The Society for Research into Higher Education



by GR Evans

Historian GR Evans takes the long view of developments in interdisciplinary studies, with particular reference to experience at Cambridge, where progress may at times be slow but is also measured. Many institutions have in recent years developed new academic structures or other initiatives intended to promote interdisciplinary collaboration. We invite further blogs on the topic from other institutional, disciplinary, multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives.

A recent Times Higher Education article explored ‘academic impostor syndrome’ from the point of view of an academic whose teaching and research crossed conventional subject boundaries. That seemed to have made the author feel herself a misfit. She has a point, but perhaps one with broader ramifications.  

There is still a requirement of specialist expertise in the qualification of academics. In its Registration Conditions for the grant of degree-awarding powers the Office for Students adopts a requirement which has been in used since the early 1990s. An institution which is an established applicant seeking full degree-awarding powers must still show that it has “A self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to the assurance of standards supported by effective quality systems.”

A new applicant institution must show that it has “an emerging self-critical, cohesive academic community with a clear commitment to the assurance of standards supported by effective (in prospect) quality systems.” The evidence to be provided is firmly discipline-based: “A significant proportion (normally around a half as a minimum) of its academic staff are active and recognised contributors to at least one organisation such as a subject association, learned society or relevant professional body.” The contributions of these academic staff are: “expected to involve some form of public output or outcome, broadly defined, demonstrating the  research-related impact of academic staff on their discipline or sphere of research activity at a regional, national or international level.”

The establishment of a range of subjects identified as ‘disciplines’ suitable for study in higher education is not much more than a century old in Britain, arriving with the broadening of the university curriculum during the nineteenth century and the creation of new universities to add to Oxford and Cambridge and the existing Scottish universities. Until then the medieval curriculum adapted in the sixteenth century persisted, although Cambridge especially honoured a bent for Mathematics. ‘Research’, first in the natural sciences, then in all subjects, only slowly became an expectation. The higher doctorates did not become research degrees until late in the nineteenth century and the research PhD was not awarded in Britain until the beginning of the twentieth century, when US universities were beginning to offer doctorates and they were established as a competitive attraction in the UK .

The notion of ‘interdisciplinarity’ is even more recent. The new ‘disciplines’ gained ‘territories’ with the emergence of departments and faculties to specialise in them and supervise the teaching and examining of students choosing a particular subject. In this developing system in universities the academic who did not fully belong, or who made active connections between disciplines still in process of defining themselves, could indeed seem a misfit. The interdisciplinary was often disparaged as neither one discipline nor another and often regarded by mainstream specialists as inherently imperfect. Taking an interest in more than one field of research or teaching might perhaps be better described as ‘multi-disciplinary’ and requires a degree of cooperativeness among those in charge of the separate disciplines. But it is still not easy for an interdisciplinary combination to become a recognised intellectual whole in its own right, though ‘Biochemistry’ shows it can be done.

Research selectivity and interdisciplinarity

The ‘research selectivity’ exercises which began in the late 1980s evolved into the Research Assessment Exercises (1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001, 2008), now the Research Excellence Framework. The RAE Panels were made up of established academics in the relevant discipline and by the late 1990s there were complaints that this disadvantaged interdisciplinary researchers. The Higher Education Funding Council for England and the other statutory funding bodies prompted a review, and in November 1997 the University of Cambridge received the consultation paper sent round by HEFCE. A letter in response from Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor was published, giving answers to questions posed in the consultation paper. Essential, it was urged, were ‘clarity and uniformity of  application of criteria’. It suggested that: “… there should be greater interaction, consistency, and comparability between the panels than in 1996, especially in cognate subject areas. This would, inter alia, improve the assessment of interdisciplinary work.”

The letter also suggested “the creation of multidisciplinary sub-panels, drawn from the main panels” or at least that the membership of those panels should include those “capable of appreciating interdisciplinary research and ensuring appropriate consultation with other panels or outside experts as necessary”. Universities should also have some say, Cambridge suggested, about the choice of panel to consider an interdisciplinary submission. On the other hand Cambridge expressed “limited support for, and doubts about the practicality of, generic interdisciplinary criteria or a single interdisciplinary monitoring group”, although the problem was acknowledged.[1]

Interdisciplinary research centres

In 2000 Cambridge set up an interdisciplinary Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In a Report proposing CRASSH the University’s General Board pointed to “a striking increase in the number and importance of research projects that cut across the boundaries of academic disciplines both within and outside the natural sciences”. It described these as wide-ranging topics on which work could “only be done at the high level they demand” in an institution which could “bring together leading workers from different disciplines and from around the world … thereby raising its reputation and making it more attractive to prospective staff, research students, funding agencies , and benefactors.”[2]

There have followed various Cambridge courses, papers and examinations using the term ‘interdisciplinary’, for example an Interdisciplinary Examination Paper in Natural Sciences. Acceptance of a Leverhulme Professorship of Neuroeconomics in the Faculty of Economics in 2022 was proposed on the grounds that “this appointment serves the Faculty’s strategy to expand its interdisciplinary profile in terms of research as well as teaching”.  It would also comply with “the strategic aims of the University and the Faculty … [and] create a bridge between Economics and Neuroscience and introduce a new interdisciplinary field of Neuroeconomics within the University”. However the relationship between interdisciplinarity in teaching and in research has still not been systematically addressed by Cambridge.

