Multidisciplinary research is a learning process

To unravel the new era of science, one characterized by multidisciplinary research, we need to know what we are dealing with. This more broad approach to scientific research has developed from the need to answer complex questions, which a single discipline is unable to handle, such as in natural resource management for example. Multidisciplinary research is definitely a buzz word of our time; it regularly decorates the pages of funding proposals and applications, scientific reports, and our professional language. However, after the applications are sent, funding is provided, and papers are published, how do we know that the work was actually multidisciplinary, or even close to it?

The conditions necessary for successful or even functioning multidisciplinary research are not easily met.  As a group of young researchers just beginning work in multidisciplinary studies, we have already heard sinister stories of multidisciplinary research groups who failed to meet these conditions: groups in which new insights were not developed by working together, but rather, each group member remained isolated in their comfortable corner nurturing the well-established reality of their own.

As Janssen and Goldsworthy (1996) put it: “ …what multidisciplinary research means and how it can be put into practice is not always clear.” At this point, it is good to refer to the definition of our buzz word, though before jumping into that, it is first useful to know what the term discipline means. According to Janssen and Goldsworthy (1996) a discipline has a close institutional order, has its own professional standards, publication outlets, and education programs. It also gives a scientist an identity, in which the principle of scientific reduction is a central attribute. This means that each discipline is expressed through a certain set of norms and values, which are constructed on the basis of the field specific reduction and the underlying assumptions of the reality.   

Going into defining multidisciplinary research leads us to knowledge associated with several academic disciplines. In practice, multidisciplinary teams are composed of individuals coming from various disciplines. This means that they may not share the initial set of norms and values, and a time-consuming task of developing new norms for the team must take place. This task requires skills and flexibility both from leaders and team members.  A solid foundation for building the new norms is a problem-solving orientation of the team and a clear shared goal. (Janssen and Goldsworthy (1996).)

Multidisciplinary research has many forms, which develop according to the level of integration in the research group and the purpose of the study – whether the goal is to focus on a broad topic or just to get a better answer to old questions. This means that many levels of research can be put under the term “multidisciplinary”. Here is one possible definition of types of multidisciplinary research following Lockeretz (1991):

-          Additive: Research group is formed by various disciplines working independently.  Yet mutual respect between disciplines occurs, there is no interaction between the disciplines, and the group does not put effort into synthesizing their results. Independent results may be included in a collective final report.

-          Nondisciplinary: A specific discipline is not able to answer the study subject, thus approaches borrowed from several disciplines are used.

-          Integrated: Many disciplines take part into the study, and a synthesis of disciplinary results is developed. There is mutual respect among disciplines, however collaboration only occurs where necessary.

-          Synthetic: Here interaction between disciplines develops so deep, that it leads to a synthesis in a new discipline. The new discipline has its own principles and assumptions.

As we can see, the extent of interaction grows when moving from additive towards synthetic research. The importance of interaction is also stressed in a recent study by Haapasaari, Kulmala and Kuikka (2012). The paper analyses the process of developing into an interdisciplinary research team, which consists of seven natural scientists, three environmental economists, and three social scientists, a close resemblance to our NorMER group! Haapasaari et al. (2012) highlight that there are learning processes taking place on three levels: between individuals, between disciplines, and between types of knowledge. Although we now speak of interdisciplinary research, the same types of learning processes may be anticipated within our multidisciplinary group as well, and the closer the interaction gets, the faster the learning processes.

Here I have picked two quotes from Haapasaari et al. (2012), which describe well the challenges and successes in being thrown out of our comfortable disciplinary borders and landing within the arena of interaction:

“The perspective of economics sounded very abstract at the beginning, and I didn’t understand anything. It was like, like they would have been talking about anything else but fish, fishing, and fishers. Terrifying mathematical formulas, methods, and concepts. We used to say that the economists have clean models whereas we have dirty hands. (Social scientist, 2006)”

It is hard to get into a situation in which the common language can be found and in which we can start benefiting from it. But I think that the more there are people who have worked interdisciplinarily, the easier it will be, and now I think that in the next projects it will be much easier. The pain has been suffered now and you can do it and you have developed the ability to present things in a different way and do not take certain things as self-evident, and you learn so much, and you learn from the other discipline too, that’s really fruitful experience .(Economist, 2008)

All in all, every group has its own characteristics, which are defined by the people in the group. When we have a group, we need to know where we are headed, thus we need a goal. A clear goal is a must. Then we decide ourselves to what extent we are ready to dive into the open space between our disciplines, and how active we are in building the bridges among us. In NorMER, we have a clearly stated focus on Atlantic cod, and our goal is to better understand climate impacts on fisheries. Only time will tell whether these are defined clearly enough to ease the collaboration within our group and to meet the challenges in multidisciplinary research.

At the dawn of another gathering of NorMER colleagues for our second annual NorMER meeting in Helsinki in October, we may benefit from knowing that we are about to learn from each other, and that this learning process can surely lead to a fruitful experience, if we let it.


P. Haapasaari, S. Kulmala, and S. Kuikka (2012), Growing into Interdisciplinarity: How to Converge Biology, Economics and Social Sciences in Fisheries Research, Ecology and Society 17:1, 6.

W. Janssen and P. Goldsworthy (1996), Multidisciplinary Research for Natural Resource Management: Conceptual and Practical Implications, Agricultural Systems 51, 259-279.

W. Lockeretz (1991), Multidisciplinary Research and Sustainable Agriculture, Journal of Sustainable Production Systems 8:2, 101-122.

By Maija Holma, NorMER PhD student
Published Aug. 27, 2012 10:35 AM