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Understanding interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity

Madhumitha Krishnan

Madhumita trans

In education, research and innovation today, we often hear the terms interdisciplinary” and multidisciplinary”. Many of us may use these terms without understanding what exactly they mean. In this article, we will explore the meaning of these terms, and also try to understand the significance and need for a newer term called trans-disciplinary”.

As described by Choic and Pak, Interdisciplinarity analyses, synthesizes, and harmonizes links between disciplines into a coordinated and coherent whole.”

Multidisciplinarity is defined as viewing the same object from the viewpoint of different disciplines.

To further understand these concepts let us take the example of a common substance we are all aware of, and understand the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches towards studying it. The substance we shall talk about is water. 

How would we understand water from different perspectives?

If you were to ask a person from the discipline of chemistry how they view water, their explanation would probably be on the lines of water containing 2 molecules of Hydrogen and 1 molecule of Oxygen; or that the pH of water is neutral.

If the same question was posed to a physicist, they would probably explain the theory of refraction associated with water, the concept of resonance, surface tension etc. 

If the same question was posed to a biologist, the first thing that would probably be explained is how 70% of the human body is made up of water, and how it is an essential part of survival itself.

If the same question was posed to a musician, they would probably explain the sounds associated with water, such as the soothing gurgle of a stream or the loud angry gushing sounds of a waterfall that could be converted to appreciable tones.

If the same question was posed to an artist, they would describe the form they see, of it having ripples, being fluid in nature, transparent etc.

And so on and so forth.

Now in the interdisciplinary approach, the understanding of water would combine the views of different disciplines. For example, the biochemistry of water would involve how the combination of 2 molecules of hydrogen with a molecule of oxygen has a particular reaction in nature with other substances, or how it helps the survival of living beings by its reactions. A biophysical explanation would probably be how the blood in the body applies a particular pressure due to its nature of being fluid etc.

On the other hand, a multidisciplinary approach to water could be, for instance, in the context of a town planning its management of water resources. A combination of disciplines such as geography, architecture, political and social sciences would all come together to devise an appropriate water solution for the town, with each still functioning within the purview of their specific disciplines.

Regardless of the approach, the final purpose of all these disciplines remains the same, which is at its very foundation, a method process by which to view and observe nature. For the majority, the language used to explain the two approaches is also more or less the same: logical and quantitative. However, since time immemorial man has observed nature and captured it in languages that we are no longer familiar with. In these languages, the methodologies used to view nature are completely different from what we consider standard nomenclature today. This brings us to an approach called trans-disciplinarity, which is the study of nature across different ideologies or philosophies. 

One such trans-disciplinary view would be combining the view of art and music of nature with the normal view. The discipline of art or music does not fall into the framework of understanding utilized in physics, chemistry or biology. While the base framework of all these sciences would be the atomic theory, an artist would rarely utilize the atomic theory to represent nature. Similarly, a musician would not require an understanding of atomic theory to create tunes but would utilize certain principles that converge across these disciplines. 

Let’s go back to our example of water: in a trans-disciplinary approach, the physics of resonance would be utilized in understanding the tonal quality of sound expressed by a musician in a symphony. With an artist, the concept of refraction from physics would converge with their understanding of representing a scenery that includes a water body. In this manner, the understanding of nature across disciplines adds value to both.

Another example of a trans-disciplinary approach would be understanding nature through the principles of Ayurveda along with those of contemporary vocabulary. Centuries ago, before the invention of microscopes, how did a person view or learn about nature? Mostly using their sense organs of sound, touch, sight, taste and smell. This led to a philosophy that understood nature in a completely different manner. The basic components or building blocks of nature were based on what could be perceived by the individual, which are called the Panchamahabhutas or 5 states/​fields of nature which are essentially translated to Akash (space), Vayu (air), Agni (fire), Jala (water) and Prithvi (earth). Similarly, nature was described by the characteristics that were felt, seen and experienced by people that led to the Dravya guna shastra or the methodology of describing substances in the universe. Taking the example of water, it would be described in the following manner: a tasteless substance, that is liquid in nature, causing a sense of moistening, that is cold in thermal property and with a nourishing effect on the body. These as we can immediately see are comparable to the physical, chemical and biological explanations of water.

Now let us see another view of the same substance water. When water is in the form of ice it would represent the Prithvi (earth) Mahabhuta; when the same water is melted, it would form the Jala (water) Mahabhuta; when the same water is boiled, it would transform into the Agni (fire) Mahabhuta and when the water is converted to water vapour it would become the Vayu (air) Mahabhuta. The same water would therefore have completely different characteristics and pharmacological effects on the body based on the principles of Ayurveda, while the atomic view of the water would be constant in all these forms. Hence, there are certain areas of convergence and certain areas of apparent divergence. But neither view is wrong.

Wouldn’t comparing these different ideologies of water give us a better understanding of the substance itself? Hence the trans-disciplinary approach would be a step forward in further understanding nature from truly different perspectives.