with sufficient precision) what interdisciplinary skilfulness actually entails. It will take even longer to get better at helping people to develop these skills.


Frank, R. (1988). Interdisciplinarity: The First Half Century. Items, 40, 73-77

Graff, H. J. (2015). Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

OECD (1972). Interdisciplinarity: Problems of Teaching and Research in Universities. Paris: OECD/Centre for Educational Research and Innovation.

Rustum, R. (1979) Interdisciplinary Science on Campus: The Elusive Dream. In Joseph J. Kockelmans (Ed.) Interdisciplinarity and Higher Education. (pp. 161-196) The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Sills, D. (1986/2016). A Note on the Origin of “Interdisciplinary”. Items, 40 (1), 17-18.

SSRC (1937). Report on the History, Activities, and Policies of the Social Science Research Council. Prepared by Louis Wirth for the Committee on the Review of Council Policy. Mimeographed. August 1937.

[i]  NB: our term.

3 responses to “Some notes from the history of interdisciplinarity

  1. Very interesting! I am currently studying the first use of “interdsiciplinary” to use it in the introduction part of an article about… interdisciplinary. I read the articles of Frank (1988) and Sills (1986), they both locate the first use of this specific term in 1937. I haven’t already read the Graff’s (2015) book, does he added something new to this fact? Thanks in advance.


  2. Graff’s book offers a set of carefully crafted historical case studies. I think this book adds a lot of flesh this this fact 🙂


  3. So I will eat the whole book! I have just ordered the book from my library, thanks for your answer!

    Liked by 1 person

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