Carnegie Mellon University

SURG/CW: What is Interdisciplinary Research?

What counts as “interdisciplinary” research?  It’s a fair question, considering that many, if not most students’ work may involve ideas or people from multiple fields.  However, that alone does not make a project interdisciplinary.

Here is how the URO defines interdisciplinary work:

“Integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches.” (definition from http://www.arj.no/2012/03/12/disciplinarities-2/)

In order to be a strong candidate for SURG/CW, your research should meet this definition.

  • Example of interdisciplinary research:  A drama researcher uses experimental psychology methods to study how common theatrical techniques affect theater audiences.

This constitutes a meaningful synthesis of disciplines, as the drama researcher is using psychology methods to answer a research question in the field of theater. Hence, it meets the definition of interdisciplinary. 

 

Here are examples of research that may touch on multiple fields, but is not interdisciplinary: 

  • A sociologist observes and analyzes the day-to-day activities in a robotics lab 

In this example, robotics research is the subject of sociological analysis, because the sociologist is examining the relationships between roboticists in order to answer a sociological question about how robotics research is carried out.  However, the sociologist is not asking robotics research questions or using robotics research methods. Hence, this constitutes crossdisciplinary research, but not interdisciplinary research. 

  • Engineers design a new type of microscope in order to enable biologists to observe live cells at varying pressure levels. 

Note that in this example, the engineers have nothing to do with the cell culture observations, but are simply creating the equipment needed for them. Hence, this constitutes multidisciplinary research, but not interdisciplinary research.