By Evelyn Brister
What causes interdisciplinary collaborations to default to the standard frameworks and methods of a single discipline, leaving collaborators feeling like they aren’t being taken seriously, or that what they’ve brought to the project has been left on the table, ignored and underappreciated?
Sometimes it is miscommunication, but sometimes it is that collaborators disagree. And sometimes disagreements are both fundamental and intractable.
Often, these disagreements can be traced back to different epistemological frameworks. Epistemological frameworks are beliefs about how particular disciplines conceive of what it is they investigate, how to investigate it, what counts as sufficient evidence, and why the knowledge they produce matters. An epistemological framework includes:
- facts and background assumptions
- evidentiary standards or ‘rigor’
- research goals.
In other words, epistemological frameworks determine what counts as relevant phenomena to study, the methods to use, the amount and types of evidence required, the causal relationships to consider, and the value and meaning of the research findings.
Epistemological frameworks are tailor-made to handle specific sets of problems that arise in specific disciplines. For good reason, they play a fundamental role in training scientists and, also for good reason, researchers are reluctant to reject frameworks that have served them well in the past—or to consider alternative frameworks from other areas.
What are some common differences among epistemological frameworks? Causal concepts are a common source of real disagreements among cross-field collaborators. Some disciplines, particularly in the physical sciences, conceive of causal interactions solely mechanistically; other disciplines, such as anthropology, count human beliefs and intentions as causes, or they identify emergent, higher-level causes. This may set collaborators up for epistemological conflict—for instance, if some collaborators limit the causal explanation of wildlife poaching to the physical actions of individuals (the setting of traps, the firing of guns), while other collaborators expect to identify political systems or social norms as causally responsible.
Within a discipline, the components of epistemological frameworks are usually well-integrated. To continue with the example of causal concepts, assumptions about causes may determine what methods are considered appropriate. Some scientists (such as developmental biologists) require the experimental control provided by laboratory methods to effectively isolate individual causes, while other scientists (such as ecologists) would not expect that causes identified in the laboratory are necessarily identical to the complex causal interactions operating in the field. Likewise, case study methods are considered by some social scientists to provide adequate understanding of causal interactions, while other social scientists hold that individual case evidence cannot support general causal claims.
When collaborators with different disciplinary training come up against conflicting conceptions of, for example, causal relationships, they are likely to feel that fundamental tenets of their scientific conception are being challenged.
These challenges also arise within disciplines, of course, and when they do, there can be serious rancor as the community works out a response. But the difference in interdisciplinary collaboration is that collaborators are bound by short-term research goals, not by membership in a wider community. There may be a greater desire to complete a project—even to a less-than-satisfactory degree—than to work out a deep epistemological disagreement.
Working through epistemological disagreements in order to achieve integration of epistemological frameworks may entail innovative research designs and the achievement of new conceptual categories. It takes time, resources, and grit.
When integration does not occur, the result is what I’ve called disciplinary capture. This happens when decisions about:
- facts (or the relevance of background knowledge and key concepts)
- standards of evidence (or the methods used to gather and analyze data)
- research goals (or the values that inform the research and the meaning of research findings)
have all fallen into line with the epistemological framework of a single discipline. In such cases, the project may involve collaborators from many disciplines, but they have contributed their expertise without having a sufficient role in shaping the outcome.
Disciplinary capture, unlike regulatory capture, does not imply corruption or bad faith. Instead, it can be an unintended (though foreseeable and preventable) consequence of rational decision-making. For instance, an early decision to apply for funding may lead to adopting the epistemological framework of the better-funded discipline. Once early decisions are made about, eg., which methods to use to gather data, then later decisions about data analysis or about standards of evidence will tend to fall in line with earlier decisions.
Disciplinary capture explains one difficulty of achieving interdisciplinary integration. It also explains some large-scale patterns in interdisciplinary research, such as the tendency for social scientists to feel ineffective in shaping project outcomes.
The tendency to fall prey to disciplinary capture suggests the need for anticipatory responses. These may include:
- the early integration of social scientists on interdisciplinary projects
- integration of humanities perspectives (see the blog post by Zoë Sofoulis on knowledge ecology)
- explicit attention to epistemological frameworks
- institutional support, including extra funding, to help compensate for the unpredictable nature of fully integrated research
- open-mindedness toward importing and adapting concepts, methods, and standards of evidence from other disciplines.
While some bruised egos may be unavoidable in interdisciplinary collaboration, recognizing the risk of disciplinary capture can help ensure that everyone plays a meaningful role.
- What has your experience been with epistemological obstacles and disciplinary capture?
- What strategies have you found successful for managing them?
To find out more:
Brister, E. (2016). Disciplinary capture and epistemological obstacles to interdisciplinary research: Lessons from central African conservation disputes. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 56: 82-91.
Biography: Evelyn Brister is Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on the epistemology of the production of scientific knowledge, and she is especially interested in how philosophers of science can play a practical role in supporting scientific research.