A guide for interdisciplinary researchers: Adding axiology alongside ontology and epistemology

Community member post by Peter Deane

Peter Deane (biography)

Can philosophical insights be useful for interdisciplinary researchers in extending their thinking about the role of values and knowledge in research? More broadly, can a model or heuristic simplify some of the complexity in understanding how research works?

It’s common for interdisciplinary researchers to consider ontology and epistemology, two major arms of philosophical inquiry into human understanding, but axiology – a third major arm – is oft overlooked.

I start by describing axiology, then detail work by Michael Patterson and Daniel Williams (1998) who place axiology alongside ontology and epistemology. The outcome herein is to cautiously eject and then present a part of their work as a heuristic that may help interdisciplinary researchers to extend understanding on philosophical commitments that underlie research.

This post expands on the thinking in an earlier blog post by Katie Moon and Deborah Blackman, on A guide to ontology, epistemology, and philosophical perspectives for interdisciplinary researchers.

Axiology defined

Axiology is the study of value or, more adequately, theory on the nature of value. In plain-English; what’s good (or bad) in life and what do we find worthy.

Axiology incorporates ethics (theory of morality) and aesthetics (theory of taste and of beauty), as well as other forms of value. Asking what ‘ought to be’ is axiological.

Axiology is a part of value theory (video: 5 minutes), which has broader applicability, but here axiology is the core focus.

Axiological concerns infuse research. Two general examples are:

  • what makes a good researcher (eg., impartial, curious; caring; diligent, etc); and,
  • what is worthwhile science (eg., correlational, causal, problem-centred, hypothesis-centered, experimental, applied, private, public, etc).

A particular example concerns research question formation, as created and enacted from personal, scientific and other commitments; eg., what is valued as a research question and outcome.

Futhermore, these issues are multi-dimensional, eg.,

  • “In what context is the research situated (paradigmatic influences)?
  • What are the philosophical values chosen and why (guiding the inquiry)?
  • Why is a specific inquiry chosen (focus of research)? and,
  • Which claims are made (and suggestions to practitioners)?” (Biedenbach and Jacobsson 2016)

Axiology then, is a part of the overall usefulness of philosophy to thinking about interdisciplinary research.

Bringing ontology, epistemology and axiology together – normative philosophical commitments

Patterson and Williams (1998) use insights from philosophy of science to present a model of science which, at the time, advanced discussion about social science within natural resource management. Only a part of their model is discussed here.

They make the case that science has, in part, a normative structure. So, doing ‘X’ kind of scientific research is therefore underwritten by ‘Y’ set of normative philosophical commitments.

These philosophical commitments involve theories about:

  • the nature of reality and of what really exists (ontology)
  • the relationship between the knower and what is known (epistemology)
  • what we value (axiology)
  • the strategy and justifications in constructing a specific type of knowledge (methodology), as linked to individual techniques (method/s).

Taken as a whole, a set of philosophical commitments form a meta-theoretical (theory of theory) structure that can help with further understanding research as a phenomenon in its own right.

Another layer of complexity is that ‘X’ kind of scientific research may involve multiple normative philosophical commitments, especially when it is structured by a particular community of researchers who say that their collection of philosophical commitments and practices constitutes a science.

So, some researcher communities rigorously police their science by dogmatically controlling research with a very tightly defined and usually implicit, and therefore opaque, set of normative commitments. In contrast, certain communities of researchers tolerate diverse, messy or explicitly stated sets of normative philosophical commitments (hello interdisciplinarians!).

The normative commitments detailed below, it is suggested, provide a heuristic (that uses comparison across a handful of attributes) through which research may be thought about.

Note though, that the normative commitments are applied at a high degree of generality – essentially at the level of worldview (eg., rationalist; relativist), and paradigm or research tradition (eg., interpretivism, positivism/empiricism, critical inquiry).

Although the normative commitments are an integral part of research, at the lower level of individual research programs (eg., specific theories, methodologies and methods that researchers conduct individual ‘real-world’ research projects within), the diversity of phenomena involved make applying the normative commitments as described here problematic; there are just too great a number of additional attributes that could be compared.

The difficult part then to applying such a heuristic is to draw out and make explicit the normative commitments operating at higher degrees of generality. Notwithstanding what was said immediately above, this may include taking into account the way that disciplinary theories, methodologies and methods are put together to form the most obvious parts of research work and which can infer what normative commitments lie behind these various choices.

Lightly adapted from Patterson and Williams (1998) are the three tables at the end of this post:

  1. ontological commitments;
  2. epistemological commitments; and,
  3. axiological commitments.

