by prof. Ovidiu Șandor

Interdisciplinary is about combining two or more disciplines to discover something within either of those two fields, whereas transdisciplinary is about combining two or more disciplines to discover something in a different discipline or even create a new discipline.

The real difference between “interdisciplinarity” and “transdisciplinarity” lies on the diverse nature of research questions posed by these two different approaches of research. Interdisciplinarity is focused on a single subject of investigation which can be understood using knowledge coming from different disciplines. So, there is a single question – or a limited set of research questions – which can be comprehended by integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines.The intent of transdisciplinarity is different since it contemplates the possibility of a variety of research questions they might be comprehended only outside the boundaries of the singles disciplines but generating an overall knowledge which embraces all the disciplines.

In some education literature, transdisciplinarity means to create new conceptual, theoretical, methodological, and translational innovations that integrate and move beyond the disciplinary boundaries to address a problem. To one extreme, transdisciplinary can mean the dissolving of existing disciplinary boundaries and the creation of new academic groups around new functions or perspectives. In the Cambridge English Dictionary, “interdisciplinary” means ‘involving two or more different subjects or areas of knowledge’. In some education literature, interdisciplinarity means to consciously apply methodology and language from more than one discipline to examine a central theme, issue, problem, topic, or experience. Though the meanings between ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘multidisciplinary’ are not so different in the Cambridge dictionary, the discussion in the literature has distinguished ‘interdisciplinarity’ from its related terms. One important feature is that ‘interdisciplinarity’ involves some extent of integration of the disciplines while the inquiry to a problem is proceeding. The value and insights generated from the integration process are expected to exceed the summing of the possible contributions from each discipline.

The notion of interdisciplinarity represents a type of approach, under different embodiments: complementarity (when two or more disciplines aim at a common objective), circulation (when a discipline uses, borrows or assimilates the concepts of another discipline), convergence (when a new discipline emerges as a result of the cooperation between scientists belonging to different disciplinary fields) and divergence (when differing points of view address a certain issue).

Besides interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity is widely explored and often contested. The basic definition of transdisciplinarity, seen as a means of creating and applying new knowledge, has been enriched by others such as: production of knowledge leading to the transgression of the scientific boundaries; an enlarged operational framework, transcending the disciplinary limitations.

The word transdisciplinarity is more and more frequentlyheard. In Advancing the social sciences through the interdisciplinary enterprise, Marilyn Stember offers the following overview of the two levels of disciplinarity:interdisciplinary – integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches and transdisciplinary – creating a unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives.

Transdisciplinarity originated in a critique of the standard configuration of knowledge in disciplines in the curriculum, including moral and ethical concerns. Transdisciplinarity today is characterized by its focus on “wicked problems” that need creative solutions, its reliance on stakeholder involvement, and engaged, socially responsible science. In simultaneously studying multiple levels of, and angles on, reality, transdisciplinary work provides an intriguing potential to invigorate scholarly and scientific inquiry both in and outside the academy. Transdisciplinarity represents a change in thinking about research and education challenging the division of academic labor into traditional disciplines such as English, sociology, or geology. As Alfonso Montuori writes in his foreword to a recent book on the subject, “Transdisciplinarity is perhaps above all a new way of thinking about, and engaging in, inquiry.”

Transdisciplinarity emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century in response to a host of concerns about the pitfalls of specialization and the compartmentalization of knowledge, a globalized economy, shifts in the center of gravity in knowledge production, the ethics of research, and environmental crisis. It has grown into more than a critique of disciplinarity and has gained recognition as a mode of research applied to real world problems that need not only to be understood in new ways but also demand practical solutions. For transdisciplinarians concerned with justice, sustainability, and ending poverty, war, genocide, hunger, or other such wicked problems, theoretical solutions do not suffice, even though they realize that wicked problems by definition may be impossible to solve. Yet transdisciplinarity is not necessarily applied or practical. Those who focus on the educational benefits of transdisciplinarityinsist that “transdisciplinarity is as much about the liberal arts, and about cultural symbolisms, as it is about the so-called social and natural sciences, or professions like medicine, engineering, or law.” What sets transdisciplinarity apart from other approaches and what assures its role in twentyfirst-century education is its acceptance of, and its focus on, the inherent complexity of reality that is seen when one examines a problem or phenomenon from multiple angles and dimensions with a view toward “discovering hidden connections between different disciplines” (Madni, 2007).

Transdisciplinary research is constantly developing. It also includes the cooperation within the scientific community and the dialogue between a specific research field and society at large.

According to the Swiss Academy of Science, not only does transdisciplinarity surpass the borders within scientific disciplines, but it also transgresses the boundaries between science and society, thus giving new impetus to sustained dialogue between them at the level of facts, applications andvalues.

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research allows for the identification of several major problems, which refer to language, methods, institutional and cognitive constraints. Each discipline has developed its own language; similarly, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity call for an adjustment and appropriation of the different uses of language, which might entail difficulties in conveying the results of the research.


  • Davies, M., & Devlin, M., Interdisciplinary Higher Education: Implications for Teaching and Learning. Melbourne: University of Melbourne, 2007
  • Nicolescu, B., In vitro and in vivo knowledge: Methodology of transdisciplinarity. In B. Nicolescu (Ed.), Transdisciplinarity: Theory and practice, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008
  • Pharo, E., Davison, A., McGregor, H., Warr, K., & Brown, P., Using communities of practice to enhance interdisciplinary teaching: Lessons from four Australian institutions. Higher Education Research & Development, 2014
  • Stember, M., Advancing the social sciences through the interdisciplinary enterprise, 1991