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Contextualizing Interdisciplinarity

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By: Morgan Rauscher
On: Thursday, October 09, 2014

In our Time

The so called ‘information age’, born from the emergence of the computer and the worldwide internet, has propelled us into the so called ‘knowledge era’.  The internet is a dynamically shifting network of expanding information.  It has the capacity to connect emergent intellectual threads into new hybrid knowledge groupings.  Symbiotic academic relationships are formed by the rapid transmission of data that facilitates connectivity between mutual fields of interest.  The ‘world wide web’ allows various classically held traditions, such as the ‘humanities’, ‘math’ and ‘sciences’, to forge new interrelated bonds.  In this era, it has become increasingly important to ‘de-categorize’ classical distinctions of knowledge in order to facilitate a new kind of intellectual flexibility.  It is increasingly common for academic categorizations to be broken down by forward-thinking scholars who want to take advantage of epistemic parallels in other fields so that they may expand their learning processes and build new forms of knowledge.

In tandem with the evolution of knowledge categorization is the evolution of the codification and communication technologies that carry the information from place to place.  Throughout the ages, academia has seen many eras where so much information has been learned and recorded, and so much has been transmitted.  Understanding how information is codified, transmitted, transcoded and interpreted (i.e. communicated) is one of the most important studies of our information driven ‘knowledge era’.

The Canadian scholar Harold Innis provides a survey of the various technologies of communications that had evolved throughout the ages, up and until his time, in a series of key works found in the, “The Bias of Communication” [1].  However, I focus here, not on the evolution of communications technology, which has helped us transmit and store the academic record, but a parallel pedagogical reality of the cataloging of academics into specialized nodes of thought.

The dynamically changing collective epistemological consciousness demands that we occasionally break down constructed categories to either replace them or dissect them into more digestible components. In addition to the reality of evolving meanings; academic divisions have been generated from the need to distinguish domains of knowledge into ‘specialties’ and to deal with a huge and exponentially expanding codified academic record. 

Precedence for Interdisciplinarity

There have been many times when the concepts of multi-faceted intellectual inquiry have come naturally.  During the Italian renaissance; philosophers like Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni had a broad range of creative practices and research processes that cannot be easily labeled as belonging to any one kind of contemporary academic category.  Was he an artist? Was he an architect? Was he a linguist or a poet? Was he an inventor or engineer? During his time he would have simply been known as a scholar or a philosopher; from the Latin ‘philo’ (a lover of) ‘sophy’ (wisdom or knowledge) [2].  A similar problem exists when trying to contextualize Harold Innis.  Was he a historian?  Was he an economist?  Was he a social engineer, geographer or ethnographer?  Was he a sociologist? The reason we have a hard time re-contextualizing a scholar like Michelangelo is because we attempt to fit him within our currently held, recently developed, academic divisions of knowledge.  In the case of Innis, the challenge is two-fold.  Firstly, Innis is self-defined by the faculties of knowledge that he literally developed, and worked within, during his lifetime.  Secondly, we define Innis as he applies to the iterations of academic division that have evolved since his time. 

The need to contextualize Innis also seems to be highly politically motivated because Innis is such an important figure in the Canadian cultural heritage.  Canadian identity is somewhat of a forged concept.  “This required a long-term strategy to exert the hegemony of Canadian interests in all social sectors -politics, the economy, and culture”[3]. Innis, therefore, becomes a critical figure in developing Canadian heritage because he recorded and studied many important Canadian economic frontiers, historical events and even social-cultural features. His work spanned a variety of areas from “economic history and economic theory”[4] to the “empire of communications”[5].  Innis was an important Canadian scholar who produced many works related to “political economies”[6], “staples markets”[7] and “strategies of culture”[8] – just to name a few.  Additionally, “Innis has been conspicuous in a field singularly appropriate for the recipient of the Tyrrell medal, that of the advancement of knowledge of the Canadian north.”[9] 

In addition to producing works that are still relatively easy to categories as economic, social or cultural studies; Innis produced works that are quite difficult to categorize because they cover many domains of knowledge and have such illusive titles as: “The Penetrative Powers of the Price System”[10], “The Problem of Space”[11], “A Plea for Time” [11] and “Minerva’s Owl” [11].  Interestingly enough, many of these more interdisciplinary works were given as oral addresses to the wide variety of esteemed academic audiences of which Innis was a member of, and often a leader of.

