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News Story
25 October 2018

Cross-disciplinary approaches: The ‘Must have’ tools to work with complexity

Photo: Steve Huntington/ Unsplash.

Living in the Anthropocene with all its wicked challenges, it is more important than ever to create new types of knowledge to understand our complex world better. However, most of the researchers still work in silos and, in this sense, are not much better in comprehending complexity than a group of blind persons touching an elephant. Today’s challenges urge researchers to step out of their comfort zone and work across academic boundaries to capture the world from different perspectives.

All that said, what actually is cross disciplinary research? According to Karin Beland Lindahl (Luleå University of Technology) cross disciplinary approach to research is about ‘crossing disciplinary boundaries in one way or another’.  As she explains it, a discipline is about a division of labour that employs particular theories and methods. Each discipline has their own organizational culture, settings and rules. Crossing discipline is about breaking these rules and crafting new!

There are three kinds of cross disciplinarity: multi-, inter- and trans-. Multi-disciplinary researchers remain within their own disciplines but synthesise results from other disciplines at the end of research cycle. Inter-disciplinary research analyses and synthesises at the overlap of disciplines from the beginning to the end. Trans-disciplinary implies that both scientific and non-academic communities work together throughout a research project.

How to choose? To decide one needs to answer: ‘why do you do this research?’, ‘who is involved?’ and ‘what is the level of integration and at which stage of the research?’. At the same time, as Karin Lindahl points out, there is no ultimate answer for what is a perfect type of cross disciplinary approaches for a research project. However, from her experience, the process can be even more valuable than the goal as cross-disciplinary path takes researchers through a journey of reflection about what they have to bring to the table and understand each other’s (academic) languages.

“The best way forward is to nurture the relationships between team members, curious about each other’s experiences and have FUN!” suggests Karin Beland Lindahl.

Line Gordon (Stockholm Resilience Centre, SRC) shared her view on to cross-disciplinary research: “Our work is curiosity driven and solutions oriented. Transdisciplinary research is fundamental for the work of the centre, both internally and externally. SRC working culture also encourage researchers for their creativity and openness to plurality of perspectives, theories and methods.” Line concluded that trust is one of the most important factors for rich cross-disciplinary work at SRC.

Erik Fahlbeck, SLU Pro Vice-Chancellor, discussed ‘what is SLU’s view on the need of cross-disciplinary science?’. As SLU primarily works with agriculture and food systems, it is almost impossible to only look at the issues from a one discipline perspective. Critical point is to increase the involvement of social scientists in the agriculture and food system science, which often are dominated by natural scientists.


This news story is based on the discussions at the ‘Cross-disciplinary Science for a Sustainable Food System – What’s in it for me?’ workshop organized by SLU Future Food on 27 September 2018 at Ultuna Campus, SLU.

SLU Future Food is a research and collaboration platform created with an aim to develop knowledge, solutions and innovations to ensure that the entire food system is characterized by economic, ecological and social sustainability to overcome tomorrow’s challenges.