Six types of unknowns in interdisciplinary research

By Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What types of unknowns are tackled in interdisciplinary research?  I draw on my experience directing a program of research on the feasibility of prescribing pharmaceutical heroin as a treatment for heroin dependence. Analysis of this case revealed six different types of unknowns:

  1. Disciplinary unknowns
  2. Unknowns of concern to stakeholders
  3. Unknowns marginalised by power imbalances
  4. Unknowns in the overlap between disciplines
  5. New problem-based unknowns
  6. Intractable unknowns.

As a point of contrast, let’s look first at discipline-based research. Disciplines have established norms about the unknowns that are the ‘business’ of that discipline. Becoming a disciplinary expert involves learning which unknowns to tackle and which to ignore. Becoming good at one’s discipline involves cultivating the ability to pick productive unknowns—those that address key questions and open new lines of research.

How does this compare with interdisciplinary research? Because the term interdisciplinary is used loosely, here I draw on the example of a team of researchers from diverse disciplines working with non-research stakeholders to tackle a multi-faceted complex problem. This example probably covers the greatest range of unknowns, many of which will also be relevant to other kinds of interdisciplinarity. Certainly the unknowns of concern to disciplines generally remain important in interdisciplinary research, but at least five additional types of unknowns may also come into play. Let’s consider each of these in turn.

1. Disciplinary unknowns

Interdisciplinary research often involves combining separate disciplinary considerations of unknowns. The foundation for assessing the feasibility of pharmaceutical heroin prescription involved combining the investigation of unknowns from a number of disciplinary perspectives including:

  • demography  to estimate the number of dependent heroin users
  • philosophy to examine the ethics of a trial of heroin prescription
  • epidemiology and biostatistics to review the range of possible trial designs
  • anthropology to investigate the likely impact of a trial on ceasing both illegal and prescribed heroin use
  • political science to assess the political context for a heroin prescription trial.

Some work led to new disciplinary insights, such as the economics comparison of heroin purity versus price as the “equilibrating mechanism”. Most of the research was a more routine disciplinary assessment of an aspect of the heroin prescription problem.

2. Unknowns of concern to stakeholders

Interdisciplinary research can involve addressing unknowns that are outside the business of any discipline, but are of major concern to stakeholders. In the heroin prescription feasibility research, for example, police were very concerned that the city hosting a prescription trial would become a ‘honeypot’ for drug users from around Australia and possibly beyond. This was not an unknown that any of the disciplines involved brought to the table and it was not addressed using solely discipline-based research.

3. Unknowns marginalized by power imbalances

Some unknowns concern relatively powerless stakeholders and are not seen as important in mainstream research and practice, but may be harder to ignore in interdisciplinary research. An example from the heroin prescription feasibility research concerned how to make treatment more attuned to, and respectful of, illicit drug users, which was addressed by a combined group of clinicians, illicit drug users and drug treatment researchers.

4. Unknowns in the overlap between disciplines

Some disciplines are traditionally closely aligned and overlap, for example sociology and anthropology. There may also be an overlap with stakeholder concerns. The point is that unknowns in the overlap are more effectively addressed by the disciplines combining forces and melding methods than by proceeding separately. An example from the heroin prescription feasibility investigation was background research on drug use, binge drinking and attempted suicide among homeless youth, which involved blending methods from anthropology and sociology, along with insights from youth workers and affected young people.

Working in the overlap between disciplines may also lead to the identification of new unknowns, which are not the business of either discipline alone. This did not occur in the study presented here, but is illustrated by the development of new disciplines springing from overlaps, such as biochemistry, behavioural economics and mathematical psychology.

5. New problem-based unknowns

Because interdisciplinary research is characterized by a focus on the problem, this can lead to identification of unknowns that are critical to the problem, but which have received little or insufficient disciplinary consideration. In the heroin prescription feasibility research example, it was realized that very little was known about illicit drug markets and that this was not (at the time) a major area of research. It led to criminologists and police combining forces to flesh out and investigate key questions about the likely effects of heroin prescription on illicit drug markets.

Although it did not occur in the case study presented here, it is also conceivable that a completely new framing of the problem, and therefore of unknowns, can occur. It is possible, for example, that the deliberations about heroin prescription could have led to a new theory of drug dependence and therefore new research questions.

6. Intractable unknowns

Not all unknowns involved in assessing heroin prescription feasibility were tractable. Whereas discipline-based research would tend to ignore questions that could not be ‘solved’, this makes little sense in interdisciplinary research, as such unknowns can lead to adverse unintended consequences or unpleasant surprises. In the heroin prescription feasibility research, a major focus was on identifying and addressing potential risks. Two risks for which there were no definitive answers were that heroin prescription could lead to more permissive attitudes to illicit drug use or that it could lead to the ‘honeypot effect’ referred to earlier. Certainly steps could be taken to potentially reduce these risks, but the interconnectedness and complexity of the issues meant they could not be ‘solved’.

Why does a consideration of unknowns in interdisciplinary research matter?

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time the types of unknowns that are addressed in interdisciplinary research have been analysed in this way.  Such analysis is of practical relevance in the assessment of interdisciplinary research grant applications.

