Multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinarity; what is what?

There are different forms of interdisciplinarity. Esther Slot discusses the differences between multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. 


Multidisciplinarity applies to studying a subject from multiple different disciplines at the same time. Perspectives from the different disciplines create a broader understanding of a subject. You cross the boundaries of the disciplines, but the disciplines keep their own 'voice'. The goal is not to come to an integration of insights.


In interdisciplinary thinking and working, you try to integrate perspectives or insights from different perspectives through interaction, in order to better understand a complex phenomenon. In this, you can do more together than alone ('it goes beyond a simple sum of its parts'). Integration can occur at the level of methods, tools, concepts, theories, or insights.


In transdisciplinarity it is typical that a complex problem originates from society before working with insights from different disciplines and practice to achieve integration. The integration of academic insights and insights from practice then serves a purpose to expediate the implementation of solutions for a complex problem from practice. The process to come to integration is as such transformative in nature.

Compare it to making a curry

Een bord Thaise curry
Image: Mind Your Feed

A fitting metaphor for the differences between multi- and interdisciplinarity is the making of a curry. A multidisciplinary plate of food consists of potatoes, vegetables, and meat with a sauce. The vegetables are grouped together and are in logical proportion to each other, but have not yet been mixed to come to a better flavour. When you make a curry out of the ingredients, you see a new whole come into being: the potatoes, vegetables, and the meat, together create a new flavour. A transdisciplinary dish is achieved when you serve the curry with a fresh salad on the side. This salad does not nessecarily need to come from the same kitchen as the curry, but together form a complementary whole.

Consider your goal

Before you start in your education(al topic) with interdisciplinarity, it is good to consider the form (multi-, inter-, or transdisciplinarity) that fits best with what you as a teacher are aiming for.


Huutoniemi, K., Klein, J. T., Bruun, H., & Hukkinen, J. (2010). Analyzing interdisciplinarity: Typology and indicators. Research policy, 39(1), 79-88. 

Klein, J. T. (2010). A taxonomy of interdisciplinarity. The Oxford handbook of interdisciplinarity, 15, 15-30.

Getting started with interdisciplinary education

Educational Development & Training offers lecturers, programme coordinators, and educational developers within and outside of Utrecht University advice on interdisciplinary education. Would you like to know more? Feel free to contact us.