Integrating multi-disciplinary insights by creating common ground

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Integrating different disciplinary insights into a specific problem is a crucial but difficult step to take in interdisciplinary work. The creative process starts by creating common ground: looking for ways to reconcile different insights.

Set differences aside and focus on similarities

Sometimes it is possible to discover common ground, finding some sort of common denominator behind differences. But often it needs to be created by setting differences aside and focusing on similarities. When creating common ground we identify what different disciplinary insights (concepts, assumptions and theories) have in common. Often we will see that different disciplines focus on different aspects of the same issue. 

The following four techniques, described by William Newell, are helpful in creating common ground: 


Redefinition involves altering the way a concept is employed by different authors in order to achieve a common meaning. This technique is powerful when authors appear to be disagreeing because they are using the same concept in different ways. When one redefines a concept, and then restates the authors’ insights in terms of the redefined concept, the apparent conflict vanishes. Because most disciplinary concepts and assumptions are couched in discipline-specific jargon, the integrative technique of redefinition is involved in most efforts to create common ground, in conjunction with other techniques of integration as well as by itself. 


Extension involves extending a theory, or the assumptions underlying a theory, so that it includes elements identified by other authors. This technique works best when different insights are potentially complementary. Different authors emphasize different causal factors, but there is no reason why these cannot work in concert. If one is extending a theory it is generally best to extend the theory that is already the most comprehensive. If no theory is very comprehensive, then the interdisciplinary researcher can usefully explore whether there is some common set of assumptions that might allow theories to be combined. The extended theory or assumption is the common ground.


Organization involves using a map or flow-diagram to show how different insights are related. If one author stresses cultural influences on a particular behavior and another stresses personal influences, organization might involve showing how culture influences personal decisions that affect behavior. The map becomes the common ground. Note that it will often prove useful to group the phenomena emphasized by different authors into broader categories (such as cultural attitudes). 


Transformation is a technique for addressing opposites by placing these on a continuum. If one author assumes that agents behave rationally in a particular situation, but another author assumes irrationality, the interdisciplinarian can appreciate that there is a continuum between perfect rationality and perfect irrationality, identify where on that continuum agents are likely to lie in a particular situation, and then draw on each of the opposing insights appropriately. The continuum is the common ground.


This article was written by the colleagues of Team Interdisciplinary and Community Engaged Learning (Educational Development & Training).


W. H. Newell, “Decision-Making in Interdisciplinary studies,” In: G. Morcol, Ed., Handbook of Decision-Making, Marcel Dekke, New York, 2007, pp. 245-265.