21. oktober 2020

Writing an interdisciplinary thesis: A trickster approach?


Interdisciplinarity is one of the current buzzwords of academia. It is also an approach I have met throughout my studies. My bachelor programme was interdisciplinary, some of my courses at UCPH have been interdisciplinary, and my recently handed-in master thesis was, supposedly, interdisciplinary.

Written by Joachim Tilsted, IFRO alumni.

And for good reason, if you ask me; integrated research going beyond disciplinary boundaries arguably allows for a more complete understanding of societal issues. For instance, climate change as a complex problem necessitates interdisciplinary research, as no single scientific approach can assess both its technical, social and political aspects [1].

However, obtaining interdisciplinarity is perhaps easier said than done. Before starting my thesis writing, I felt like I had finally learned how to study. As though I was now prepared to start studying. That I had learned how to write academically, how to find literature and what constitutes good research according to which standards. Trying to integrate different disciplines in my thesis made me feel like I had not.

Interdisciplinarity also seems to be one of those things that everybody can agree on is good but in practice amounts to very little. In the literature, interdisciplinarity has been described as ‘virtue-signalling [rather] than for genuine application’ [2] (p. 1).

So how does one go about writing an interdisciplinary master thesis, trying to integrate different disciplines? And why should one attempt it? In this blog, I share some of my thoughts and experiences.

Interdisciplinarity: Just something we say?

In the paragraphs above, I give the impression that interdisciplinarity is more a question of semantics than of practice. This is perhaps because I have heard it several times throughout my studies.

This past fall, for instance, in a seminar on interdisciplinarity and sustainability, the opening presentation by the professor was rather disheartening:

‘Interdisciplinarity is something that everybody seems to be in favour of but, in reality, amounts to very little. Even when people from different disciplines work in the same departments, almost nobody succeeds in merging disciplines or even understand or know what each other are doing’.

As I at that point already intended to write my master thesis from an interdisciplinary perspective, this did not bode well. And looking into the academic literature on interdisciplinarity in research does not offer any more hope. ‘Hope tends to triumph over experience’ [3] (p. 595), I was told.

In this sense, interdisciplinarity seems almost analogical to sustainability. Something that everybody wants and agree on is good but that nobody or few achieve. Ironically, as I wrote my thesis on what is actually ‘green’, my thesis on issues of sustainability could end up failing in the same sense as the things I criticised. All words and no action.

Multi- vs. interdisciplinarity

That interdisciplinarity was my starting point was in one sense liberating but also frustrating. I was free to do more or less exactly as I thought was best, but I was not sure what to hold my work up against. I could consider literature and theory from a range of disciplines but had no solid basis for what to focus on and had little knowledge of canonical works.

What I was perhaps most afraid of was writing a multi-disciplinary rather than an interdisciplinary thesis. Multi-disciplinarity refers to coordination, gathering different perspectives while interdisciplinarity refers to integration, jointly framing problems and exploring contradictions between disciplines [4].

To be honest, I am not sure that I fully succeeded in the latter. I think one of the main challenges in writing an interdisciplinary thesis lies here (being further complicated by the not always clear distinctions between disciplines and fields of research).

Being problem-oriented

From my experience, I would say that a good starting point for interdisciplinarity is being problem-oriented, making a specific issue or problem the starting point for inquiry. Because a problem is not just a problem, this involves asking critical questions on ‘who is considering what as a problem and why?’ [5] (p. 258). Then, one can go on to consider how to approach it.

When I reached out to ask Jens Friis Lund from the Department of Food and Resource Economics at UCPH to be my supervisor, I had a topic and problem statement in mind. What I was not sure of, though, was which disciplines I would end up drawing upon. With a problem-oriented approach, that is not really an issue.

Luckily for me, Jens agreed to supervise me even though I hardly knew what constitutes the field of political ecology within which his research resides (I later found out that the field is notorious for its lack of definition).

To get help with the quantitative aspects of my thesis, I was fortunate to get two additional supervisors, who are industrial ecologists (a discipline I was not familiar with either before doing my thesis).

So, as a student of economics and political economy, I ended up with supervisors from political and industrial ecology. Supervisors with great expertise regarding the topic of my thesis but with different scientific approaches. Knowing little of their academic fields and not knowing what they knew of mine was confusing. In this regard, being problem-oriented was helpful.

In discussions with my supervisors, for example, I could sometimes feel like we were talking past each other. At other times, I would want to ask for clarification of something with which I had not previously engaged but I was afraid of coming off as slow. Sticking ‘close’ to the issue at hand and being concrete helped in that regard.

Navigating different approaches and methods

Another concern was the mix of methods and approaches to conducting research. On one hand, I used quantitative methods based on material accounts of reality and notions of objectivity. On the other hand, I discussed narratives, ideas and discourses. Concepts that are grounded in an interpretivist tradition and thus implicitly question the explanatory power of the very methods I myself had put to use.

I shared my thoughts with my supervisor, Jens Friis Lund, who referred me to Paul Robbin’s ’A Trickster Science' [6]. A paper arguing that not only is a chaotic and contradictory approach not problematic; there is also merit to it:

‘There is always a need to empirically explain important outcomes (…). But this need, or drive, is inevitably accompanied by the necessary counter-urge to advance scepticism about any such explanation’  (p. 97).

To Paul Robbins, one can ‘advance rigorous empirical assessment of socio-environmental conditions and change, freely adopting the methods and conceptual apparatus of related research traditions, while constantly critiquing and undermining the projects of these (..) fields’ [6] (p. 89).

Reading this paper put me at ease. In fact, it did more than that. It made me proud of what I was trying to do in my master thesis, even if I should fail in the attempt.

I think these considerations speak to the merits of interdisciplinarity. Having different disciplines and approaches to complement each other contains the potential to deal with ‘the larger problem inherent in the rigorous pursuit of knowledge in a world filled with contradictions’ [6] (p. 98). Interdisciplinarity is difficult. Its potential, however, warrants trying.

During every thesis process, there are good days and there are bad days. On my bad days, I felt almost as if I was trying to scam my supervisors. As if I tried to pretend that the elements they knew little of, and therefore had a harder time evaluating, were the best or most advanced, and if everybody thought that, no one would notice how it was all a mess. On my good days, though, I felt like the interdisciplinary approach enabled me to write the thesis I hoped for. When I handed in my thesis, I was left with feeling the latter.


[1] Svensson, O., Khan, J., & Hildingsson, R. (2020). Studying Industrial Decarbonisation: Developing an Interdisciplinary Understanding of the Conditions for Transformation in Energy-Intensive Natural Resource-Based Industry. Sustainability, 12(5), 2129.

[2] Pellegrino, M., & Musy, M. (2017). Seven questions around interdisciplinarity in energy research. Energy research & social science, 32, 1-12.

[3] Petts, J., Owens, S., & Bulkeley, H. (2008). Crossing boundaries: Interdisciplinarity in the context of urban environments. Geoforum, 39(2), 593-601.

[4] Stock, P., & Burton, R. J. (2011). Defining terms for integrated (multi-inter-trans-disciplinary) sustainability research. Sustainability, 3(8), 1090-1113.

[5] Schmidt, J. C. (2011). What is a problem?. Poiesis & Praxis, 7(4), 249-274.

[6] Robbins, P. (2015). The trickster science. The Routledge handbook of political ecology, 89-101.