Shifting meanings: the fate of words in transdisciplinary academia

There has been a flurry of interest in the talk I gave at IRCAM two years ago entitled ‘Establishing Transdisciplinary Entities in Universities, or: why is it that musicians make the best interdisciplinarians?’ The interest was prompted by my comments about the way in which words change their meanings in different academic contexts (view the video from 16′ 30″ onwards). These are ideas that I have frequently elaborated in conferences and discussions, but I realised that I have never written them down in a publicly accessible form, hence this blog post.

Video of my talk at IRCAM in 2018

In 2006, I founded the Institute Of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. This was a research institute which, at its height, included over 100 researchers working on a wide range of interdisciplinary projects. The IOCT continues to flourish to this day and retains that transdisciplinary spirit in everything it does.

The three main contributing Faculties to the IOCT were:Humanities (which included performing arts); Art and Design; and Technology (which included science and engineering). The rule of the IOCT was that all researchers must work across disciplines, preferably collaborating with someone from another Faculty. This led to some amazing projects but it also created many challenges. Transdisciplinarity is hard to do, and even harder to do well.

One of the main challenges was language. I witnessed many formal and informal discussions in which it became obvious to me that the academic jargon that was necessary to each discipline was creating barriers when people tried to work together. To put it simply, people could not understand one another, not because they were unable or unwilling, but because the very words they used embedded a set of assumptions about meaning so deeply that they could not recognise the fact. Now, it is important to state that jargon is a necessary part of any discipline. It is only by sharing a set of understood meanings that a community of scholars can make progress. If everybody had to define every word they used anew every time they used it, research would grind to halt. So, it is not that these shifting meanings of words are wrong, it’s just that they become an obstacle to effective communication in a cross-disciplinary working.

I identified three common scenarios, which occurred again and again on a daily basis:

  1. Words that have different meanings to different groups of people;
  2. People using different words to describe the same thing;
  3. Things that are so new they don’t have names yet.
  1. Words that have different meanings to different groups of people

Certain words appear quite innocuous, which is why they can cause so much confusion and surprise. One good example is the word “pattern”. I can remember using this in a planning meeting with a mixed group of scientists, designers and artists, and being surprised by the variety of their reactions. In fact, it took quite a bit of discussion with the three groups separately to get to the root of the problem and find ways to remedy.

In science, to discover a pattern in nature is one of the most prized things. Indeed, it could be a Nobel prize-winning discovery. The reason is that such patterns lie at the foundations of verifiability, or what John Ziman calls “perceptual consensibility” (Ziman 1978). It is this that enables scientists to agree on what is reliable knowledge, even if at a physical or temporal distance.

In design, patterns are typically just a starting-point. A quick browse of The Pattern Library will quickly give an idea of what this means. Patterns are repetitive designs that can provide a foundation for something more creative (web design, in that case). There is an inherent beauty in the symmetry of patterns of course, but usually designers wish to de-pattern to make something more interesting. Perhaps this relates to the old Islamic idea that an error should be introduced into any pattern because “only God is perfect”. In any event, it is unlikely that designers will be excited by patterns alone.

In music, and indeed in other art-forms, having your work described as “mere pattern-making” is quite an insult. It implies that you have nothing original to say and fall back on mechanical formulae. There are many references to this very phrase in the literature. Here is a typical example, from R. A. Sharpe’s essay “Music and Humanism”:

“Our conception of music as capable of expressing human psychological states is deeply enmeshed with our sense that it is a humanist art-form in a way that mere pattern-making is not” (Sharpe 2000, viii).

Even minimalist music which, in the early days, was very susceptible to the charge of “mere pattern-making” has been salvaged from that fate by the expressivity of composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

So, when I was addressing my mixed group of researchers, I used the word ‘pattern’ and was surprised to see all the scientists sit up and take notice, all the designers look bored, and all the artists (musicians in this case) becoming hostile.

I have encountered similar problems with the word “abstract”. In science, abstraction consists of layers to be crossed as one travels from the language of mathematics to the materiality of physics, or, in computer science, series of functionally co-dependent yet discrete hierarchical levels that hide the workings of a subsystem in order to allow unhampered consideration of, for example, algorithms. Abstract art, on the other hand, refers quite specifically to the tradition of non-figurative or non-representational painting and sculpture that emerged in the late 19th century. The social sciences, by contrast, borrow the idea of layers of abstraction from science, but apply them in a rather different way, somewhat like a biologist focusing a microscope. So, for example, John Murmann complains that “The dominant North American style of research in Organization Theory, Strategy, and International Business encourages researchers to frame their explanations at the highest level of abstraction where country-level contextual factors are suppressed or ignored” (Murmann 2014, 381).

So, once again, using the word “abstract” in the context of a mixed group, invites several different interpretations based on disciplinary ideas that are so deep-rooted that the researchers themselves are unaware of the fine distinctions between them.

