5. What Is Integration, and Why Is It So Important to Interdisciplinary Studies? 8/17/04

Interdisciplinary studies students should be familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy. In 1956, Benjamin Bloom headed a group of educational psychologists who developed a classification of levels of intellectual behavior important in learning. He identified six levels within the cognitive domain, from the simple recognition or recall of facts, at the lowest level, through increasingly more complex and abstract mental levels, leading ultimately to the higher order skill of synthesis or integration. Our focus in this chapter and in the following chapter is on integration.

Integration is central to understanding the nature of interdisciplinary studies and is its distinguishing feature. In fact, says William H. Newell (1998), the Executive Director of the Association of Integrative Studies,

it is helpful to think of the nature of interdisciplinarity, its outcomes, the role of the

disciplines, and the nature of synthesis or integration as a package of four

interrelated issues, or perhaps a system of four simultaneous equations. The

resolution of each issue is dependent on decisions about the other three. The

outcomes of interdisciplinary study, for example, are critically dependent on what is

meant by interdisciplinarity and integration and on how the disciplines are used.


Having already examined the nature of interdisciplinarity (chapter 1) and the role of the disciplines (chapter 4), we now need to examine the concept of integration. Our purpose in this chapter is three-fold: define the term integration, examine three models of integration, and identify the prerequisites for integration.


· Students will be able to define the terms integration and synthesis

· Students will be able to identify various models of integration and explain the

vision, theory, and practice of each

· Students will be able to identify three several prerequisites for integration


Interdisciplinarians are in substantial agreement about the centrality of integration to interdisciplinary studies (as we have defined it in chapter 1) and are moving towards consensus about what integration should encompass. Though achieving integration is not easy, it is achievable.


1. The verb integrate, according to Webster’s, means “to unite or blend into a functioning

whole.” A synonym of integration is the noun synthesis which means combining

ideas to form a new whole. According to Julie Thompson Klein (1996), a leading

theorist in the field of interdisciplinary studies, “Synthesis connotes creation of an

interdisciplinary outcome through a series of integrative actions (emphasis mine, 212).

What these “integrative actions” or steps involve is the subject of the following


2. From these statements about integration and synthesis we can observe the following:

· They are practically synonyms

· They convey the meaning of activity leading towards a certain result

· The nature of the activity is combining or uniting

· What is combined or united or synthesized are ideas and knowledge. [We must emphasize that the combining, or uniting, synthesizing, or integrating takes place in a context and is limited to that context. That is, the ideas and knowledge take the form of insights into the specific problem or issue, and their integration is limited to that specific context. We will comment further on this in the following chapter.]

· The object of this activity is the formation of something new

· The singular characteristic of the new is that it is whole. [Be aware that the complexity of the object of interdisciplinary scrutiny implies that the “whole” one achieves through integration only partially coheres and has only quasi-stability and quasi-predictability.]

3. Based on our discussion of the terms integration and synthesis thus far, we advance

this simple, but as yet incomplete, definition: integration or synthesis is the activity of

combining ideas and knowledge to form a new whole.

4. Our definition is incomplete because it is missing three critical elements. Newell

(1990) identifies these in an essay in which he relates how his classroom experiences

changed his thinking about integration.

I used to think of integration as analogous to completing a jigsaw puzzle (when

disciplinary insights are complementary, as they often are in the natural sciences) or

as a problem in identifying and choosing among assumptions under disciplinary

insights (when they conflict, as they often do in the social sciences). In the course

on ‘the energy crisis,’ the jigsaw analogy might fit, in which geology explains the

location and extent of fossil fuels, physics explains how their energy is released in

a power plant, and chemistry and biology explain the environmental consequences

of the pollutants given off in the process. In the course on ‘abortion,’ one might

argue that the integrative task is to choose among competing ethical or moral

assumptions. Over the years I have come to realize, however, that the external

reality scholars confront is often complex, variegated, and contradictory, so that

