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  • Writer's pictureArchontia Manolakelli

Inter, Multi, Cross, Trans, & Intra-disciplinary: What is the difference and why is it important?

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

In previous articles I discuss Environmental Psychology as an “interdisciplinary” field due to its span across various disciplines. Multiple other terms describing the interface between disciplines are used however, especially in the day to day practice of Architecture, including “multidisciplinary”, “transdisciplinary” and “crossdisciplinary”, making it difficult to differentiate between them as they are often used interchangeably. As a result, I would like to use this short article to provide some clarity on the differences between these terms, and the impact they may have on research methods and practice applications. As part of this discussion I also touch upon why interdisciplinary research and practice are important, especially for broad-ranging fields such as Environmental Psychology and Architecture.

Stember (1991, p.5) described hierarchy of intradisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research presented as a ladder

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash, diagram adapted from Stember (1991, p.5)

This article is based on Marilyn Stember’s (1991) paper entitled “Advancing the social sciences through the interdisciplinary enterprise.” which I came across in Alexander Refsum Jensenius’ (2012) blog as I was searching for a more tangible definition of the differences between the terms. Stember (1991, p.4) proposes the following definitions for each of the terms, to which I have added some examples that relate to architecture and the built environment where possible:

  • “Intradisciplinary” refers to work that is undertaken within the same discipline. For example, an architect working with other architects to design a building, would be an intradisciplinary form of collaboration.

  • Crossdisciplinary”, refers to a viewing of one discipline from the perspective of another. For example, a school of Architecture offering a course in Architectural History.

  • Multidisciplinary”, involves several disciplines, each of which provides a different perspective on a problem or issue. For example, a team of architects working with engineers and interior designers to create a resolved office layout is engaging in multidisciplinary work. As part of this process, different ideas are combined towards a solution to a common problem. Multidisciplinary collaboration is therefore one of the most usual interfaces between disciplinary teams in architecture.

  • Interdisciplinary” refers to the integration of the contributions of several disciplines to a problem or issue by bringing interdependent parts of knowledge into harmonious relationships through strategies such as relating part and whole or the particular and the general. Therefore interdisciplinary approaches address the holistic complex of interrelationships. For example, Environmental Psychology can be considered an interdisciplinary field because it draws knowledge from several other fields like architecture, psychology, environmental science, etc. with the aim to encourage combined thinking and sharing of methods towards solutions that cross traditional boundaries between them.

  • Transdisciplinary” is concerned with the unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives. My current understanding of transdisciplinarity is that of conceptual frameworks that are adopted as a wider perspective within research and practice. Even though they may have had their origins in one discipline they have grown to be used across multiple others.

Disciplinarities, including definitions of disciplinary area, intradisciplinary, crossdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary research and practice in architecture, engineering and social science - author's own adapted from Stember (1991, p.4)

There are strengths and weaknesses in each approach to collaboration and interface between disciplinary groups. However, Interdisciplinary research and practice is the focus of the paper in support of which Stember (1991) proposes three arguments.

From an intellectual perspective, ideas in many fields can be improved and furthered by theories, concepts and methods from other fields. In that sense, although specialisation has led to great advancements, the division it has created between fields that strive to be distinct from each other can often be a barrier to innovation and collaboration. From a practical perspective, the problems our world is facing at the moment are not organised according to academic disciplines and continue to be increasingly complex, messy and interconnected. As a result, there is a general move towards the requirement of a more holistic and integrated understanding of various challenges that can only be achieved by crossing disciplinary boundaries. This leads to a further argument around pedagogical approaches where there is a call for academic reform towards a more integrated curriculum.

Stember (1991, p.1) descriprion of arguments for interdisciplinary research in social science - author's own diagram

Although this paper was published more than 30 years ago and is written with a basis in health and social sciences, I find the arguments that it presents particularly relevant to current challenges within various areas of study and practice tied to the built environment. The construction industry is to be held accountable for large global challenges such as climate change, depleted natural resources, segregation of communities etc., that require input and consideration from multiple perspectives to propose effective and comprehensive solutions. An approach towards integrating knowledge and experience both within and between disciplines, and across academia and practice, is becoming increasingly more crucial in our efforts to adequately respond to these large-scale challenges.


Archontia Manolakelli is an Architect and interdisciplinary Design Researcher based in Manchester, UK. Her commitment to designing more comfortable, inclusive and sustainable places using an evidence-based approach, led her to discover Environmental Psychology back in 2016. Since then she has continued to further her knowledge on this wonderful field through the study of psychology and approach to professional practice in architecture.


Hello. Thank you for stopping by, I hope you have enjoyed your reading! If you have any questions or feedback on this article, please don't hesitate to drop me a line on LinkedIn or via email.




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