2. People using different words to describe the same thing

A good example of this problem concerns that stage of any creative process in which one has little idea what one is doing. At this moment, often at the beginning (but not necessarily so), one is feeling for a way forwards, perhaps trying out ideas, maybe engaged in ultimately irrelevant or disconnected speculation. Psychologists would call this “divergent thinking” in which ideas seem to emerge spontaneously, in a free-flowing and often non-linear way. This contrasts with “convergent thinking”, in which data and facts are brought together to find a “correct” answer to a problem.

All disciplines engage in this kind of divergent thinking (creativity is not just for artists!), but they use different words to describe it. The mathematician Henri Poincaré described his thought processes thus:

“Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. It seems, in such cases, that one is present at his own unconscious work, made partially perceptible to the over-excited consciousness, yet without having changed its nature”. 

This kind of ideation is normally described in scientific circles as “intuition”. Indeed, there is a whole scientific philosophy of “intuitionism” which locates scientific discovery purely in the minds of humans. The point is that conscious reasoning is absent, something that appears to lack rigour but which, intuitionists argue, possesses another (even superior) rigour of its own.

Designers, on the other hand, recognise this exact same type of thinking as the “fuzzy front-end” of innovation. This describes a collection of tools and activities that encourage the designer to step out of the rigid structures of the design process. In colloquial terms, this is “thinking outside the box”, and is generally encouraged in workshops and “brainstorming” exercises. It tends to be an unstructured but guided form of play-like activity that is time-delimited.

For artists working in research, this aspect of thinking has become something of a major problem. Many artists would argue that the kind of unstructured, intuitive, divergent thinking described above is the very substance of what makes them artists. However, in an academic context this is problematic, because of the need to articulate in words what makes the work “research”. For some artists, this is a potentially fatal stumbling-block to their involvement in academia, something that has been extensively written about and discussed elsewhere. Yet there is also a wider problem, in that no credible discipline-specific terminology exists to describe this aspect of artistic creation. At one time, the word “inspiration” would have been used, but that has fallen out of favour because it is rather vague and laden with a 19th Century image of the Romantic artist. I can remember, in my own PhD thesis, coining the phrase “non-systematic” to describe those moments when I could not account for my own decisions. Nowadays, artist-researchers tend to use a range of terms to describe this, or just avoid the topic altogether.

3. Things that are so new they don’t have names yet.

This is a perennial problem for anyone working in cutting-edge research, which is permanently situated on the crest of a wave of invention and discovery. What should we call things when they have not previously existed? If we invent a new word, then we have to provide a definition (very hard to do) and spend the next several years explaining its meaning to everyone else. If we use an existing word, then people complain that we already know what that means, and so how can we claim this new thing as a genuine innovation?

I remember the challenges we in the IOCT encountered with the word “transliteracy”. It was not a completely new word at the time, but it was so new that nobody really knew what it meant. The definition and elaboration of the concept came from my colleague Professor Sue Thomas, and is explained on her blog. Her definition in 2007 was:

The ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.

She devoted an enormous amount of time and effort trying to explain it to everyone else, organising workshops, writing profusely, and encouraging researchers to develop the idea. Her own work extended the concept into “technobiophila”, another new word which she defined as: “the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes as they appear in technology”. She published a fascinating book on the subject in 2014.

The word “transliteracy” became a locus for all sorts of research activity, but I think it is true to say that it fully was adopted only by a relatively small number of disciplines. In my experience, people tended to fall back on “digital literacy”, which was a more familiar concept and seemed to be more susceptible to ready interpretation and measurement. Nevertheless, “transliteracy” has been adopted in fields such as information science, where it fulfils a distinct role in libraries, especially in assisting collaboration between diverse groups of people.


Ziman, John (1978). ‘Common observation’. Reliable knowledge: An exploration of the grounds for belief in science. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). pp. 42–76

Sharpe, R.A. (2000) Music and Humanisim (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Murmann, J. P. (2014) ‘Reflections on Choosing the Appropriate Level of Abstraction in Social Science Research’. Management and Organization Review 10:3, November 2014, 381–389.

Author: Andrew Hugill

Neurodivergent. Professor, composer, musicologist and pataphysician. Born 1957. Semi-retired, but still gainfully employed at University of Leicester.

3 thoughts on “Shifting meanings: the fate of words in transdisciplinary academia”

  1. I find the reference to “mere pattern-making” as being somehow inhumane, in a book on music and humanism striking. As you say pattern is associated with mathematics, but also with women’s work worldwide, whereas the conventional history of ‘music composition’ from a UK perspective is still overwhelmingly ‘pale, male and stale.’ So I can’t help but detect a whiff of misogyny underlying this rejection of the word ‘pattern’, despite music being full of patternings.

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