mutually incompatible assumptions can all be ‘correct.’ Human beings, for

example—the building block of the social sciences and the focus of much of the

humanities—are rife with internal contradictions; consequently assumptions of

freedom and determinism, for example, may both be correct at the same time for a

particular individual in a particular situation. I now see integration in

interdisciplinary study as essentially holistic thinking, in which the different facets

of a complex reality exposed through different disciplinary lenses are combined into

a new whole that is larger than its constituent parts, that cannot be reduced to the

separate disciplinary insights from which it emerged. Whether we call it

integration, synthesis, or synergy, this process is more organic that mechanical,

involving coordination as well as cooperation among disciplinary perspectives. It

requires an act of creative imagination, a leap from the simplified perspectives that

give the disciplines their power to a more holistic perspective of a richer, more

complex whole. That leap is motivated by a dissatisfaction with the partial insights

available through individual disciplines. (emphasis mine, 55)

5. In this narrative, Newell identifies three important ideas about integration that must be

included in our definition of integration:

· The “new whole” is something “larger than the sum of its constituent parts,” a statement designed to emphasize the distinctiveness of the new whole from its

constituent parts

· Achieving this new whole involves coordination as well as cooperation among disciplinary perspectives (which we discussed at length in chapter 4)

· Achieving this new whole requires an act of creative imagination (which is addressed in Part III)

6. Observe also that Newell and Klein (1998) repeatedly refer to interdisciplinary

integration or synthesis as a “process” as opposed to an activity (14, 15; 55, 57, 223,

534, 535, 553, 554, 559, 562; Newell and William J. Green, 1982, 26; Klein, 1990,

188-196; Kline, 1996, 2, 210, 212-216, 220, 222-224). This is deliberate. “Process”

conveys the notion of making gradual changes that lead toward a particular result,

whereas “activity” has the more limited meaning of vigorous or energetic action

unrelated to achieving a goal.

7. Consequently, we amend our earlier partial definition as follows:

Integration or synthesis is the process of combining ideas and knowledge to

form a new, more complex whole.

The idea of “coordination as well as cooperation among disciplinary perspectives” is

encompassed in our phrase “combining ideas and knowledge.” The thought that

achieving this new whole requires “an act of creative imagination” is encompassed in

the verb “to form.”



1. Leading theorists and scholars in the field insist that interdisciplinary studies should be

defined in terms of integration. Newell and William J. Green wrote as early as 1982

that interdisciplinary studies could be defined “as inquiries which critically draw upon

two or more disciplines and which lead to an integration of disciplinary insights”

(emphasis mine, 24). In 1996, Newell and Klein wrote that interdisciplinary studies

“draws on disciplinary perspectives and integrates their insights through construction

of a more comprehensive perspective” (emphasis mine, 3). Jay Wentworth and James

R. Davis (2002), concerned with what can properly be called interdisciplinary learning,

stress the importance of teachers moving students “patiently toward integration or new

conceptualization.” And as students develop the habit of interdisciplinarity, “the

search for integration can be intensified” (emphasis mine, 17-18). Seipel (2002)

concurs, writing that “interdisciplinary analysis requires integration of knowledge

from the disciplines that is brought to bear on the issue, question or problem at hand”

(emphasis mine, 3). Veronica Boix Mansilla (2001) emphasizes that “individuals

demonstrate interdisciplinary understanding when they integrate knowledge and

modes of thinking in order to create products, solve problems, and offer explanations,

in ways that would not have been possible through single disciplinary means”

(emphasis mine, 9).

Integration is important to interdisciplinary studies, therefore, because most expert

interdisciplinary researchers state that it as a goal, if not the goal, of their work.

2. A second reason why integration is important to interdisciplinary studies is that experts

say that it is the process of integration that ultimately distinguishes genuine

interdisciplinarity from multidisciplinarity. According to Donald G. Richards (1996),

the latter seeks to “arrange in serial fashion the separate contributions of selected

disciplines to a problem or issue, without any attempt at synthesis” (124). Klein

(1990) is even more explicit in identifying the deficiencies of multidiscipinarity,

stating that it merely “signifies the juxtaposition of disciplines [and] is essentially

additive, not integrative” (emphasis mine, 56). The critical failure of the

multidisciplinary approach to learning, explains Richards, is that “it leaves the task of

providing integration largely or entirely to the student without explicit guidance from

the course or instructor(s). Under these circumstances the interdisciplinary relations

will be lost if they are ever identified in the first place” (emphasis mine, 116).