‘Interdisciplinary’ and ‘multidisciplinary’

A Government Report of 2006 moved uneasily between ‘multidisciplinary’ and ‘interdisciplinary’ in its use of vocabulary, with a number of institutional case studies. The University of Strathclyde and King’s College London (Case Study 2) described a “multidisciplinary research environment”. The then Research Councils UK (Case Study 5b) said its Academic Fellowship scheme provided “an important mechanism for building interdisciplinary bridges” and at least 2 HEIs had “created their own schemes analogous to the Academic Fellowship concept”.

In sum it said that all projects had been successful “in mobilising diverse groups of specialists to work in a multidisciplinary framework and have demonstrated the scope for collaboration across disciplinary boundaries”. Foresight projects, it concluded, had “succeeded in being regarded as a neutral interdisciplinary space in which forward thinking on science-based issues can take place”. But it also “criticised the RAE for … the extent to which it disincentivised interdisciplinary research”.  And it believed that Doctoral Training Projects still had a focus on discipline-specific funding, which was “out of step with the growth in interdisciplinary research environments and persistent calls for more connectivity and collaboration across the system to improve problem-solving and optimise existing capacity”.

Crossing paths: interdisciplinary institutions, careers, education and applications was published by the British Academy in 2016. It recognised that British higher education remained strongly ‘discipline-based’, and recognized the risks to a young researcher choosing to cross boundaries. Nevertheless, it quoted a number of assurances it had received from universities, saying that they were actively seeking to support or introduce the ‘interdisciplinary’. It provided a set of Institutional Case Studies. including Cambridge’s statement about CRASSH, as hosting a range of externally funded interdisciplinary projects. Crossing paths saw the ‘interdisciplinary’ as essentially bringing together existing disciplines in a cluster. It suggested “weaving, translating, convening and collaborating” as important skills needed by those venturing into work involving more than one discipline.  It did not attempt to explore the definition of interdisciplinarity or how it might differ from the multi-disciplinary.

Interdisciplinary teaching has been easier to experiment with, particularly at school level where subject-based boundaries may be less rigid. There seems to be room for further hard thought not only on the need for definitions but also on the notion of the interdisciplinary from the point of view of the division of provision for posts in – and custody of – individual disciplines in the financial and administrative arrangements of universities. This work-to-be-done is also made topical by Government and Office for Students pressure to subordinate or remove established disciplines which do not offer the student a well-paid professional job on graduation.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.

[1] Cambridge University Reporter, 22 April (1998).  

[2] Cambridge University Reporter, 25 October (2000).  

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

4 thoughts on “Interdisciplinarity

  1. Thanx for this.

    I wonder how the statement ‘The establishment of a range of subjects identified as “disciplines” suitable for study in higher education is not much more than a century old in Britain’ is consistent with the trivium and quadrivium which were propounded extensively in medieval universities. While this theoretical outline may have been reiterated more as a convention than a statement of practice (Leader, 1988 , p. 91) surely it nonetheless established ‘a range of subjects identified as “disciplines” suitable for study in higher education’.

    Leader, D. R. (1988). A history of the University of Cambridge: volume 1, the
    university to 1546. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • From G.R. Evans: I should have covered that. Apologies. But these artes did not have their own rival communities and were treated as a sequence in a single syllabus. They were solely ‘taught’ of course.

  2. While academics may be encouraged to be interdisciplinary, they are not necessarily rewarded for it, and may be punished. If you publish outside your discipline, you are fortunate if your peers just ignore it, but they may question your competence, and work ethic. As an example, you may be told not to publish outside your discipline, as that lowers the research ranking, or that a particular technique is not really “research” as it doesn’t all within the definition in your discipline. As someone with one foot in the hard science of computing, and the other in the social science of teaching, I occasionally fall in the chasm between the two.

  3. Halford Mackinder, one of the founders of the LSE, and the interdisciplinary inventor of geopolitics said more than a century ago: “Knowledge is one. Its division into subjects is a concession to human weakness.”

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