Innis made many critical observations of oral traditions and specifically the oral traditions of the Greeks.  He observed that; “The oral tradition rather than writing provided a basis for the epic and for literature designed to unite scattered groups in a consciousness of Greek culture”[1].  It is commonly understood that “late in life, Harold Innis … developed an enduring interest in the oral tradition.” [12]  With his multilayered and multifaceted speeches, Innis was, perhaps inadvertently, challenging the very boundaries of academic division and was enacting a holistic meta-vista of knowledge using a multiplicity of tradition from the ancients.

Knowledge Categorization

There are many problems that begin to surface when we attempt to categorize knowledge.  For example, the overuse of technical jargon can cause language obstructions that make it difficult for some academics to grasp the sometimes over-acronised technical language of other disciplines.  Examples of poor academics are harder to catch because the jargon prevents external examinations and the peer review process is limited to a small, select group of interconnected academics who can translate their encoded language. Categorizing knowledge also has the potential to form academic identities, whereby conformity to a set of methods is introduced and enforced, simply because there are normative practices in every given group of academics.  A simplified common example of this problem can be seen when we look at the ‘scientific method’; a system that is taught as a regular part of post-secondary programs all around the world.  The simplified so called ‘scientific method’ has become a systemically limiting factor for holistic academic inquiry.  “It is important to realize that ‘the scientific method’ is an idiomatic expression, and must never be taken literally. There is not any cut-and-dried method for doing science, just as there is not any cut-and-dried method for writing a novel.”[13]

Merging Knowledge

Throughout the unimaginably vast codified record is an epistemological lineage that has moved between categorizing and de-categorizing knowledge for various reasons.  The realization that there are intersections bridging the various areas of study is not a new one.  Innis was motivated by merging the philosophies of many disciplines from “communications and archaeology”[14] to economics and culture[6] and “he underscored the need to draw upon the experience of explorers and the knowledge of scientists in a broad range of fields including geology, biology, anthropology, medicine, geography, and meteorology.” [15]  In the broader academic sense, there have been moves toward merging the various domains of knowledge within departments such as biochemistry, biophysics, neurochemistry, sociobiology, etc.  However, for the purposes of this paper I focus on more recent attempts to form dynamic and flexible placeholders that contain and intersect emergent categories of knowledge.  For example, at institutions such as Concordia University, there has been a shift towards the support of what was formerly called interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, bi-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary, co-disciplinary, and cross-disciplinary research.  The latest buzz phrase in this trend is ‘research creation’.

To my knowledge, all academic work (including and especially ‘research creation’) can be summed up as being; a process by which we are trying to excogitate meaning from our experimental and explorative ‘actions’ – in order to form new knowledge.  Innis achieved his “production of knowledge about the North through Canadian travel and direct observation; (2) 1934-1944: production of knowledge about the North through cumulative commentary on published texts; (3) 1944-1948: production of knowledge about the North through international travel and research-committee work.”[9]  In most cases observations of any research activity (actions) become the central components of analysis that we use to form ideas and concepts.  However, our observations don’t necessitate awareness or any new meaning making – especially when we are making second hand observations of what Innis initially recorded (and in some cases only analyzed).

It is hard to conclude as to the reason for our superficial analysis of interdisciplinarity in a complex contemporary academic environment.  Perhaps the record has grown to a size that is simply too large to survey. Maybe we have stopped distinguishing between knowledge (“acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation”[16]) and wisdom (“knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action”[17]).  Consequently, we have embarked on a never ending search for facts that we presume will produce useful meanings, even though the facts might not advance our understanding at all. 

Additionally, we form information categories (data storage bins) that we can conveniently store various facts within.  We do this to presumably draw upon ‘facts’ when we have a need to produce new knowledge.  This dangerous presupposition of knowledge causes us to become focused on categories of information that have overarching narratives, even though the facts may have become entirely removed from the original context. When scholars look at Innis, there is a tendency to focus on the “conventional grand narratives of Innis’s life and work” [15] but a “more complete biographical study of Innis would weave together the various micro-narratives, shifting them between foreground and background and revealing their intersections.” [15]  In order to embrace a more open research platform, it has become necessary to form trends towards a more multifaceted research method.

