Skip to main content


ICC 650
Box 571014

37th & O St, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20057

maps & directions

Phone: (202) 687.6400



Multidisciplinary, Interdisciplinary, Transdisciplinary, Convergent

Being in Washington, close to federal government educational and research agencies, it is common to hear novel language related to budget proposals of federal research and development institutions. New directors of agencies feel the need to increase their budgets by proposing important new initiatives. Building new narratives, using new words, is one way forward.

One multi-decade trend asserts that innovation could be advanced by collaboration across fields. And so, directors preach the value of combining — “multidisciplinary,” “interdisciplinary,” “transdisciplinary,” “convergent.” Sometimes this combination involves the importation of research tools from one domain to another. For example, the world dominance of the US in political science, sociology, and economics was greatly aided by the importation of statistical research designs and analysis. Now, we see importation of machine learning and large language models into many fields. Other examples are combinations of theories from two different fields (behavioral economics’ mix of cognitive psychology and economic decision-making under uncertainty).

The relatively new word above is “convergence.” It is used most in the language of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which defines convergence as having two characteristics : “it is driven by a specific and compelling problem” and “it shows deep integration across disciplines.” “As experts from different disciplines pursue a common research challenge, their knowledge, theories, methods, data and research communities increasingly intermingle. New frameworks, paradigms or even disciplines can emerge from convergence research, as research communities adopt common frameworks and a new scientific language. In this sense, convergence research is similar to transdisciplinary research, which is seen as the pinnacle of integration across disciplines.”

(One can see this also as a logical extension of Stokes’ Pasteur’s Quadrant, which notes the value of a focus on use or problem-solving as a catalyst for basic research breakthroughs.)

So how does this word, “convergence,” relate to others? Well, it’s not exactly clear. As NSF notes, an alternative, ”transdisciplinarity,” describes “the desirability of the integration of knowledge into some meaningful whole,” which emerged as a perspective in educational research in the end of the last century.

Sounds pretty similar. The notion of transdisciplinarity has also gained popularity within biomedical research. In that domain, transdisciplinary also includes the perspective of the human subject participating in biomedical research. In this use, the alternative perspectives need not arise from different academic disciplines, but from nonresearcher viewpoints. Thus, transdisciplinarity might be more expansive than NSF’s “convergence.”

Some of this also evokes memories of E.O. Wilson’s notion of “consilience,” which asserts that when multiple approaches to the same issue yield the same conclusions, that they earn greater credibility. In contrast to the NSF notion of convergence limited to scientists and engineers (consistent with its mission), Wilson includes intersections of the arts and the sciences.

In contrast to “multidisciplinary” and “interdisciplinary,” both “convergence” and “transdisciplinary” add more explicit reference to the emergence of integrated knowledge. While “interdisciplinary” is used to describe multi-functional teams, “convergence” explicitly conveys the idea that the multiple functions become synthesized into a new body of knowledge that is distinct from prior constituent parts.

Collaboration does not always yield convergence, but when it does it can create whole new theory, research paradigms, educational programs, and professions. The challenge of universities is to discern at what point on the collaboration continuum each activity lies — when is it time to codify new knowledge into new degree programs and permanent research centers.

3 thoughts on “Multidisciplinary, Interdisciplinary, Transdisciplinary, Convergent

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

Connect with us via: