Academic disciplines play a key role in students’ interdisciplinary work.
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.
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:
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:
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.
Experts within a discipline view their work as serving purposes that are often shared with a number of their peers. For example:
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.
In the context of the WSEE, disciplinary landscapes can be mapped according to four fundamental dimensions:
Disciplinary inquiry is purposeful
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:
Nira’s essay investigating villagers’ attitudes to water filtration clearly illustrates the distinct purposes of biology and anthropology.
In both cases, Nira’s own research purpose was well aligned with the purpose of inquiry in these disciplines.
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:
Questions to ask
When students consider the range of disciplines available to them to form the basis of their research, they can ask:
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:
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.
All disciplines have preferred methods—modes of inquiry and criteria by which knowledge is deemed acceptable.
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:
In Nira’s essay investigating villagers’ attitudes to water filtration, she drew systematically on:
Disciplines have preferred forms of communication
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
Nira’s essay investigating villagers’ attitudes to water filtration reflects the norms of academic research writing.
Her conclusion expands her findings and includes a new strategy to present her filtering system to community members.
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:
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.
In Nira’s essay investigating villagers’ attitudes to water filtration, she could have used other or additional disciplines to inform her study. For example:
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.