Interdisciplinarity as a challenge for digitalization research? Findings from the expert discussions

CAIS held expert discussions with researchers on the content and organization of interdisciplinary research programs.

The diversity of digital challenges makes the participation of different disciplines in digitalization research unavoidable, which is the reason that interdisciplinarity is a key word in numerous calls for proposals, draft programs, and the (self-)descriptions of relevant institutions. A look at practice and at academic research on interdisciplinarity shows how diverse views are on what exactly “interdisciplinary” means and how it is implemented in academic practice (see, for example, Woiwode & Froese 2020; Schmitt et al. in press). To develop the CAIS research programs on the developments, processes, and impacts of digitalization, we thus explored the following questions:

  • What do those involved in digitalization research understand by interdisciplinarity?
  • What organizational, social and structural conditions must be in place for successful interdisciplinary collaboration?
  • To what extent do researchers at different stages of their career differ in how they assess interdisciplinarity?

In addition, our goal was to flesh out topics of future significance for forthcoming CAIS research programs, and to identify key disciplines that can participate in dealing with the topics.

Six expert discussions with researchers

A total of six expert discussions were held with 26 people (w = 13) from different disciplines and career levels (doctoral students, postdocs, professors). Two expert discussions were held for each career level. The discussion rounds were each composed of participants from the same career level. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the discussions took place online.

Coexistence vs. integration: researchers understand and live interdisciplinarity differently

The discussion rounds reflect both explicitly and implicitly the vagueness of the concept of interdisciplinarity. When it comes to answering research questions, most of those surveyed understand interdisciplinarity in terms more of the coexistence rather than the integration of disciplinary approaches. Compared to professors and postdocs, the statements of doctoral students point to a much more integrative understanding of interdisciplinarity. In other words, they tend to pursue the genuine integration of knowledge and the blurring of disciplinary boundaries in their work; they seem to act more for the purpose of a specific collective research interest; and they show more initiative and motivation for interdisciplinary work. Professors, on the other hand, tend to understand interdisciplinarity in terms of “importing” theories, concepts and methods from other disciplines, and adapting them to their own disciplinary context.

Interdisciplinary research: more challenge than chance?

Overall, the researchers surveyed mention more challenges than chances when it comes to interdisciplinary research, these challenges being both individual and structural. The individual challenges include needs that arise from the actual interdisciplinary work context, such as finding a common language. The structural challenges include the impermeable structures of association of the disciplines and the lack of interdisciplinarity in the (German) academic system. The rigid disciplinary structures give rise to another important structural challenge: namely, the lack of outlets to publish interdisciplinary work.

That interdisciplinary work supports the further development of disciplines is seen as a chance, with researchers being able to combine the strengths of individual disciplines to help their own discipline develop. Moreover, dealing with other disciplinary perspectives is seen as beneficial for a researcher’s individual development: once a shared understanding of theories, data and methods has been found, interdisciplinary research can be very enriching and inspiring for the individual, creating competitive advantages for the institutions where the researchers work.

Digital participation as a central topic of interdisciplinary research

When it comes to the future of digitalization research, those surveyed focus on aspects of digital participation, involvement and exclusion. Figure 1 depicts the topic milieus resulting from the discussions. Particularly promising for researching such phenomena according to those surveyed is a combination of disciplines from the social and technical sciences, with legal expertise and experience from (mainly educational) practice also being considered beneficial.

Structural and organizational conditions can foster interdisciplinary research

Our study provides valuable insights into how interdisciplinary research can also be shaped in practice, with structural conditions that are tailored to the work situation being deemed important. Those surveyed suggest that actual interdisciplinary work should feature an external entity that supports the researchers in overcoming disciplinary boundaries, by which they mean a so-called facilitator who structures the process in a responsible way. This would enable the representatives of individual disciplines to maintain their expertise and still find a common language with regard to theories, data and methods. According to the experts, an integrative understanding of interdisciplinarity can be developed in this way, but in the long term innovative research also requires changes to “traditional” academic structures. For example, there should be more opportunities to learn integrative interdisciplinary work, and disciplinary associations should be more open. Furthermore, research should be designed in a participatory way, and not only encompass real-world perspectives (application-based), but also use the population as a resource (citizen science).

Ideas for identifying topics and research work at CAIS

In the medium and long term, the results will find their way into the organizational design of the CAIS research programs. In alignment with the results of the CAIS real-time Delphi study and the automated text analysis, the results in terms of relevant research topics will in turn be integrated productively into the overall structure of identifying topics for the CAIS research programs.

The whole process of identifying topics can be seen in the video.


Schmitt, J.B., Begenat, M., Brenker, M. & Bieber, C. (im Druck). Interdisziplinarität in der Digitalisierungsforschung Notwendigkeit oder leeres Versprechen für progressives wissenschaftliches Arbeiten? die hochschule.

Woiwode, H. & Froese, A. (2020). Two hearts beating in a research centers’ chest: how scholars in interdisciplinary research settings cope with monodisciplinary deep structures, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1716321