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The challenges to interdisciplinarity

by Richard Meckien - published Aug 07, 2015 02:15 PM - - last modified Aug 07, 2015 03:34 PM
Rights: Original text by Mauro Bellesa. Translation by Carlos Malferrari.

Peter Weingart
German sociologist Peter Weingart has defended the organizational restructuring of universities as essential to consolidate the interdisciplinary model of research

Some foreign universities have adopted new organizational frameworks to meet the peculiarities of interdisciplinary research. More than necessary, this restructuring is essential to consolidate the interdisciplinary model, according to the German sociologist Peter Weingart.

Weingart is an adviser and former director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF, in the German acronym) at Bielefeld University (Germany). The ZiF is a partner of the IEA in the Ubias network (University-Based Institutes for Advanced Study).

For him, in addition to adopting new ways to organize scholars, disciplines and teaching & research units, interdisciplinarity requires a solid epistemological foundation: “Without the good internal reasons pertaining to the development of science and without a willingness to deal with problems outside specific areas, it will not succeed.”

Weingart made these remarks at the conference Interdisciplinarity and the New Governance of Universities he gave at the IEA on July 28.

For him, “interdisciplinarity has been fashionable in academia for more than 20 years, with research development agencies in every country advocating it as a goal to be achieved; until recently, however, the term was devoid of meaning.”

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A debate with presidents and former presidents of public universities held on April 24, 2015, during the Intercontinental Academia

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Kinds of interdisciplinarity and ways to achieve it

Weingart said that during his term at the helm of the ZiF (1989-1994), the Center classified interdisciplinary relations into two types: small – when, for example, mathematicians and physicists get together, because “they can understand each other rather easily” – and large, as when a biologist and a sociologist discuss the biological foundations of culture and must overcome greater differences between their disciplines.

He also sees two ways that interdisciplinarity can be achieved. One is through the combination of disciplines, resulting in areas such as biophysics. “However, it does not take long for the new area to become a new major field, with the same dynamics and traditional format of a discipline, namely, ‘turf’ protection, demarcation of outside areas and internalization of communication, characterized by the interaction of peers with similar ideas and attitudes.”

The other way of achieving interdisciplinarity is “driven by a demand, often political, from outside the disciplines.” An example is environmental research, which according Weingart “has yet to succeed in becoming a discipline, because it is made up of a conglomerate of different disciplines cooperating among themselves.”

According to the sociologist, these two types of interdisciplinarity may face resistance in universities from well-established departments with whom it competes for funds. “Departments are interest groups and, of course, the strongest ones claim that only they are able to judge the quality and competence of scholars enrolling in the units and institutes of a university.”


Weingart mentioned the University of Siegen (Germany) as an example of an institution that is striving to move away from departmental model and pursue interdisciplinarity. He acknowledges, however, that the case in point is not really persuasive, because it is a small and somewhat obscure university.

“The university regrouped its 12 departments into four faculties that, although maintaining the structure of disciplines, work on issues that arise from outside themselves.”

A more radical example mentioned by Weingart is Arizona State University (United States): “Because this university cannot join the elite echelon of American institutions, president Michael Crow decided to follow a different path and adopt a strategy he calls ‘scientific entrepreneurship’: he dissolved all the departments and created a completely new, interdisciplinary mix between the areas.”

Public demand

Weingart stressed that the euphoria over interdisciplinary research can also be justified politically, with research responding to issues external to the university, fulfilling public demands and being accountable to taxpayers. “It’s best that science do things that are valued by society rather that doing only what is valued by scientists,” he added.

Even with all the changes toward interdisciplinarity, he warns that “the democratization of science is not something that will abolish the trend toward specialization that we have witnessed over the last two centuries. The evolution of science depends on ever-increasing specialization and penetration, on plunging into unexplored territories, but the question we must ask is whether the model of disciplines, as created in the early 19th century, herald the end of their own history or whether it is possible that something else replace them.”

Conferência de Peter Weingart
Various questions from the audience have been made to Peter Weingart regarding his ideas


Weingart’s statements led to several questions from the audience in the IEA Event Room and from those who followed the conference via Internet.

