Plurality of definitions

Inter- and transdisciplinarity are currently defined in many ways [1, 2]. Because of this plurality of definitions, the concepts remain ambiguous and hard to grasp. In addition, the boundaries between interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are fuzzy, as seen, for example, when transdisciplinary research is distinguished from interdisciplinary research based on a higher degree of knowledge integration [3-5]. For this reason, in what follows, we address inter- and transdisciplinarity together.

The US National Academy of Sciences proposes a broad definition of inter- und transdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary research is the umbrella term, which includes transdisciplinary research as a subset.

"Interdisciplinary research (IDR) is a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice." [6, p188].

This definition indicates that such research integrates knowledge not only from different scientific disciplines, but also from other bodies of specialised or expert knowledge. In addition, the definition highlights how knowledge integration enables the pursuit of particular aims or purposes, notably achieving a fundamental understanding of a given phenomenon or solving a given problem.

Three features characterise inter- and transdisciplinary research regardless of the specific definition [2, 7, 8]:
  • It is a means to an end, that is, it serves a purpose (learn more);
  • It is based on validated expertise from various disciplines and/or other bodies of specialised knowledge;
  • It is integrative, that is, it integrates diverse expertise for a specific purpose.

Against this background, the plurality of definitions may be understood as expressing the diverse aims or purposes that researchers pursue when practicing inter- and transdisciplinary research, and when defining it.

If the different definitions of inter- and transdisciplinarity serve different purposes, then the paradox – how can different definitions be true at the same time? – dissolves. This is only a paradox as long as we seek a general definition that is valid in all contexts. However, if definitions single out specific aspects of inter- and transdisciplinarity – if they narrow the complex, all-embracing idea to serve a given purpose – then the paradox is replaced by the question of how well a definition suits a given challenge. The plurality of definitions turns into an opportunity for finding the most useful and appropriate definition in a particular project context.


  1. Klein, J.T., "A taxonomy of interdisciplinarity", in The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, R. Frodeman, J. Thompson Klein, and C. Mitcham, Editors. 2010, Oxford University Press: Oxford. p. 15-30.
  2. Pohl, C. and G. Hirsch Hadorn, Principles for Designing Transdisciplinary Research - proposed by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. 2007, München: oekom Verlag.
  3. Rosenfield, P.L., "The Potential of Transdisciplinary Research for Sustaining and Extending Linkages between the Health and Social-Sciences". Social Science & Medicine, 1992. 35(11): p. 1343-1357.
  4. Perrig-Chiello, P. and F. Darbellay, Inter- et transdisciplinarité: concepts et methods, in Qu'est-ce que l'interdisciplinarité? Les nouveaux défis de l'enseignement, P. Perrig-Chiello and F. Darbellay, Editors. 2002, Éditions Réalités Sociales: Lausanne. p. 13-34.
  5. Stokols, D., et al., "Evaluating transdisciplinary science". Nicotine Tob Res, 2003. 5(Suppl 1): p. 21-39.
  6. NAS/NAE/IOM, Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research. 2005, Washington: National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, The National Academies Press 306.
  7. Jantsch, E., "Inter-Disciplinary and Transdisciplinary University - Systems Approach to Education and Innovation". Policy Sciences, 1970. 1(4): p. 403-428.
  8. Boix Mansilla, V., "Assessing expert interdisciplinary work at the frontier: an empirical exploration". Research Evaluation, 2006. 15(1): p. 17-29.

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