A Methodological Model

What then, are the trends towards multi-disciplinary ‘research creation’ models of academic inquiry, and what are the related challenges that are associated with such a methodological shift?  I would like to start by framing the ‘inter-disciplinarity’ as a methodology, because it represents a way of enacting research, although, it is also an overarching philosophical approach to holistically understanding the world. With ‘research creation’ there is no required or specific style of codification and it is assumed that a lover of knowledge merges practice with analysis to perform interdisciplinary research.  In addition, there are varied representations, illustration and expressions of the results and there is no fixed framework for the assessment of the results. 

While this produces a very open ended and flexible multi-tiered system of understanding, it can be hard to transcode and even harder to achieve pedagogical transference of one’s research outcomes.  Innis was certainly an interdisciplinary researcher with regards to his methods.  He would do everything from traveling, to topographical studies, and industrial-systems analysis.  He notably kept a very broad range of observations recorded in ‘his correspondence and notes of his tremendous fascination with the interplay of ideas and opinions.’[18] 

In any case, interdisciplinary research is not a diametrical opposition to any predefined domain of knowledge.  In fact, without preexisting systems of understanding, interdisciplinary research would not be possible because the succinct discipline precedes the ‘inter-discipline’.

One of the most attractive features of predefining categories of specialized research is that a common language is produced allowing for a certain criterion of assessing and recognizing positive results.  Innis does not adhere to any one dogmatic approach, and this might be why I have a hard time contextualizing and understanding the true value of some of his research.  Academic ‘jargon’ is a double edged sword however, because (as mentioned) it produces a fixed methodological apparatus by which we must process our thoughts.  We achieve a communally acceptable mode of representing and assessing knowledge but we lose the capacity to ‘think outside of the box’. 

There exists a certain complexity in any academic work that must be effectively absorbed by others, in order for a meaningful communication to occur.  However, the complicity we face in conforming to any standards of knowledge production can limit the very goal of learning something new.  In addition, a given research community ascribes shared values to very specific things – a sort of collective consciousness that is focused on industry-specific collective research goals.  This collective and subjective reality is combined with the fact that there is really no codified rule book or sense of unification as to the nature of any given discipline. 

Pre-defined disciplines of knowledge impose strict standards and mechanisms for rationalization.  The standards are built through the methodological norms of pre-imposed codification and subsequent interpretation models.  The idea behind a ‘practice based research’ process is that the methods are not predefined and therefore the research object and observations, unfold, rather than being forcibly excogitated.  Practice-based ‘research creation’ or learning by and while making, is therefore a kind of vehicle for the controlled exposition of new knowledge (in process and subsequent manifestation).

Modes of knowledge production can foster fervent methodological oppositions with anti-disciplinary researches on the one end, and strictly defined schools of thought on the other.  On the one hand we are comparing methodologies, but on the other hand we are actually looking at the purpose of enacting a given method towards the goal of learning something new.  A method is, in and of itself, an externally imposed mechanism that facilitates rationalizations and it therefore certainly affects the outcome of our research.  With that in mind, we must understand there are ‘constraints’ and ‘enabling elements’ of any given method.  We must also try to comprehend that every possible process of thought is a mechanism of categorical distinction.  Links can be drawn between any two thoughts and so we must attempt to understand the rational for criticizing disciplinarity – that brings thoughts together into category.  In fact, we might even be tempted to ask if there is a difference between traditional interdisciplinarity (multidimensional aggregation of disciplines into useful categories and methodologies) and the disciplinarity (aggregation of data into useful categories and methodologies).

Knowledge Validation

To begin, we must understand that there is an intellectual ‘rat race’ and the competitors include the world’s academic institutions.  The faculties of a given university are forced towards a process of knowledge verification that, one the one hand, can be useful in fact checking and scrutinizing superficial work, but on the other can superimpose ‘pear-pressured’ academic agendas. When preparing his courses, “Innis became aware of the difficulties of using maps that were based on political rather than topographical criteria and of the deficiencies in his knowledge of the various industries.”[19]  Many institutions are programed to conform to the commodification of knowledge and this can lead to performance metrics that are prematurely established.  It is precisely this colonization of knowledge that politicizes forms of knowing and controls methods and resulting meanings of many research projects.  It is for this reason that institutional “research starts with recognized ends — and is warped to meet those ends”[20].  ‘Research creation’, or even just the challenging of the status quo in any domain of knowledge, politicizes and reforms the way we enact new knowledge.  Innis was, in many ways, a predecessor of ‘research creation’ in that his methods both challenged the intellectual status quo and literally enacted a multi-faceted knowledge building approaches. ‘Research creation’ is therefore different from research in that it is observed as it unfolds through action.  

