Individualism or Collectivism?

There is a growing body of epistemological analyses of research groups in social epistemology and philosophy of science. Among epistemological accounts of research group collaboration, Kristina Rolin discerns “two approaches to understanding the epistemic structure of scientific collaboration,” an approach that I will call “collectivist,” and an approach that I will call “individualist” (Rolin, 2014, p. 74). The collectivist approach argues that collective belief or acceptance are necessary for research groups to create, and have, scientific knowledge—in fact, the scientific knowledge produced by a research group is, according to the collectivist approach, an irreducibly collective group belief or acceptance (see, e.g., Andersen, 2010; Bouvier, 2004; Cheon, 2014; Rolin, 2010; Wray, 2002, 2006). The individualist approach, in contrast, suggests that this need not be the case, arguing that the kind ofscientific knowledge that research groups produce can be analyzed in terms of individually held testimonial knowledge (see, e.g., Andersen & Wagenknecht, 2013; Fagan, 2011; Frost-Arnold, 2014; Hardwig, 1991). As Rolin observes, the two approaches can be seen “as two parallel models for understanding the special nature of scientific knowledge produced in collaborations” (Rolin, 2014, p. 74).

Rolin’s distinction concerns the status of scientific knowledge: Should scientific knowledge, collaboratively produced by research groups, be analyzed as an irreducibly collective group view; or, rather, in terms of (testimonial) knowledge that can be attributed to single individuals?

This distinction is analytically important, and it reflects the debate that animates social epistemology’s ongoing interest in research group collaboration. What I suggest in this book, however, is a way to navigate past a rigid individualist/collectivist divide and add more nuance to Rolin’s distinction. In the course of this book, I formulate an interindividual notion of group collaboration that combines elements of both the individualist and collectivist approach. As I will elaborate in Chap. 9, such a combination is possible because the distinction that Rolin offers primarily concerns collaboratively created scientific knowledge, casting such knowledge as group belief, acceptance or view. It does not concern the justification of scientific knowledge. While I will argue that the justification of a proposition as scientific knowledge can be irreducibly collective, this proposition need not be believed in irreducibly collective ways—an argument that, in fact, will be based on my analysis of inter-individual dependence and trust among collaborating scientists.

So, before arguing for the collective status of scientific justification in Chap. 9, I will pursue an individualist approach to scientific knowledge creation in research groups, examining (testimonial) exchanges between individual scientists on the basis of dependence and trust. I do so because I believe the individualist approach to be better suited to an empirically informed analysis of research group collaboration for three reasons.

First, the analysis that I unfold in the chapters to come relies upon first-hand empirical data (see following Chap. 3). An important part of my data collection consists of my interviews with individual scientists, through which I have gathered the perspectives of scientists as reflective practitioners that justify their actions and their beliefs to themselves and others. Since my methodological approach, hence, foregrounds individual reflection, an epistemological approach that reflects this emphasis seems apt. Moreover, the collected interview data testify to the highly individualist ethos that the scientists I encountered maintained. In addition to interviews, I also conducted ethnographic fieldwork. At no point throughout my field work did I encounter a situation that resembled one of those examples that Margaret Gilbert uses to illustrate what she calls “collective belief" (Gilbert, 1987), the concept which inspired the collectivist approach to research group collaboration (see also Chap. 9).

Second, the individualist approach appears more parsimonious and fine-grained, remaining open to the diversity of research group collaboration. The individualist approach presupposes less than the collectivist approach. It presupposes the existence of inter-individual relations of trust, dependence and testimony, but makes do without group belief or group acceptance. This is advantageous because such inter-individual relations are “smaller" building blocks. A perspective that “zooms" in on inter-individual relations is a more fine-grained perspective that maintains a greater openness to the question of how scientific knowledge is ultimately created and justified. Various constellations of trust and dependence are conceivable. Even if scientific knowledge would be, in one instance or another, aptly analyzed as group belief or acceptance, even then it stands to reason that group collaboration in science is embedded in relations of trust and dependence—that distrust and independence inspire a group of scientists to accept jointly a group view seems a rather odd assumption to make.

Third, the individualist approach is better suited to cope with the ephemeral character of research group collaboration, accommodating difficulties in determining membership. As mentioned in Sect. 2.1, research groups are continuously changing. Many feature a constant turnover in members, and often membership can only be loosely defined. Moreover, research collaboration is not confined to group boundaries and singular authorship alliances often stretch across different research groups. In scientific practice, research groups are rather “fluid" (Andersen, 2010, p. 262). They are also “porous" in that they do not “contain" the creation of scientific knowledge. To create scientific knowledge, scientists do not rely on fellow team members only. They also rely upon far-reaching personal networks and their wider peer communities. For this reason, the collectivist approach may unduly reify research groups as self-sufficient epistemic actors—within and beyond research groups—which constitute scientific collaboration on the group level.

All of these three reasons have, in part, to do with the pragmatics of an empirically informed investigation. For such an investigation to be conceptually constructive, its analytic focus needs to tie in with the empirical data gathered. The collectivist approach formulates a rather specific hypothesis: research groups create and have scientific knowledge qua group belief or group acceptance. As I will elaborate in Chap. 9, this hypothesis rests upon a notion (group belief) which is hard to match with empirical observations. That makes it difficult to support this hypothesis empirically, to falsify it or to modify it. The individualist approach, however, formulates a hypothesis that is better suited to an empirically informed investigation that formulates a broad hypothesis: the scientific knowledge that research groups create can be analyzed in terms of dependence and trust, and thus be reduced to individually held knowledge. This hypothesis crucially relies upon concepts (dependence, trust) that are not entirely disconnected from quotidian language, that can be assumed to be observable to some degree both by practitioners and ethnographic observers of collaborative scientific practice, and for which the field of social epistemology offers a broad range of nuanced formulations—a rich vocabulary to choose from and work with, to probe and develop.

But the collective approach raises an important question that an analysis proceeding from the individualist approach must eventually confront: where does research group collaboration set the limits of individual knowing? That is, what can individual collaborators know? This question is particularly palpable in the context of interdisciplinary research. Therefore, in this book, I examine both interdisciplinary and monodisciplinary research group collaboration. To situate my examination of interdisciplinary research in the philosophical discourse, the next section provides a concise overview of the discussions of interdisciplinarity that philosophy of science has had.

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