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Extended Essay: Disciplinary lenses

A guide to the research process involved in your EE.

Disciplinary Lenses

Academic disciplines play a key role in students’ interdisciplinary work.

Subjects and subject groups

Most often a WSEE draws on subjects from across subject groups. The subjects can be within the same group—but students must not choose subjects that are too similar to allow for an interdisciplinary approach—for example economics and business management.

Students are advised to use only two Diploma Programme subjects, one of which they must be studying already.

Interdisciplinary understanding

Students show interdisciplinary understanding when (with their supervisor’s support) they select insights from two disciplines or subject areas to address the topic of their choice.

Students must consider:

  • what discipline might best inform their work
  • what particular insights from the discipline will be most relevant.

Level of understanding

Students are not expected to achieve comprehensive mastery of disciplines before their interdisciplinary research. However, they are expected to demonstrate a deep understanding of the particular theories, concepts or methods they use.

There are multiple aspects of a discipline that can inform an interdisciplinary project:

  • theories, conceptual frameworks, concepts or findings (for example from biology, history, mathematics or economics)
  • distinct disciplinary methods, research instruments or approaches to inquiry
  • characteristic communicative styles, languages or symbol systems.

Theory of knowledge can also help students understand the nature of disciplinary work and decide which disciplinary insights will produce meaningful connections across academic areas.

By grounding their research in disciplines and established areas of expertise, students avoid superficial or solely journalistic accounts of their chosen topic.


It is important that students understand academic disciplines as dynamic networks of concepts, theories and examples that are produced through the use of agreed-upon methods and techniques to answer questions about the world.

Before they begin their research, ask students to use the lens of the biologist, the geographer, the historian, the scientist, the artist or the poet to provide an initial answer to their question.


An investigation of villagers’ attitudes to water filtration

Nira, a student in Mombasa, focused her essay on the adoption of new water sanitation systems in a nearby rural village.

Following an outbreak of illnesses there, students in a creativity, activity, service (CAS) project tested the quality of tap and well water available to villagers. They discovered a high concentration of bacteria in the water.

Nira devised and tested an inexpensive home-made microfiltration system better capable of capturing pathogens in the water. When the villagers refused to adopt the new filter, Nira sought to understand the values and beliefs that lay behind this refusal.

Nira’s essay drew on biology and anthropology.

She defined water-borne pathogens and explained their impact on human health in areas of poor water sanitation. She characterized the global scope of the problem by showing that deaths from diarrhoeic diseases are typically concentrated in poorer areas without sewage systems. Nira explained the mechanisms that make microfiltration preferable to boiling the water or using regular filters.

Nira wanted to understand how the villagers usually filtered the tap and well water. She collected information through interviews and questionnaires, as well as on-site observation. Her goal was to understand how villagers made sense of water quality and filtration processes and why they would prefer less reliable methods.

Taking an anthropologist’s perspective, Nira concluded that the villagers’ refusal to use the new filter resulted from financial considerations rather than ignorance.

Through her research Nira came to view her interviewees as embedded in complex social systems that placed important demands on them. Their spending priorities were education for their children, house maintenance, clothing and food. Nira realized that, for the villagers to adopt her filtration method, she would have to do more than simply present the filter. For example, she would need an awareness programme to help the villagers understand how getting sick through the existing methods cost them more in the long run.

Disciplinary knowledge and methodology

Experts within a discipline view their work as serving purposes that are often shared with a number of their peers. For example:

  • A biologist may seek to understand less than obvious factors affecting ecosystems in order to protect biodiversity.
  • A historian may study the Holocaust in order to understand the role of leaders in the collapse of justice, while another may seek to shed light on cultural conditions. Both may hope that the lessons learned will be useful.

Disciplinary practices vary widely.

For example, two biologists are investigating animal social cooperation. The experimental biologist studies fly populations in the laboratory. The environmental biologist tracks a family of chimpanzees in Uganda. Their methods to investigate animal social cooperation differ greatly, and their results and explanations may well do so, too.

However, most importantly, both biologists’ perspectives are informed by disciplinary knowledge and methodology. Their disciplinary expertise sets their different views apart from unsubstantiated or naive opinion.

It is very easy for students to rely on common-sense understanding of a global issue or more informal insights. However, the academic nature of the EE requires students to understand a global issue through disciplinary lenses.

Questions to consider

  • How are students to navigate new disciplinary landscapes?
  • What kinds of maps of the disciplinary territory may prove most helpful?

Four aspects of disciplinary knowledge

In the context of the WSEE, disciplinary landscapes can be mapped according to four fundamental dimensions:

1 Disciplinary purpose

Disciplinary inquiry is purposeful

  • We seek to understand the past and enrich our sense of ourselves (in history).
  • We seek to explain, control and predict natural or social phenomena (in physics, biology, economics).
  • We enjoy exploring the human condition or expressing an idea or a feeling (in literature or the arts).

Targeted inquiries also serve specific purposes. Concepts and findings in one discipline are often applied in another, novel context to solve problems, create products or explain phenomena.

Questions to ask

When students consider whether to include a specific discipline in the design of their research, they can ask themselves:

  • What is the purpose of inquiry in this discipline?
  • What is the discipline helpful for?
  • How might this discipline contribute to my study?

Nira’s essay investigating villagers’ attitudes to water filtration clearly illustrates the distinct purposes of biology and anthropology.

  • From a biologist’s perspective, Nira sought to explain the science of water-borne pathogens and the effect of a microfiltering system.
  • From the perspective of a social and cultural anthropologist, she sought to understand the villagers’ existing water sanitation practices as part of a larger set of commitments shaping their lives. Most importantly, she wanted to understand how the villagers made sense of these practices.

