Mono- Multi- Inter- Cross- Trans-Disciplinary


Johan Galtung

Firenze, European University Institute

             Five ways of doing research, re-search, for insight, knowledge, solutions. How it is done matters.

            The world does not come to us sorted out according to university faculties–natural, human, social sciences–and disciplines, in social sciences from micro (psychology) via meso (sociology, politology, anthropology, economics) to macro-mega, inter-state, -inter-nation, inter-region, inter-civilization studies.  Rather, the world comes to us as a set of messy, chaotic problems: some goal we want to obtain like health–or at least absence of disease–functional, be good-looking, having affordable housing, taming nature and making it serve us; or a clash of goals, known as conflicts we want to solve to avoid violence.

            So, why are universities not organized according to problems?  The answer is that they are to a large extent: medical or health studies for health, schools of architecture and engineering for housing and making nature serve us, peace studies for peace–taught at more than 500 universities.  We have development studies for problems of how societies, and individuals, develop; environment studies for problems of depletion and pollution, or diversity-symbiosis.

            Descartes in his Discours de la Méthode (1637) set the course for Western science and research: Divide the problem studied into parts, start with the simplest, proceed to the more complex on that basis, have a final look to check that nothing has been forgotten.

            Applied to the human body, anatomy may become the study of parts–from simple to complex–checking that nothing is left out.  But humans are more than the sum of the parts; there is relations, mind, spirit.

            Applied to space, geography may become the study of states or regions, but not of their relations, like exploitation, imperialism.

            Applied to time, history may become the study of epochs, but not of their relations, the grand view, macro-history.

            This is where oriental science enters, different from the study of parts prescribed by Descartes; linking the statements deductively in theories.  Daoism insists on the study of reality in terms of holism rather than parts, and dialectics, contradictions, forces and counter-forces, rather than deduction (a both-and case).

            Asked the question “What is Europe?” Descartes would divide the continent (most likely) into countries, starting with his own and its neighbors, going further out to the most remote (used to be Albania, now Caucasian countries), checking that the map has no white spots.

            Daoism would look for holons, Europe as a whole, for instance as a system for water distribution, from Switzerland via the four big rivers (Rhein, Rhône, Donau, Po) to much of Europe.  Or as a system for wealth distribution, from the high along the industrial/capital axis Midlands via London and Benelux into Western Germany, following Rhein-Ruhr via German Switzerland down to the Po valley–with ever more poverty the further removed–to the Greece-Italy-Portugal-Spain-Ireland (GIPSI) EU periphery today in great trouble–eastward to the Pacific with little matching the European dorsal spine; and to the North to what used to be poor Norway and Finland till they got rich another way: the welfare state, much inspired by the 1917 Russian revolution focus on basic needs.  These three approaches–based on political, hydrological and economic maps–do not exclude each other.

            What was subdivided in the university-academic process was Mother Philosophy, starting with the simplest, related to space and time, geography and history.  And on it went, cutting reality into parts.

            Take health as a problem.  We have specialists for all parts, but we also have the general practitioner, the GP, capable of assessing the human holon, taking all kinds of contexts in addition to the symptoms of pathologies into consideration, referring to specialists if needed.  With only narrow specialists we would be in big trouble.

            As we are with universities with narrow mono-disciplines.  The other four are bridges to more holistic views: a multi-disciplinary team writing one book each from the perspective of one discipline; an inter-disciplinary team writing a chapter each in the same book; the cross-disciplinary, hyphenated approaches like bio-chemistry, psycho-somatic being new sciences, and the trans-disciplinary hyphenating much more, like in health, development, environment, peace studies.  Much more is coming, mono-disciplinary perspectives being too narrow.

            How do universities react?  Some see it as renewal.  Others protect their disciplinary turfs as jealously as humans and other animals their territory.  With power: “You want promotion?  No multi-inter-cross-trans; we evaluate you according to your PhD discipline.”

            Those attached to a problem will leave universities for a “think tank” to overcome Descartes, and run into Max Weber: Wertfreiheit.  Science being public, inter-subjectively communicable and verifiable, vale-orientations should not twist the findings, but they may direct the choice of research topic.  No value-free humans ever existed, but low awareness of own values abound; others detect their values easily.  What we should demand is researchers who are value-explicit–Wert-Explizität–and communicate values as well as their data and theories.

            Enters class.  Medicine-architecture-engineering are not value-free but serve elites well.  Serve people and Wertfreiheit comes up.

            My introduction to daoism was via Joseph Needham and Chinese philosophers in Beijing.   They see Western science as heavily biased with its atomism, deduction–aristotelian tertium non datur–values, leading to false dichotomies.  Daoism inspires the search for both-and, like current Chinese capi-communism. Or commu-capitalism.

            Conclusion: Europe would do better guided by a trans-disciplinary economics focused on the basic needs of humans, and nature, than by that extended book-keeping discourse coming from–Firenze, and Siena.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He is author of over 150 books on peace and related issues, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 May 2013.

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