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What COVID-19 may teach us about interdisciplinarity
  1. Annemarie Mol,
  2. Anita Hardon
  1. Anthropology, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, Amsterdam, Netherlands
  1. Correspondence to Dr Anita Hardon; a.p.hardon{at}

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Summary box

  • Policy-makers have trouble dealing with the diverging suggestions of different scientific disciplines as there are not always easy to align.

  • Different disciplines operationalise COVID-19 in different ways, propose diverging interventions, and, added to that, also use contrasting parameters of success.

  • Interdisciplinarity should not be treated as a matter of adding the pieces of a puzzle together, but rather as a mediation process in which no discipline has to submit to either object definitions or criteria for good research of any other.

  • Policy-makers, funders and research institutions should foster diversity in academic ecosystems just as is the case for biological ecosystems.

  • Researchers need to attune to each other’s research styles as they work together to tackle the diverse aspects of the current pandemic in a science-based way.

Interdisciplinarity is often cast as a matter of different disciplines looking at a shared object from different perspectives such that each discipline highlights a different aspect of that object. The task at hand then consists in putting pieces of a puzzle together so as to make apparent the entire picture, see figure 1.

Figure 1

Interdisciplinarity imagined as combining pieces of a puzzle.

However, when different disciplines congregate, the sum total is often not an easily assembled coherent picture. On the contrary, the various conclusions reached by different disciplines may well point in different directions. Visual metaphors like ‘perspectives’ and ‘pieces of a puzzle’ do not aid the understanding of the tensions and clashes that interdisciplinarity tends to involve. In this article, we, therefore, propose a different epistemological take on interdisciplinarity. Building on decades of research into medical practices, we use COVID-19 as an example to argue that more useful than the above metaphors is stating that different disciplines handle reality in different ways.1–3 They draw on different techniques, address different concerns and operationalise …

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