The debate began with a question from IEA director Martin Grossmann, who asked the sociologist’s opinion regarding the role of institute of advanced studies (IAS) in expanding university interdisciplinarity.

Weingart said there are various ways to understand what IASs should do. One of them is that this kind of institute should promote a gathering of brilliant minds. For him, no one today still believes this is enough: “It’s great to have these people accomplishing things in the same place, but this only works to a certain point. Furthermore, it is a somewhat lavish solution, feasible only for those with large budgets; if you don’t have that kind of money, you’re better off considering systemic solutions.”

In his view, the first step towards establishing an IAS is to ensure that it has its own budget and research stations, with leeway to hire whoever it wants. With regard to their work properly, he believes these institutes should identify issues that cannot be studied in the departments, and also reflect on the relationship between scientific production and other spheres of social life.

The director of the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Biosciences, Gilberto Fernando Xavier, asked Weingart if the difficulty to establish interdisciplinary groups in a competitive environment was not more a sociological problem than an organizational one, “because to create such a group there has to be trust and a cooperative attitude among people.”

Weingart said this difficulty is not actually a sociological problem, but rather psychological: “Many academics are afraid and seek security; people like that are not good partners in groups, which require scholars resilient enough to sit down with someone and ask silly questions, because they know that silly questions need to be asked, that they need to learn, to start from scratch.”

Carlos Graeff Teixeira, from the School of Biosciences at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, asked by e-mail how university administrators may identify relevant social programs and if special groups are needed to accomplish this task.

According to Weingart, there is a no recipe to identify societal problems that deserve to be studied, but that creating groups of social scientists dedicated to this work or seeking information from concerned people elsewhere may be one course of action.

Leandro Giatti, from the School of Public Health, said we live amidst uncertainties and that experts do not have all the answers. He asked Weingart whether society shouldn’t participate more in discussions by scientists on matters of great uncertainty.

According to Weingart, we must overcome the model in which politicians pose questions to scientists who are well informed on all the evidence and the issue is thereby resolved: “We know that public policy makers are very opportunistic with regard to scientific evidence, accepting what they like and discarding the rest; furthermore, there is no way eliminate insecurity from the process, leaving us the alternative of establishing mechanisms that reduce the risks of receiving information or that allow postponing decisions, in keeping with the principle of precaution.”

Marcos Buckeridge, from the Institute of Biosciences, asked Weingart whether the systems of a university need both interdisciplinary workgroups using systemic tools and, at the same time, individuals doing basic science by themselves, and whether it would not be the case to create better connections between basic science and the systemic view.

Weingart said that the notion of system is very different in each context and that a common ground – a prerequisite for interdisciplinary work – will always be at a level above two or three connected disciplines: “It will be a set of problems competing with each other or trying to fit the findings of what is above the disciplines.”

According to Buckeridge, the University of São Paulo has mechanisms for this, but there is the problem of different language between different areas and the consequent need for “translators” (not people, but mechanisms that facilitate understanding).

Weingart said that specialization is the touchstone and this implies highly specialized languages: “It would be impossible to use ‘translators’ to make each discipline translatable; the best would be for different disciplines to confront one specific problem with the help of one ‘translator’.” As an example of this “translation” work, Buckeridge mentioned the books on popular science that many American and British scientists produce. Weingart agreed that this is a possible mechanism.

Silvio Salinas, from USP’s Institute of Physics and former adviser to the IEA, said that departments in the University of São Paulo are strong, well-established and productive, and that he considers concern with the comprehensive training of undergraduate students more important.

Weingart said that with the expansion of the contents of disciplines it is impossible to know everything. In his view, curricula in every discipline are expanding and, therefore, “we need a constant process of rethinking the curricula and deciding which skills are absolutely crucial and which should be abandoned.”

During the debate, the director of USP’s School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities, Maria Cristina Motta de Toledo, who followed the event over the Internet, sent an invitation for Weingart to visit the school on his next trip to São Paulo. She said the school adopts an interdisciplinary, not departmental, approach to undergraduate studies, based on integrated subjects and activities, with the freshman year being a common basic cycle for all courses.

Photos: Leonor Calazans/IEA-USP