Helmut Schelsky, the ZiF's founding father, devised the first German Institute for Advanced Study on the model of the institutes in Princeton and Stanford - with the difference that the ZiF was to support not individual researchers, but Research Groups concerned with a common interdisciplinary theme. Up to the present day this has remained an important feature of the ZiF.
For the first four years after its foundation in 1968 the ZiF resided in Rheda castle, some 30 kilometers Southwest of Bielefeld, which was specially rented for this occasion. The ZiF began its activities there with compact conferences, the working format which continues to exist up to the present in the form of Workshops.
When the ZiF moved to its own campus between Bielefeld University and the Teutoburg Forest in 1972, the university's main building was only just taking shape, beginning with the towers which would later house the lifts. Until completion the university administration was housed in the apartments for incoming researchers and their families at the the ZiF.
Ever since the ZiF has been hosting Research Groups devoted to a wide range of interdisciplinary themes. Among the particularly influential were Perception and Action, convened by Wolfgang Prinz, Herbert Heuer, Odmar Neumann and Andries Frans Sanders (1984/85), Game Theory in the Behavioural Sciences, convened by Reinhard Selten (1987/88), Prerational Intelligence, convened by Holk Cruse and Helge Ritter (1993/94) and Embodied Communication in Humans and Machines, convened by Ipke Wachsmuth and Günther Knoblich (2005/06). Over the years, the ZiF Research Groups assembled more than 3,000 international researchers, among them the Nobel Prize laureates Reinhard Selten, Elinor Ostrom, John C. Harsanyi and Roger Myerson.
A particular role in the history of ZiF was played by the sociologist Norbert Elias, who lived and worked at ZiF for a period of six years (1978-84), as the only permanent fellow so far.
Since 1971 there has also been a special form of workshop: the Author's Colloquia, devoted to the work of an important academic author. Among others Roman Jacobson (in 1975), Ernst Mayr (1986), Donald Davidson (1991), Ronald Dworkin, Jürgen Habermas (both 1994) and Lars Gustafsson (2006) came to the ZiF. Furthermore, the ZiF has realised temporary art exhibitions, supported by Universitätsgesellschaft Bielefeld and ZiF's own Circle of Friends and Donors.
Following Helmut Schelsky's conviction that research can only flourish by integrating young scholars the ZiF has launched a network open to postdocs from all faculties called the Young ZiF. The fellows of this network come regularly to the ZiF to discuss interdisciplinary projects. Like any other scholar or scientist holding a PhD, they can also apply for carrying out Workshops or Research Groups.
On the 40-years-celebration in 2008 Harald Weinrich, ZiF's director from 1972 to 1974, delivered the speech which he had prepared for the opening celebration on 12th January 1973, but was unable to give because of the protests of angry students again 'elite science'. It encapsulates the self-understanding of the ZiF as a motor, host and supporter of interdisciplinarity.
In 2018, the ZiF celebrated its 50th anniversary with a festive colloquium. The anniversary publication „50 Years / 50 Objects“ provides an unusual insight into the 50-year history of the institution. Friends and long-time companions of the ZiF congratulated and recorded their experiences in this video.