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

In interdisciplinary education, you examine complex issues such as climate change, globalisation, or diversity from different approaches and disciplines. The goal is to get closer to a solution, or to use the insights gained for your research or educational practice. There are different forms of interdisciplinarity: multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.  How do they differ from one another?


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. Consider, for instance, how you could interpret the behaviour of people from the viewpoint of psychology, biology, and economics. 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 higher education, for example, you see guest lectures from different disciplines coming to share their knowledge on a particular topic, or groups of students doing literature research on different perspectives on a particular question.


In interdisciplinary thinking and working, you take an extra step: you try to integrate perspectives or insights from different perspectives through interaction, in order to better understand a complex phenomenon. Integration can take place, for instance, at the level of methods, tools, concepts, theories, or insights. In this, you can do more together than alone ('it goes beyond a simple sum of its parts'). So it helps if students in higher education represent different perspectives. An important point of attention here is for lecturers to develop the course with lecturers from other disciplines and specifically to think about training students in integration techniques.


Transdisciplinarity involves not only students or academics, but also other (societal) partners in researching a complex question. Think, for example, of co-creation between students and municipalities, companies, or other societal organisations. It is therefore about bringing together knowledge from science and practice, for example to arrive at a certain integrative approach or solution that also has an impact on society.

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, are prepared together in such a way as to create a new flavour (interdisciplinarity). If you want to add a transdisciplinary flavour to either dish, serve your hot dish with a fresh salad on the side.

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.