Each table can be read by row; eg., the table ‘ontological commitments’ is made up of the sub-rows: ‘nature of reality’; ‘nature of human experience’; and, ‘human nature’. Within each of these three sub-rows there is a further bifurcated sub-row set. So, the ‘nature of reality’ row is further split between the somewhat contrasting ‘objectivist ontologies’ as against ‘constructivist ontologies’. A further layer of connectivity exists between each set of somewhat contrasting items (eg., objectivist; deterministic; and, information-based ontologies on one hand, as contrasting with constructivist; narrative; and, meaning based ontologies on the other). This overall patterning is replicated across the other two tables, always producing somewhat contrasting bifurcated statement sets. This further means that, in regards to the paradigm or research tradition within which the research lies, the axiology, ontology and epistemology utilised should be consistent together, as detailed in the figure below from Patterson and Williams (1998: 286).

Paradigmatic commitments in the macrostructure of science (from Patterson and Williams 1998: 286, as adapted from Laudan 1984)

Understanding the way that these contrasting commitments cohere across all the various options in the three tables below and in regards any worldview, paradigm or research tradition encountered, can help to make explicit what is often implicit regarding the principles underlying research.

Ontological commitments underlying research (from Patterson and Williams 1998: 288, references available in the original)

Epistemological commitments underlying research (from Patterson and Williams 1998: 288, references available in the orignal)

Axiological commitments underlying research (from Patterson and Williams 1998: 288, references available in the original)


It can be argued that struggling with philosophical insights into research strategy, design and practice is an interdisciplinarian’s burden.

As a practical philosophy for interdisciplinarity, and although their article is 20 years old, using an element of Patterson and Williams (1998) work as a heuristic that presents a small number of attributes containing simple, bifurcated sets of statements is potentially useful for thinking about the normative philosophical commitments underpinning the worldview and paradigmatic/research traditions involved in research.

What’s your experience been of axiological thinking or in dealing with values in interdisciplinary research? Are there other examples, models or heuristics that you’ve found useful in drawing out how research works? Or, to return to the central concern of this blog post, have you found other philosophical works or practices that have informed your interdisciplinary journey?

Biedenbach, T. and Jacobsson, M. (2016). The open secret of values: The roles of values and axiology in project research. Project Management Journal, 47, 3: 139-155.

Carneades of Cyrene (Carneades.org). (2017). What is value theory? (Axiology and Theory of Value). Online (video: 5 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLXTOyKz6eY

Laudan, L. (1984). Science and values: The aims of science and their role in scientific debate. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, United States of America.

Patterson, M. and Williams, D. (1998). Paradigms and problems: The practice of social science in natural resource management. Society and Natural Resources, 11, 3: 279-295. (DOI): 10.1080/08941929809381080

For an overview of the role of ontology, epistemology and axiology in research, see:
Organizational Communication Channel. (2017) Epistemology, Ontology, and Axiology in Research. Online (video: 8 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhdZOsBps5o

Biography: Peter Deane is a Research Officer on the Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) team at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.

Using the arts and design to build student creative collaboration capacity

Community member post by Edgar Cardenas

Edgar Cardenas (biography)

How can undergraduate and graduate students be helped to build their interdisciplinary collaboration capacity? In particular, how do they build capacity between the arts and other disciplines?

In 2018, I co-facilitated the annual, 3-day Emerging Creatives Student Summit, an event for approximately 100 undergraduate and graduate students from 26 universities organized by the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities. Students’ majors ranged from the sciences, engineering, music, arts, and design.

The aim of the summit is to give students an opportunity to collaborate on projects that incorporate creativity and the arts. Our experience from previous summits is that student teams often invest a lot of energy in the project ideation phase and then burn out during development. Further, it can be difficult to develop projects on short time frames, causing student projects to meander until the night before final day presentations. To combat this issue, I devised and facilitated a 90-minute design-thinking workshop for students on the first full day, specifically on project ideation and development.

In this blog post I describe how I developed the student workshop and how it was used to shape the summit.

The workshop was informed by two key underlying assumptions:

  1. Interdisciplinary collaboration is a skill that can be developed, and it must be developed to attain the level of creativity required for addressing complex challenges.
  2. Students are motivated to collaborate across disciplines, but need the proper social conditions and facilitation for engaging in productive collaborations.

Pre-summit and pre-workshop preparation

To help the students prepare for both the workshop and the summit I adopted a model based on the ‘flipped classroom’. This allowed students to gain foundational knowledge on collaboration and creativity prior to the summit. One benefit of such a model is that students can learn content at their own pace. An additional benefit is that the workshop and other summit time can then be fully dedicated to practicing collaboration skills, deep interactions with mentors, and developing robust team projects.

