Monday, 15 July 2013

The Difficulty of Cross-ImeanInter-ImeanTransdisciplinarity

'Say, Prof: what's that word again?'
On Friday I went along to a symposium organised by SHARE that looked at the thorny issue of facilitating transdisciplinarity research. Despite the sweltering heat and the fabulous catering, both of which were very diverting, it was an interesting event, but perhaps not for the reasons that the organisers had originally intended.

The first reason was that the whole thing defied easy labelling. The first twenty minutes were spent on a 'taxonomy' of the label that should be used for work that transcends more than one discipline. In summary:
  • Interdisciplinarity: when the techniques from one discpline are used in another;
  • Multidisciplinarity: when many disciplines are working together on the same question;
  • Crossdisciplinarity: is a generic term which shouldn't be used any more. You have been warned;
  • Supradisciplinarity: when new approaches are used to inform a number of disciplines;
  • Transdsciplinarity: when the work moves beyond traditionally defined boundaries. 
There were a couple of other definitions, but by then I was having trouble keeping up and noting down the nuances that differentiated these. Others were having similar problems, so that, throughout the day, whenever anyone mentioned working across the disciplinary divide, it was mentioned as 'Cross-ImeanInter-ImeanTransdisciplinarity.' Which was quite a mouthful, and did have the effect of slowing discussion. 

The second, more substantive reason that the day was illuminating was that it became clearer and clearer, to me, that Cross-ImeanInter-ImeanTransdisciplinarity cannot be taught. You either get it or you don't. Those that do, like the first speaker, Dr James Steele (UCL), are slightly perplexed that anyone needs to even ask why they do it, or how.

Much of the questioning following his talk were along the lines of, 'but what skills are needed to do Cross-ImeanInter-ImeanTransdisciplinarity?' Steele would, say, 'well, there are elements of archaeology, and obviously you need medical scanning techniques...' The exasperated questioner would then interrupt: 'No, but what skills did you need to bring all these different disciplines together?' And on they went.

Because for some, it's just what they do. They recognise that to answer the questions that interest them, they need to bring together experts from a range of disciplines. If you artificially try to do this, to try and answer one of the weird and wonderful RCUK calls developed by their Priorities Generator, then you're on a hiding to nothing, and however hard you try, it's just not going to work.

So what's the role of us research development managers in this? The symposium made me recognise that our job is not to artificially jam people from diverse disciplines together in a room and say, 'you're not coming out until you've created something! And make sure it's expensive!' Instead, we need to make sure that the support that we provide and the environment in which the work, are conducive to Cross-ImeanInter-ImeanTransdisciplinary working.

Thus, we might help academics find out what else is going on across campus, or provide information on sources of funding, or make sure that they've thought about how to exploit their pathways to impact, but we can't tell them how, or with whom, they should be working. That is up to those who do this without thinking, those who are the real champions of Cross-ImeanInter-ImeanTransdisciplinarity.


  1. Regarding your question: "what's the role of us research development managers in this?" check out this work:,22380,en.html

    1. Thanks for this! The video with Lyall seems to back up my contention that some just get it. The only suggestion is an open meeting - which is fine, but really I think it's all about having motivated, smart people who understand the worth of inter-I mean transdisciplinary working. Good short guide via the other link:

  2. Role of RDMs here is to work with local budget holders to find pump-prime money to initiate novel collabs and prelim data acquisition to persuade external funders that it is worth it. Greater issue is failure of referees to understand more than half of such a proposal...