Thinking about interdisciplinarity and compromise

In a new article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Nigel Thrift documents the apparent rise of ‘compromise’ as an emerging intellectual trend, driven by a new political pragmatism and the interconnectedness of increasingly globalized societies. He concludes with potential implications for Higher Education:

We can see the foundations being laid for a public conversation that unites universities’ academic discourse with a new appreciation of certain forms of political conduct, in ways that could ultimately prove genuinely productive.

There are clearly implications here for the nature of dialogue and collaboration between academics and external partners. But Thrift’s notion of compromise offers an interesting perspective with which we might equally view different aspects of interdisciplinary practice.

Terms such as interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are often used interchangeably, though these are distinct definitions (see for example, Dyer, 2003, Stock & Burton, 2011). In representing increasing levels of integration, each of these essentially describe what disciplinary values, beliefs and practices are contested, i.e. how much are participating academics willing to compromise.

If, as Thrift suggests, compromise constitutes “a set of productive alliances that are only ever loosely brought together through various acts of diplomacy,” two things occur to me.

Firstly, how the apparent ‘distance’ between participating disciplines is conceptualised. There is, for example, an increasingly rich heritage of collaboration between the Arts and the Sciences, though from my own limited experience, projects often explore largely abstract ideas at a thematic or conceptual level. Contrast that with, say, activities associated with the learning sciences, in which participating disciplines (typically education, psychology and the computer sciences) tend to engage in purposeful, problem-based practice, potentially exposing raw disciplinary differences.

Secondly, Thrift references Robert E. Goodin’s book, On Settling, which posits a ‘making do’ attitude; accepting when something is ‘good enough’. It may be easier to ‘make do’ with compromising disciplinary values in relatively short term, project-based activities than it is when committing to establishing sustainable long-term collaborative practice and generating new knowledge.


Dyer, J. A. (2003). Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary: educational models and nursing education. Nursing Education Perspectives, 24(4), 186-188.

Stock, P., & Burton, R. J. F. (2011). Defining terms for integrated (multi-inter-trans-disciplinary) sustainability research. Sustainability, 3, 1090-1113.

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