“Innis’ approach to communication can be summed up as follows. Media of communication powerfully shape the societies that give rise to them. Every medium has a bias … These biases become entrenched, leading to imbalances, monopolies of knowledge held by particular groups, and, at the extreme, violent disruption.”[21]

We must remember that it is from within the narrow but long corridors of ancient schools of specific thought that ‘interdisciplinary research’ is easily criticized as superficial knowledge.  There will always be missing links, unexplored components, and undigested specificities and therefore, some would argue, incomplete research.  These critical viewpoints may be true to the detailed investigations of specific domains of knowledge trying to achieve specific goals. However, when looking at a holistic interplay between several interconnected domains, it is not necessary to obtain infinite resolution.  In fact, one could easily argue that there is no such thing as a completely resolute research paradigm.  It is for this reason that we must avoid scrutinizing Innis on the basis of incomplete results when analyzing the connections he made between different domains. It may be more appropriate to assess the effectiveness of specific linkages he made between economic, social, technological and historical foundations.  It may be even more appropriate to simply generate intersections in and about Innis’ work with a focus on contemporary issues; building on a “common ground” of “shared consciousness” that “becomes important as an aid to understanding the conflicts and predicaments of the contemporary world.” [18] Even if there are no overarching conspiracies involving institutional learning and socio-politically driven research objectives, we are constrained by our own perceptive apparatus.

A serious constraint governing our research methodology is language, “that is a set of methodological choices which are used to approach problems or to tackle empirical issues.”[22] This can, of course, be confusing to someone trying to contextualize Innis’ work because, “Innis presents his insights in a mosaic structure of seemingly unrelated and disproportioned sentences and aphorisms.”[23] Additionally, perceiving in English is not the same as perceiving in French; and neither are the same as perceiving in the dynamically changing Technicolor images of my mind.  Not only that, but the English word ‘effect’ can have different meanings for a scientist’s laboratory experiment, a historians logical deduction or an artist’s ‘e-affective’ artwork.  What is important here is to realize that by systematically processing all thought through a certain language (audio, visual, interactive, writing, etc.) we are defining a media-method of enacting research and thereby transfixing the path towards new knowledge by the constraints of the language being used.

In addition, the technological apparatus of communication used for the transmission and thereby transference of some given information, affects the message as a result of the limitations of the language (communications technology).  This is something of which Innis was well aware of and with which he was centrally concerned. “Communication is not a matter of mere gadgetry, nor on the other hand is it an activity which is self-justifying” [24] “Accepting the premise … that the nature of a given means affects the nature of what is communicated … for Innis is the paramount reality.” [24] Innis investigated the “ ‘media of communication’[25] on several occasions from his survey of the “Sumerian culture based on the medium of clay to Semitic culture ‘based on the medium of stone’[25] to the ‘oral tradition’[25] of the Greeks to the ‘mechanized communications’[25] of the contemporary era”[5].  From his research we can summarize that “each medium of communication traps us within its own specific ‘bias’” [5].

Interdisciplinary work must define its own forms of value that are based on a self-reflexive understanding of how the method affects the research goal.  It may be time for all disciplines to accept a more open methodology and to consider the possibility that there are ways of imposing structure and producing new paradigms of knowledge using interdisciplinary mechanisms.


Many concerns are raised by attempting to define so called ‘research creation’. ‘Research Creation’ is an attempt to combat the temporal, methodological or epistemological limitations of codification and interpretation in traditional research methods. It can be said that these limitations are a result of being human, and having to design a way of learning for said limited human.  If this is the case, is it possible that the expansion of knowledge is beyond our capacities?  Is it even possible for people (trapped in the human condition) to perceive the limitations of their own condition?  Is it possible that knowledge does not originate with our actions or our observations of our actions, but rather in a cycle of interactions?  If one believes in causality and the links between various knowledge as being causal, then is it not possible that all knowledge come from a single original act – the first knowledge – the first ‘research creation’ – from which all other interactions are now being manifested?