To provide content in advance, I created three short videos (approximately 10 minutes each) and shared one per week leading up to the summit. Two of the videos included exercises. They covered the following:

  1. Creative Collaboration (Difference): How to identify and navigate cognitive diversity.
  2. Creative Collaboration (Frameworks): Processes for problem definition, divergent idea generation, idea structuring (pattern recognition) and validation, testing the answer/product, and iterating.
  3. Creative Collaboration (Methods): Working team dynamics, for creative problem solving:
    1. Mindsets for working through problem solving.
    2. Dispositions that help lubricate the interactions between team members.
    3. Process components for iterating through an identified challenge space.

The videos were provided through an invitation-only Facebook page, which also allowed participants to introduce themselves, share content, and continue conversations during and after the summit.

The workshop and the summit: ideation, facilitation, and feedback

There were three key initiatives to help students achieve the summit aim of collaborating on projects that incorporate creativity and the arts:

  1. The workshop on project ideation and development.
  2. Support from content experts.
  3. Constructive feedback.

Workshop on project ideation and development

The workshop entailed:

  1. Identifying a challenge of interest to address.
  2. Brainstorming ideas to address the challenge via the nominal group technique.
  3. Structuring and validating which ideas have the most potential.
  4. Storyboarding how the project may unfold and what the experience may feel like.
  5. Evaluating the outcome and iterating on steps one through four as needed.

As this can be daunting, I sought to lessen stress by (a) drawing attention to the content experts who would support them and (b) emphasizing how the act of making is a process of thinking.

Students developing ideas during the design thinking workshop (copyright: Edgar Cardenas)


Students storyboarding project ideas (copyright: Edgar Cardenas)

Support from content experts

Amabile (1996) identifies three components individuals need to be creative: (a) domain expertise, (b) task motivation, and (c) creativity relevant skills. Students were generally motivated, gained creativity relevant skills through the videos, but did not have domain expertise. Thus, faculty, staff, and myself served as resources to fill knowledge gaps. Most often, we supported students with two key challenges:

  1. Unknown unknowns; they don’t know what they don’t know. This is frustrating and discouraging for teams because they can’t find a way forward.
  2. Students struggle to connect multiple ideas into a coherent project.

Experts suggested directions they might want to explore, drew connections between seemingly disparate ideas, and provided students with the creative confidence necessary for making decisions.

Jennifer Krivickas, Assistant Vice President of Integrated Research at the University of Cincinnati, assisting students in the design of their project (copyright: Edgar Cardenas)

Constructive feedback

Feedback is arguably the most critical component of iterating through ideas, however it’s only useful if it provides clarity for next steps. Too often it can shift into a critical, unhelpful space. To combat this, I use highly structured peer feedback mechanisms. The one I employed with the students had four components for people to consider:

  • What do you like about this project?
  • What ideas do you have for changing this for experimentation purposes? (ie., What if you changed the location?).
  • What questions does the project, or a project component, raise for you?
  • What bright ideas does the project reveal for you?

Feedback to each of these questions was provided via sticky note. This gave students insightful, actionable feedback.

Lessons learned along the way

Despite careful planning, one cannot account for all the variables that will affect performance. The following are lessons learned during the summit.

  1. Always tailor feedback: Depending on the sensitivity of the individual, even constructive feedback may be resisted. This problem is compounded if multiple members of the group have high sensitivity.
  2. Processes should be in place to address absenteeism: Absentee students reduced group morale and work time was lost waiting for their return.
  3. Allow time for team building: Cohesive teams exhibited high morale and took advantage of the differing skillsets of team members.
  4. Monitor for strong personalities: These can often overly shape project outcomes, resulting in less investment from other team members.
  5. Be mindful of the impact of theme: Concrete themes (such as “food”) have quicker project implementation, while abstract themes (such as “spectacle”) require more development time.


The process of developing interdisciplinary collaboration capacity, especially when working across so many disciplines, is challenging. When face-time is limited, providing participants with content knowledge ahead of time can maximize information uptake and prime them for in-person collaborations. Aim to get students started on developing the project quickly. The outcomes will be rough but providing feedback and opportunities for iterations will both aid in refining the project and encourage learning on how to navigate the social dimensions of collaborations. High-touch facilitation provides participants with the customized attention that helps them get unstuck and moving forward.

Do any of these insights resonate with you? Do you have additional lessons to share?

To find out more:
For readings to reflect on the assumptions underpinning the workshop, see Amabile’s Componential Theory of Creativity and Hackman’s work on the conditional components of collaborative intelligence.