In both cases, Nira’s own research purpose was well aligned with the purpose of inquiry in these disciplines.

2 Knowledge base

Disciplines hold a rich knowledge base (concepts and findings) on which to draw.

Disciplinary understanding involves the capacity to move flexibly between theories, concepts and specific examples. For example:

  • We understand a historical period like the rise of Nazi Germany when we can offer one or more overarching narratives that explain it and illustrate it with particular events, actors, places and dates.
  • We understand a biological phenomenon like genetic inheritance when we can articulate and apply accepted theoretical principles to particular cases and findings.

Questions to ask

When students consider the range of disciplines available to them to form the basis of their research, they can ask:

  • What do I need to know about my interdisciplinary topic that may make this disciplinary perspective useful?
  • What are some of the big ideas, key concepts or theories in this discipline that may inform my work?
  • Are there findings, examples and cases related to these big ideas that will help me understand my topic?

Interdisciplinary work that is grounded in subject-specific disciplines enables students to take advantage of those disciplines’ theories, concepts, ideas and findings.

In Nira’s essay investigating villagers’ attitudes to water filtration, the Diploma Programme biology course informed her work by providing information about water-borne human diseases. For example:

  • the role of particular pathogens and bacteria in causing disease
  • data on the global distribution of such diseases
  • concepts such as “potable water standards” inform the research design.

Social and cultural anthropology introduced Nira to the concepts of meaning-making, social practices and complex social systems. Nira was then able to apply these to her interpretation of the villagers’ views and behaviour.

Additional constructs like “modernization” and “urbanization” could have enabled her to frame the problem of water sanitation more eloquently.

Other anthropological constructs (such as “kinship”, “personhood” or “identity”) addressed in the course were unrelated and appropriately not included in Nira’s work.

3 Disciplinary methods

All disciplines have preferred methods—modes of inquiry and criteria by which knowledge is deemed acceptable.

For example:

  • History—interpretation of primary and secondary sources, the evaluation of actors’ perspectives.
  • Biology/chemistry/physics—designing a laboratory experiment to test a given hypothesis.
  • Mathematics—the art of advancing mathematical proof.

Different disciplines also hold distinct criteria for determining what is an acceptable result or a trustworthy conclusion.

In their interdisciplinary research, students must use the inquiry methods of at least one of the disciplines they study.

Questions to ask

When students consider the range of disciplines available to them to decide which of their methods to use, they can ask:

  • What forms of inquiry does the study of my problem require?
  • What are the methods by which knowledge is constructed in this particular discipline? Could they contribute to my study? How?
  • What specific tools and instruments are deemed helpful to inquiry in this discipline and would these help me?
  • What is deemed a reliable result in this discipline and would these standards apply to my study?

In Nira’s essay investigating villagers’ attitudes to water filtration, she drew systematically on:

  1. experimental methods in the life sciences:
    • design and test for the microfilter
    • use of sampling and control variables, eg density and size of bacteria
    • qualitative methods in the social sciences:
      • participant observation and interviews
      • detailed filed notes
      • analysis of data in search of consistencies, patterns and inconsistencies among informants’ views.

4 Forms of communication

Disciplines have preferred forms of communication

For example:

  • historical narrative
  • scientific report
  • policy briefing
  • curating a museum exhibit.

Each activity employs a particular genre to communicate with its audience effectively. Disciplines favour the symbol system and genre that suit their content and meet the norms of their expert community.

Students’ academic writing is most effective when it reflects such disciplinary norms.

In preparing to write their EEs students will benefit from examining the norms of communication typical of the disciplines they have drawn on.

Questions to ask

  1. How can I best communicate my study, results and conclusions?
  2. What are the genres, languages and symbols that are typically used in the disciplines I have chosen? For example:
    • essays
    • graphs
    • scientific reports
    • poster presentations
    • videos.
  3. Are there particular disciplinary genres that I could use to communicate my results?

Nira’s essay investigating villagers’ attitudes to water filtration reflects the norms of academic research writing.

  • She clearly states both her research questions and methods.
  • She makes explicit the hypotheses of her biology study.
  • She includes reflective statements in her anthropology study about her initial assumptions.
  • She presents her results and clearly relates them to the research questions she proposes.

Her conclusion expands her findings and includes a new strategy to present her filtering system to community members.

Selecting and evaluating disciplinary insights

Students need to look beyond a discipline’s content when exploring whether it will be useful to their essay. They should also reflect on these aspects:

  • insights
  • findings
  • theories
  • methods
  • techniques
  • approaches
  • forms of communication.

Students can use their RRS to examine disciplines and seek advice from their supervisors or experts in relevant fields.

When students examine a rich topic they find that there are a number of disciplines that they could use as a basis for their study.

With their supervisor’s guidance, students must learn to evaluate the contributions of each discipline and its particular theories, findings, methods or tools against one another. Most importantly, they must evaluate each discipline against their research goals.

The evaluation of possible disciplinary insights should be a continual process.

Questions for students to ask

  • How might this particular disciplinary perspective inform my study?
  • Is this theory helpful?
  • Do I need to adjust my research question if I include this particular disciplinary perspective?
  • Among the possible useful disciplinary perspectives I am considering, which ones should I exclude, so that I have a coherent approach to my essay and a manageable scope?

In Nira’s essay investigating villagers’ attitudes to water filtration, she could have used other or additional disciplines to inform her study. For example:

  • Economics could contribute an understanding of incentives and how they shape villagers’ behaviour.
  • Geography’s search for patterns in human–environment interactions could offer information about water sources in the region where the village is situated.

Yet, for her study to succeed, Nira had to decide which disciplines to exclude. The best interdisciplinary projects select relevant disciplinary expertise to enable deep, complex understanding.