Excourse: Interdisciplinary Research Groups

As observed above, research groups can vary distinctively, an important variable being the breadth and diversity of expertise that group members possess or seek to acquire. In mono-disciplinary research groups, all members possess or seek to acquire roughly the same kind of expertise. In interdisciplinary research groups, this is not the case. Since this book builds upon a comparative case study involving a mono- and an interdisciplinary research group, a preparatory comment on philosophical accounts of interdisciplinary collaboration is appropriate here.

The term “interdisciplinarity" characterizes research across disciplinary boundaries, a multifaceted phenomenon that defies any straightforward definition.[1] Interdisciplinary endeavors differ substantially in their intellectual scope and cohesion, scale, organizational constitution, internal structure, purpose, results and stability over time. Furthermore, interdisciplinarity describes the character of collaborative scientific practice as well as the discourse, the scientific content, that such collaboration may produce—a conceptual split reflected in the approaches to interdisciplinarity that philosophers of science and social epistemologists have formulated.

Generally, one can discern two different angles from which interdisciplinarity is studied: as discursive integration of scientific research or as collaboration between scientists from diverging disciplinary backgrounds. The dominant approach is to investigate interdisciplinarity as discursive integration, analyzing the syntactic and semantic relations between theories, concepts, models and evidence which stem from different branches of the scientific discourse (Bechtel, 1986; Darden & Maull, 1977; Maki, 2009; Mitchell, Daston, Gigerenzer, Sesardic, & Sloep, 1997; Wylie, 1999). A second approach is to investigate interdisciplinarity as a collaboration between scientists, studying the ways in which they cooperate across differences in disciplinary backgrounds so as to integrate individual contributions into a piece of interdisciplinary research (Andersen & Wagenknecht, 2013; Mattila, 2005; Osbeck & Nersessian, 2010; Paletz & Schunn, 2010; Rossini & Porter, 1979). This is the approach that in this book I seek to contribute to.

Both approaches make frequent reference to Kuhn’s work, translating his argument about incommensurable scientific paradigms into the hypothesis that there are significant socio-cognitive gaps between scientific disciplines—gaps that can, or cannot, be “bridged." Thus, the notion of “interdisciplinary integration" that would bridge cognitive differences, or the rejection of this notion, underlies many philosophical accounts of interdisciplinarity (though this is seldom explicated) (Gillespie & Birmbaum, 1980; Holbrook, 2013; Mansilla, 2006; Petrie, 1976).

Concerns for the challenges of interdisciplinary integration should not lead, however, to an over-emphasis on the difference between mono- and interdisciplinary modes of research. Instead of being a fundamental difference in kind, the difference between mono- and interdisciplinary research can be conceived of as a difference in degree, a conception that forms the premise for the comparative approach taken here. Two arguments can support such gradual conception of the difference between mono- and interdisciplinary research. On the one hand, the fact that interdisciplinary research is possible and new fields emerge at the intersection ofestablished disciplines should lead us to consider whether the relation of disciplines and sub-disciplines is one of neighboring resemblance rather than exotic difference (Campbell, 1969). On the other hand, there is good reason to believe that disciplines and sub-disciplines are, in themselves, much more fragmented than any talk about interdisciplinarity as gap-bridging usually would suggest. In fact, as Abbott (2001) has shown for the case of sociology, paradigmatic gaps can be constitutive to the very backbone of a discipline’s identity. In a similar vein, MacIntyre has argued that a scientific tradition is constituted by “a conflict of interpretations of that tradition" (MacIntyre, 1980, p. 62). And philosopher of science Joseph Rouse has argued that philosophy’s “standard view" on scientific communities either overstates consensus or formulates it too vaguely (Rouse, 1996, p. 168).

When mono- and interdisciplinary research collaboration are seen as different, but not fundamentally so, a comparison between them can yield insightful results. Therefore, in this book I also provide a comparative case study between a mono- and an interdisciplinary research group. I will probe the assumption that scientists in both mono- and interdisciplinary research groups grapple with similar issues of collaboration, such as issues of trust and dependence. To study ways in which these issues play out differently in different types of research groups, which is my assumption, can help formulate a more comprehensive account of collaborative scientific practice than a study in mono- or interdisciplinary groups alone.

  • [1] For an overview see Frodeman, Klein, Mitcham, and Holbrook (2010); Huutoniemi, Klein, Bruun,and Hukkinen (2010); Klein (1996, 2010); Weingart and Stehr (2000).
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