Amabile, T. M. (1996). Creativity in context: Update to the social psychology of creativity. Westview Press: Boulder, United States of America

Hackman, J. R. (2011). Collaborative intelligence: Using teams to solve hard problems. Berrett-Koehler: San Fransisco, United States of America

Hackman, J. R. (2012). From causes to conditions in group research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33, 3: 428-444

Biography: Edgar Cardenas Ph.D. recently completed his Andrew W. Mellon Research Fellowship with the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities where he focused on approaches for fostering productive artist-scientist collaborations. As a social scientist, he focuses on social creativity and small group dynamics, exploring which processes and mechanisms support creative collaborations. As an interdisciplinary artist, he investigates the ecological, cultural, and technological subtleties of human/environment relationships. He is also a member of the indigenous artist collective, Radio Healer. In addition to his research and art practice, he has also developed, organized, facilitated, and led several artists-scientists collaborative projects, as well as moderated panels on this topic.

Leading large transdisciplinary projects

Community member post by Sanford D. Eigenbrode, Lois Wright Morton, and Timothy Martin

Sanford D. Eigenbrode (biography)

What’s required to lead exceptionally large projects involving many dozens of participants from various scientific disciplines (including biophysical, social, and economic), multiple stakeholders, and efforts spanning a gamut from discovery to implementation? Such projects are common when investigating social-ecological systems which are inherently complex and large in spatial and temporal scales. Problems are commonly multifaceted, with incomplete or apparently contradictory knowledge, stakeholders with divergent positions, and large economic or social consequences.

Leaders of such very large projects confront unique challenges in addition to those inherent to directing interdisciplinary efforts: Continue reading

The university campus as a transdisciplinary living laboratory

Community member post by Dena Fam, Abby Mellick Lopes, Alexandra Crosby and Katie Ross

How can transdisciplinary educators help students reflexively understand their position in the field of research? Often this means giving students the opportunity to go beyond being observers of social reality to experience themselves as potential agents of change.

To enable this opportunity, we developed a model for a ‘Transdisciplinary Living Lab’ (Fam et al., forthcoming). This builds on the concept of a collaborative test bed of innovative approaches to a problem or situation occurring in a ‘living’ social environment where end-users are involved. For us, the social environment is the university campus. We involved two universities in developing this model – the University of Technology Sydney and Western Sydney University. We aimed to help students explore food waste management systems on campus and to consider where the interventions they designed were situated within global concerns, planetary boundaries and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Transdisciplinary Living Lab was designed and delivered in three largely distinct, yet iterative phases, scaling from individual experiences to a global problem context. These phases of the living lab, which work to integrate personal and professional knowledge and practice, are also shown in the figure below:

1. Entering the living lab was the phase where students were introduced to collaborative teamwork processes, expectations of joint problem formulation and critical reflection on their own position within the system being explored: ‘digging where they stand’. This meant helping students consider their relationships with the food waste system as consumers of food and producers of waste, as well as their potential impact as designers of interventions in that system.

2. Transdisciplinary learning was the second phase where students were introduced to the concept of research as a process of system intervention, as well as skills for co-producing and integrating knowledge in collaboration with diverse partners in the food system. For the Transdisciplinary Living Lab at the University of Technology Sydney this meant listening to, questioning and collaborating with relevant stakeholders in the system to investigate historical and current approaches to the issue, and exploring precedents for dealing with food waste in other parts of the world. Central to this phase was ensuring the sharing of knowledge among the students as it was produced. This meant organising a publically accessible class blog that can be viewed at https://wealthfromwaste.wordpress.com/ and weekly debriefs and discussions on insights gained.

Dena Fam (biography)

Abby Mellick Lopes (biography)

Alexandra Crosby (biography)

Katie Ross (biography)

Continue reading

Tool-swapping in interdisciplinary research – a case study

Community member post by Lindell Bromham

Lindell Bromham’s biography

What can we learn from focussing on examples of interdisciplinary research where ideas or techniques from one field are imported to solve problems in another field? This may be in the context of interdisciplinary teams, or it may simply involve borrowing from one field to another by researchers embedded within a particular field. One of the major benefits of interdisciplinary research is the chance to swap tools between fields, to save having to reinvent the wheel.

The fields of evolutionary biology and language evolution have been swapping ideas and tools for over 150 years, so considering the way that ideas have flowed between these fields might provide an interesting case study. Continue reading

Disciplinary diversity widget: how does your team measure up?

Community member post by Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck (biography)

Would it be useful to have a tool to quickly measure the disciplinary diversity of your team? At Science-Metrix we’ve created a widget for just such a purpose. In this post, I’ll explain what the disciplinarity widget does, how to use it, how to interpret the measurements and how we are refining the tool.

How is disciplinary diversity measured?

For several years, Science-Metrix has maintained a classification of research into a three-level taxonomy, arranging research into domains, fields and subfields. We have also developed several approaches to assess the conceptual proximity of these subfields to each other, based on how often material from these subfields is used in combination.

With the taxonomy in hand, and a proximity matrix relating the subfields to each other, we can calculate disciplinary mix using a three-dimensional approach. Continue reading