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Extended Essay: Defining interdisciplinary study

A guide to the research process involved in your EE.

Defining interdisciplinary study

In interdisciplinary study, students integrate knowledge and modes of thinking from two or more disciplines to gain a deeper understanding of an issue. Crucially, they would have been unable to gain this understanding if they only looked at the issue from the perspective of one of the disciplines.

The interdisciplinary essay

A strong interdisciplinary essay exhibits the following attributes.

Clear purpose

  • The student seeks to describe, explain, compare or offer solutions to a problem that is best examined in an interdisciplinary way.
  • The student has a sense of the significance of the research.

Disciplinary grounding

The student draws on knowledge, theories, concepts, perspectives, methods, tools and forms of communication from two or more disciplines.

Productive integration

  • The student integrates disciplinary perspectives in ways that advance understanding.
  • The student understands the illuminating connections among/between disciplines.


  • The student reflects on the significance, power and limitations of his or her findings.

Interdisciplinary research

Interdisciplinary research in the IB is not “a-disciplinary” or “anti-disciplinary”. It draws rigorously on discipline-specific ways of knowing—established knowledge claims, methods, approaches to inquiry and forms of communication—to inform a new understanding.

In conducting independent interdisciplinary research, students will:

  • explore problems, ideas and issues from the perspective of two IB subject areas
  • build the inquiry skills necessary for conducting rigorous and age-appropriate research
  • exercise initiative in applying thinking skills critically and creatively to recognize, frame and approach complex problems of global significance.

Interdisciplinary research values the process of learning, as well as its results. The process involves students in:

  1. identifying a topic of personal, local* and global significance
  2. framing a researchable question
  3. identifying the sources of expertise and disciplinary perspectives to further their understanding of the topic
  4. gathering relevant information, ideas and tools in such disciplines
  5. defining a research approach or method
  6. synthesizing the different perspectives to advance their own interpretation or explanation of, or solution to, the problem under study
  7. crafting the essay and reflecting on their work, its significance, limitations and possibilities.

*Local is defined in its widest sense to mean specific examples or case studies and does not necessarily imply that the focus must be geographically local for the student.

Students begin the interdisciplinary research process with their initial beliefs about their chosen topics.

As they gather findings, consider theories and make connections, they revise and enrich their initial views. Students capture the process of building their understanding in the Researcher's reflection space and the Reflections on planning and progress Form. They receive informative feedback from their supervisors, which in turn deepens their understanding.

Examples of interdisciplinary research.

Interdisciplinary research projects range broadly in content and scope.


A student assesses the effectiveness and viability of the environmentally friendly method of "cleaner production".

He focused on a specific ceramic tile manufacturer in China, placing this local case in the context of global environmental sustainability.

He used concepts from environmental systems and societies such as “end-of-pipe protection” and “cyclonic separation”, as well as tools such as a “water balance flow diagram” and an “analysis of pollution or inefficiency” to assess the potential environmental advantages of adopting a cleaner production approach.

He also incorporated the financial tool of “net present value” (NPV) to appraise the viability of a long-term project such as pollution control.

Through his study, he convincingly demonstrated that cleaner production makes environmental as well as financial sense for companies.


A student studied the economic and cultural causes of infant malnutrition in the rural district of Maharashtra and considered the public health policies needed to tackle the problem.

Her wide-ranging study incorporated knowledge and concepts from a range of disciplines including economics, the humanities, biology and political science.

She developed a complex integration of some of the causes and effects of malnutrition in this Indian state, taking into account the interconnection between low maternal literacy levels, decreased government health spending and poor child nutrition when considering elevated levels of child malnutrition.

She then applied this understanding to come up with policy recommendations.