In our academic research, as in all our life, “time must be spent, and it becomes a question of spending it most advantageously”[26]. This commands an understanding of how we do things – as much as how we understand what we have done.  In this infinitely complex paradigm of intention and action; “Destiny unfolds as a dialogue of the soul with God in which, right up to the end, every action, and every initiative of thought or of conduct, can call everything back into question. Each man is accountable for his own existence, and intentions weigh as heavily as acts”[27].


[1]          H. A. Innis, The bias of communication. University of Toronto Press, 2008.

[2]          “Basic Greek Elements List, M-Z.” [Online]. Available: http://lexfiles.info/basic-grk-m-z.html. [Accessed: Apr-2013].

[3]          A. J. Watson, “The Great War 1914-1918,” .

[4]          C. R. Acland and W. J. Buxton, Harold Innis in the New Century: Reflections and Refractions. McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 1999.

[5]          A. Kroker, Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis, McLuhan, Grant. St. Martin’s Press, 1985.

[6]          H. A. Innis, Political Economy in the Modern State. Ryerson Press, 1946.

[7]          H. A. Innis and D. Drache, Staples, Markets, and Cultural Change: Selected Essays. McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 1995.

[8]          “The Strategy of Culture, by Harold A. Innis.” [Online]. Available: http://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/innis-strategy/innis-strategy-00-h.html. [Accessed: Apr-2013].

[9]          W. J. Buxton, “North by Northwest: Harold Innis and ‘the advancement of knowledge of the Canadian north.’” in Harold Innis and the North: Appraisals and Contestations., Montreal/Kingston. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

[10]        H. A. Innis, “The Penetrative Powers of the Price System,” Can. J. Econ. Polit. Sci., vol. 4, no. 3, p. 299, Aug. 1938.

[11]        H. A. Innis, The Bias of Communication. University of Toronto, 1991.

[12]        J. Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. UBC Press, 2005.

[13]        “‘The’ Scientific Method versus Real Science.”[Online]. Available: http://www.av8n.com/physics/scientific-methods.htm. [Accessed: Apr-2013].

[14]        H. A. Innis, “Communications and Archaeology,” Can. J. Econ. Polit. Sci., vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 98–100, May 1951.

[15]        W. J. Buxton, Harold Innis and the North: Appraisals and Contestations. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

[16]        “the definition of knowledge,” Dictionary.com. [Online]. Available: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/knowledge. [Accessed: Apr-2013].

[17]        “the definition of wisdom,” Dictionary.com. [Online]. Available: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/wisdom?s=t. [Accessed: Apr-2013].

[18]        R. W. Cox, “Civilizations: Encounters and Transformations,” Stud. Polit. Econ., vol. 47, no. 0, 1995.

[19]        C. Berger, The writing of Canadian history: aspects of English-Canadian historical writing since 1900. University of Toronto Press, 1986.

[20]        “Harold Innis: The Search for Limits,” in The Writing of Canadian History: Aspects of English-Canadian Historical Writing: 1900 to 1970, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 85–111.

[21]        M. Blondheím and R. P. M. Watson, The Toronto School of Communication Theory: Interpretations, Extensions, Applications. University of Toronto Press, 2007.

[22]        V. Berdoulay, “Harold Innis and Canadian geography : discursive impediments to an original school of thought,” in Reflections and Visions, Department of Geography, University of Ottawa, 1990.

[23]        M. McLuhan, “Introduction to H. Innis. The Bias of Communication.,” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964.

[24]        E. Havelock, “Harold Innis: A Man of his Times,” cetera, vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 242–252, 1981.

[25]        “Minerva’s Owl, by Harold Innis.” [Online]. Available: http://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/innis-minerva/innis-minerva-00-h.html. [Accessed: Apr-2013].

[26]        “The economic problems of army life,” Mcmaster Univ. Mon., pp. 106–109, Christmas 1918.

[27]        G. Gusdorf, “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography.,” Autobiography Essays Theor. Pr. Ed James Olney Princet. Princet., pp. 29–48, 1980.