Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

Status message

You are currently in UIA's online document archive. These pages are no longer maintained. To search the full archive click here.

The Encyclopedia is currently undergoing redevelopment !

1.1 Intent

1. Intent

(a) Identify the range of those concepts that in some way either integrate or interrelate concepts, especially from different disciplines, or describe conditions or formal properties common to a conceptual approach to the subject matter of many disciplines.

(b) Provide sufficient description of each concept, based on available documents that depend upon and advocate its use, in order to clarify the special importance attached to each such particular integrative or interdisciplinary concept.

(c) Clarify the relationships and distinctions between different concepts labelled by terms that are synonyms or homonyms, particularly where the meaning of the terms used changes with the context.

(d) Provide a common framework for integrative concepts that are used in essentially different and frequently non-interacting sectors of society.

(e) Highlight those integrative concepts which have hitherto been excluded from serious consideration (whether in the academic world or in their societal applications) but for which some legitimating documents and reports now exist.

(f) Distinguish, by juxtaposition within the same context, those concepts that are more comprehensive in their integrating power, from those which are of relatively limited integrating power although possibly attracting much greater attention.

2. Significance

(a) The communication problem: Today most scientists are acknowledged as specialists, for whom it is legitimate to know progressively more and more about less and less. As Harold Linstone notes (1973): "When a group of prestigious future-oriented interdisciplinary scientists meets, the result usually fits the words of novelist Arthur Koestler: 'The moment you put them together in a conference room, they behave like schoolboys performing a solemn play...each of them possesses a small fragment of the Truth which he believes to be the Whole Truth, which he carries around in his pocket like a tarnished bubble gum, and blows up on solemn occasions to prove that it contains the ultimate mystery of the universe. Discussion? Interdisciplinary dialogue? There is no such thing, except on the printed program. When the dialogue is supposed to start each gets his own bubble gum out and blows it into the other's faces. Then they repair, satisfied, to the cocktail room.'"

Thus we have a modern Tower of Babel - more people, more social and professional groups with access to vast communication, channels yet unable to exploit them because of resistance to transcending the separateness of their languages.

(b) The interdisciplinary movement: In recent years there has emerged a diffuse movement based on a variety of interdisciplinary approaches. There is, for example, the increasing number of hybrid disciplines with hyphenated names indicating their disciplinary origin. The newer interdisciplines, however, have a much more varied and occasionally even obscure ancestry. They result from the reorganization of material from many different fields of study. Cybernetics comes out of electrical engineering, neurophysiology, physics, biology, with an element of economics.

Information theory, which originated in communications engineering, has important applications in many fields stretching from biology to the social sciences. Organization theory comes out of economics, sociology, engineering, physiology, and management science. Then there are a multiplicity of concepts, possibly associated with such interdisciplines, which themselves transcend normal disciplinary boundaries and perform an integrative function. Such concepts and interdisciplines tend to be associated with particular schools of thought, few of which appear to feel strongly related to the others, if at all. As a result there has been no move to delimit the group of such conceptual tools, to attempt to describe systematically its contents, or to determine what the conceptual elements of the group have in common. There are few, if any, collecting points for interdisciplinary or integrative documents and perspectives.

There appear to be three principal reasons for this interdisciplinary or integrative movement, for want of a better and more inclusive term:

  • concern at the uncontrolled multiplication of unrelated specialized approaches to an objective world which is believed to be an unfragmented totality;
  • concern at the inadequacy and natural limitations of specialized approaches;
  • the unsuspected complexity of social problems.
(c) Fragmentation: The considerable increase in specialization in all branches of science is a well-recognized phenomenon. René Maheu (1971), as Director-General of UNESCO, noted UNESCO's concern in responding to this condition: "...in the face of the growing specialization of thought and action brought about by diversification in research and the division of labour, UNESCO has a duty to promote inter-disciplinary activities and contacts and to encourage broad views, in short, to emphasize the vital importance of the spirit of synthesis for the health of our civilization. I say vital advisedly since man - and I mean his essence, which is to say his judgment and his freedom of choice - is just as likely to be smothered by his knowledge as paralysed by the lack of it."

The inadequacy and natural limitations of specialized approaches are less well-recognized. It is however increasingly recognized that it is both inefficient and inadequate to organize research or action programmes as though nature were organized into disciplinary sectors in the same way that universities are.

How, asks Russell Ackoff (1960), is a practitioner of any one discipline to know in a particular case whether another discipline is better equipped to handle the problem than is his? It would be rare indeed if a representative of one of the many disciplines in some way related to the problem in question did not feel that his particular approach to that problem would be very fruitful, if not the most fruitful.

This tendency is also institutionalized, as noted by Hasan Ozbekhan (1969): "This almost subconsciously motivated attempt, that of a sector to expand over the whole space of the system in its own particular terms and in accordance with its own particular outlooks and traditions, compounds the problem by further fragmenting the wholeness of the system. For sectors cannot become systems, they can only dominate them; and when they do they warp them."

On the same point, Ackoff notes (1960): "...few of the problems that arise can adequately be handled within any one discipline. Such systems are not fundamentally mechanical, chemical, biological, psychological, social, economic, political, or ethical. These are merely different ways of looking at such systems. Complete understanding of such systems requires an integration of these perspectives. By integration I do not mean a synthesis of results obtained by independently conducted undisciplinary studies, but rather results obtained from studies in the process of which disciplinary perspectives have been synthesized. The integration must come during, not after, the performance of the research."