PhD part 11(ish): Disciplinary recipes: a visual guide!

In my research proposal for my PhD at the Centre for Science in Society, one of the areas of terminology I found myself disambiguating was around 'disciplinarities'.

The terms inter-, cross-, multi- and transdisciplinary are a set of words that sound like they could be synonyms, but do have more specific definitions. This came up at a recent Te Pūnaha Matatini hui, and luckily by then I had a useful analogy all cooked up and ready to serve!

A typology of disciplinarities

Back in 1991, Marilyn Stember's paper described a five step typology for enterprises within and across disciplines

Typologies: Marilyn Stember

(Stember, 1991, p.5)

This hierarchical structure runs from intradisciplinary to transdisciplinary, with each step requiring increasing integration and modification of the disciplinary contribution’ (p.5). Generally speaking, this span of descriptions is pretty set in the literature, though sometimes the bottom rungs are omitted (e,g, Choi & Pak, 2006Nicolescu, 2010) as they don't really represent collaboration across disciplines. 

Something's cooking…

It was in Choi & Pak's paper (which I got to via Niklov(a) et al. (n.d.)) that a most interesting set of examples was articulated. First as mathematical equations, and then as food:

Multidisciplinary Interdisciplinary Transdisciplinary
Keyword Additive Interactive Holistic
Mathematical example 2+2=4 2+2=5 2+2=yellow
Food example a salad bowl (you can still see the individual ingredients) a fondue or stew (melting pot) (ingredients are partially distinguishable) a cake (the output is entirely different to the individual ingredients) 


(Choi & Pak, 2006)

It was the food analogies (or metaphors? I always tie myself in knots over those) that really struck me. I had enjoyed Alexander Refsum Jensenius's diagramatic articulation of this typology (see below), which started to cement for me how the terms were related but different (though he does a swap on the multi/cross naming convention): 

 From Jensen (2012)

'Sketch of the different disciplinarities' by Alexander Refsum Jensenius (online here)  

So I began to wonder if illustrating the food ‘metaphanalogies’ (hedging my bets!) as a little visual aid might be helpful. 

At the Te Pūnaha Matatini hui, I shared this way of remembering via food with my colleagues, and my friend Phil Wilson (from the University of Canterbury and Maths Craft NZ) pointed out to me how convenient it was that you eat a meal in the order salad-stew-cake! That got me thinking about other ways to connect the ‘eating order’ to the actual terms, and I devised the following mnemonic to help me remember:

I Can Make It Tasty

The ICMIT mnemonic 

This kind of works, because as Stember articulated, this is a hierarchical structure of increasing complexity, from intradisciplinary work being wholly within one discipline, to transdisciplinary being a complex greater than the sum of its parts’ transcendence of boundaries. Personally, I see this as increasing 'tastiness', and, it is an indisputable fact that in the Bailey (2019) food pyramid, cake is the apex foodstuff!:

ICMIT food pyramid

I / Intradisciplinary (single ingredient)

Can / Crossdisciplinary (container of ingredients)

Make / Multidisciplinary (mixed up salad)

It / Interdisciplinary (intermingled stew)

Tasty / Transdisciplinary (totally blended cake)


So, I would like to introduce you to my recipe book of disciplinarities, which looks something a little like this:

I haven't bitten off here if I actually agree with this terminology. Personally, I don't feel like I've ever got truly near to a transdisciplinary practice. But, where collaborations do happen across disciplines, getting on the same page with language is a prerequisite for deepening the engagement: necessary prep to get to a stage where cake can be made, then had and eaten! 

The people who did the actual hard yards!:

  • Choi, B. C. K., & Pak, A. W. P. (2006). Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in health research, services, education and policy: 1. Definitions, objectives, and evidence of effectiveness. Clinical & Investigative Medicine, 29(6), 351–364.
  • Jensenius, A. (2012, March 12). Disciplinarities: Intra, cross, multi, inter, trans. Retrieved 18 January 2018, from Alexander Refsum Jensenius website:
  • Nicolescu, B. (2010). Methodology of Transdisciplinarity–Levels of Reality, Logic of the Included Middle and Complexity. Transdisciplinary Journal of Engineering & Science, 1(1).
  • Nikolov(a), J. K., Dumitriu, A., Lapointe, F.-J., Malina, R., Menden-Deuer, S., Rubin, C. B., & Vita-More, N. (n.d.). Towards a taxonomy of the challenges within typologies of collaborations between Art-Design-Engineering-Science–Humanities: A practical guide. Retrieved from
  • Stember, M. (1991). Advancing the social sciences through the interdisciplinary enterprise. The Social Science Journal, 28(1), 1–14.

The lovely Kathryn at Te Pūnaha Matatini has asked for a poster of this for the meeting room. So, I thought I'd make it available to download here. It's best printed A2. Let me know if you use it – be nice to know where it goes :-)


ICMIT poster


Thoughts > practitioner and critic


Thoughts > PhD Part 10: scans and looking inside