Here is a concluding word from one of the field’s leading theorists concerning the

critical importance of integration to interdisciplinary studies:

The pragmatic and epistemological value of interdisciplinary study is ultimately

determined by the success of interdisciplinarians in carrying out…integration,

because all save the antidisciplinarians identify that as its distinguishing feature.

Theoretical clarity and agreement concerning the nature of interdisciplinarity, its

outcomes, the role of the disciplines, and the nature of…integration would be of no

avail if interdisciplinarians were unable to accomplish integration. The respect of

disciplinarians in the academy, the demand for interdisciplinarians to assist in

solving complex societal problems, the success of radical critiques, and the long-

term prospects for interdisciplinary education are all dependent on the proven

success of integration. (Newell, 1998, 550)

Experts agree that integration is important to interdisciplinary studies because it is

the means by which interdisciplinary work proceeds. However, integration is not the goal. The goal is to understand a complex phenomenon.


Having examined the definition and importance of integration to interdisciplinary studies, students now need to discern the various models of integration in terms of their differing visions, theories, and practices. Interdisciplinary studies students should be aware of these models because they characterize much of the interdisciplinary work occurring inside and outside academia today.


1. Vision: Proponents of this approach share a lofty vision that is succinctly described by

Joseph J. Kockelmans (1998), for example, who argues that “the goal of all

interdisciplinary inquiry is the discovery of overarching conceptual frameworks” (82).

By “overarching conceptual framework” or “conceptual bridging” is meant a single

concept, principle, or law that accounts for phenomena typically studied by a broad

range of disciplines (Boix Mansilla, 2002, 18). These “overarching conceptual

frameworks,” Kockelmans believes, “will facilitate the unification of the sciences and

eventually the solution of important problems with which the existing disciplines

acting in isolation are incapable of dealing effectively” (82). Creating them, however,

is admittedly a formidable task even for expert researchers. It is most unlikely that

undergraduate interdisciplinary studies students would be involved in such an


2. Theory: Nevertheless, students should be aware of the theory that undergirds this

vision. Kockelmans further explains that interdisciplinarians

who work exclusively in the realm of the natural sciences usually have no great

difficulty in discovering a common framework. In most cases it will consist in the

basic principles and methods of physics, chemistry, or biology. On the other hand,

[interdisciplinary] research projects in the social sciences, and particularly those

involving both the natural and the social sciences, confront us with great theoretical

and methodological problems. (82,83)

3. Practice: In practice, this approach to interdisciplinary work is conducted most

effectively by groups of scientists trained in various scientific disciplines. Cooperation

among them requires that they try to discover common ground that strikes a balance

between being “broad enough to encompass the dimensions that are essential to the

problem at hand” yet “not always be so encompassing that it could serve as a basis to

deal meaningfully with all large-scale problems” (Kockelmans, 84-85).

The problem that many interdisciplinarians have with this model is that it is really a

transdisciplinary goal. Interdisciplinary studies is driven by the tension among

disciplinary perspectives. Unification removes that tension. Since reality is so

complex, the very nature of complexity militates against the unity of reality and thus to

knowledge of that reality. “We need non-unified disciplines to illuminate the (partly

inconsistent) aspects of our complex world” (Newell, 2004, 2).


1. Vision: Advocates of this model have two goals in mind. The first is educational and

is concerned that increasing “specialization threatens to erect a new Tower of Babel in

which highly trained disciplinarians, using precise, newly coined definitions, may

speak meaningfully only to those small groups who share their special language”

(Hursh, Haas, and Moore, 1996, 36). Barbara Hursh, a social/educational

psychologist, Paul Haas, an economist, and Michael Moore, a humanist, believe that