If interdisciplinary proposals are assessed on the criteria used for discipline-based proposals, they would likely come up short. Many of the unknowns that feature in interdisciplinary research would not be considered relevant in discipline-based research. And the relevant disciplinary unknowns, treated separately, are likely to be more pedestrian and less compelling than would be expected for discipline-based research, even though they expertly address the interdisciplinary question of concern.

The relevance of unknowns and other aspects of peer-review for interdisciplinary research is addressed in Bammer G (2016) What constitutes appropriate peer-review for interdisciplinary research? Palgrave Communications

I welcome your feedback, additional examples of the kinds of unknowns described above and suggestions about other unknowns that interdisciplinary research addresses that I have missed.

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She leads the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” at the US National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center.

7 thoughts on “Six types of unknowns in interdisciplinary research”

  1. One of the best rationales for “pharmaceutical heroin” I saw, was noted in New Scientist journal almost two decades ago. It seems a number of European Coroners were ‘puzzled’ by the appearances of some seemingly apparent heroin overdose deaths, and the ‘inter-disciplinary’ Epidemiologists began comparing notes…It seems the ‘Anthrax-Tainted Heroin’ making its way around Europe, was leaving victims with large black spots on their skin… The mules transporting the harvested opium, in burlap bags, in Asia…..and the processing of opium into heroin didn’t kill the Anthrax, it made those batches lethal, and thankfully coroners and epidemiologists in Scotland and Scandinavia, by comparing notes with one another, were able to ascertain the cause, and avail warnings to law-enforcement personnel….

  2. How about “exodisciplinary” unknowns – that which cannot be known within the boundaries of disciplinary conceptualisations. Granted that multi/trans and neo disciplines help to dissolve the conceptual silos of prior disciplines that lack the requisite variety to illuminate a problem. But isn’t there the possibility that they too stand as conceptual “resting places”? Perhaps we position/create these resting places, like small islands of clarity, as a trade off for some temporary solid ground in a sea of groundlessness. So this unknown emerges from the double edged sword of disciplinarity – that has an inherent capacity to both reveal and obscure – an emergent property of the inquiring mind that dualistically sorts phenomena into “this and “that”. So exodisciplinary unknowns are those that cannot be known by approaches that take even the “subtlest clinging to discipline” approach.Although it might be helpful to point to a philosophical or epistemological framework to support the above contention, I do not have the grounding in philosophy to do so – but I suspect western dialectical and madhyamika philosophical approaches are supportive frameworks.

    • Thanks Craig. How much do these intersect with unknown unknowns? The challenge is how do we get handles on “exodisciplinary unknowns” or do they primarily remind us to be humble about what we think we know and don’t know?

      • Hi Gabriele, hmm, I may stumble here due to my ignorance of the 4 quadrant model, but I suspect that exodisciplinary unknowns may arise in all 3 of the unknown categories. Humility would be a good place to start and I think that was Socrates dialogic starting point of denying he was wise, denying he knew anything, and asking questions that deconstructed others assertions. This is a difficult place to operate from – almost seen as a fall into nihilism for some. Humility could leave us more open to reflect that our disciplinary frameworks are helpful but both bind us and blind us. As McLuhan said – “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us”. So humility could be one way of getting a handle on these unknowns, others could be – 1. methods developed by systems thinking advocates that attempt to control cognitive biases. 2. traditional philosophical school contemplative exercises that attempt to reduce dualistic thinking, and then going into experimental/speculative/left field areas… 3. transcranial stimulation. 4. microdose psychedelics!

  3. Forgive me, this is just a first thought and may not fit your model, but maybe there is another unknown bobbing in and out of all this during the development of interdisciplinary collaboration: unknown languages and ways of talking about things (linguistic unknown?). What came to mind was the interdisciplinary work going on at CERN and the way scientists and engineers need to find new and previously unknown ways of talking about things of mutual interest that all parties can appreciate and understand. This involves losing some specialised meanings relevant to specific disciplines, but it also opens up opportunities for new insights and meanings to develop out of the new ways partners speak with each other.

    I am also struck by the fact that crime and law enforcement are mentioned twice in connection with issues that were not considered or not thought major areas of research (at least initially that is). This says something, perhaps, about how we start limiting our perceptions from the very moment we focus on an issue and start thinking about the partners needed to address it, which is heavily influenced by our education, training, discipline and the wider circles within which we tend to move.

    As I say, just an initial reaction to your interesting take on things.

    • I concur Charles… A Florida County Sheriff compared “Response Call Maps” with the County [Public] Health Officer….and noticed a marked similarity in all the high-response call areas on each of their separate ‘maps’. If I’m not mistaken, I think this news was promoted on – where I first learned of it.

      In Charles Hampden-Turner’s Harvard MBA thesis–later turned book. he notes: “Man exists freely, through the quality of his perception, and the strength of his identity, and the synthesis of these…..into his anticipated and experienced competence…”. Perhaps professions and schools-of-thought/academic disciplines also contend with that challenge, such as we might find in the Role of the Flexner Report on Medical Education-recommending adoption of the German [male-only] medical edication model, at a time when Women-Midwives delivered 95% of the babies born in the USA…


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