Researchers are challenged to address some of our nation’s most critical social issues such as drug abuse, educational inequalities, healthcare access, and mental health stigma. No one discipline can research these complex issues effectively if done isolation. The combined knowledge and skills of researchers from multiple disciplines as members of research teams, however, generates new ways of thinking, helps develop stronger research questions, and assists with the dissemination and translation of research findings across traditional disciplinary boundaries.
Although interdisciplinary research is increasingly encouraged, one of the greatest challenges to interdisciplinary research is distinguishing it from related types of research. Multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary are often used incorrectly and interchangeably; when clearly defined, these terms more accurately represent a continuum of research. Multidisciplinary research draws on theories and methods from other disciplines, but remains within traditional disciplinary boundaries. Interdisciplinary research, however, can be distinguished based on its purposeful integration of ideas across two or more disciplines to create a new and holistic understanding of complex social issues. Too often researchers promote their work as interdisciplinary when it is more accurately multidisciplinary. A key question to distinguish multi- from inter- disciplinary research is whether the research would be different or suffer if a member of the research team from another discipline left the table. If the answer is no, the research is not really interdisciplinary. My own research, for example, on the role of multiparty collaboration in expanded school mental health could not continue without the expertise and skills from highly respected interdisciplinary scholars from education, mental health, and policy who have deep experience studying collaboration from a range of methodological and theoretical perspectives.
Our new doctoral program in Community and Public Affairs (CPA) aims to prepare students for interdisciplinary research. With a commitment to advancing research on complex social problems, our program intentionally recruits and admits students from diverse disciplinary backgrounds so that every class serves as workshop for learning how to do interdisciplinary research. Our curriculum draws from varied disciplines (e.g., anthropology, demography, criminology, geography, sociology, and psychology) as well as professions (e.g., counseling, human development, public administration, student affairs administration, social work) to research the dynamic interplay among individuals, the organizations serving them, and the institutions in which they are embedded. In a recent Issues, Dilemmas, and Ethics in Social Systems class, for example, students were working together to integrate theories from sociology and psychology as a framework for exploring inequalities in public education. Our program guides students to conceptualize their research topics by integrating theories across two or more disciplines to create holistic frameworks for researching social issues facing individuals, organizations, and institutions.
Varied approaches to research, reflecting both traditional (e.g., survey) and emerging (e.g., social network analysis) methods as well as the importance of quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methodologies, are also a focus of our program. Students are encouraged to collaborate with faculty across the college and university to support the development of interdisciplinary and methodologically rigorous research. One of our current students, for example, is integrating theories from criminology and psychology along with methods from geography to research campus violence. Graduates of the CPA doctoral program are trained for careers in a variety of settings including academia, research foundations, government, and nonprofit organizations where they will be leaders in advancing authentic interdisciplinary research.
Elizabeth A. Mellin, PhD, LPC
PhD Program Director
College of Community and Public Affairs