Epistemological obstacles to interdisciplinary research

By Evelyn Brister

Evelyn Brister (biography)

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:

  1. facts and background assumptions
  2. evidentiary standards or ‘rigor’
  3. causes
  4. 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.

Disciplinary capture

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)
  • causes
  • 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.

21 thoughts on “Epistemological obstacles to interdisciplinary research”

  1. My first reactions on reading your helpful post were as follows: 1. it immediately struck me that the problem many of us have with getting to grips with the discipline of collaborative working has to do with the tension between gathering individual good practice in the form of case studies and then attempting to make general assumptions about collaborative good practice in general — it just does not seem to work that well because context is such a powerful force 2. Perhaps the danger of Disciplinary Capture (a great term by the way) could be minimised by an awareness of (and willingness and ability to use) the different trading styles that emerge and develop at different times during the lifetime of a collaborative effort. I explore this here: https://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/trade-with-style-four-trading-styles.html Thanks again for the post!

    • I agree, Charles, that “Disciplinary Capture” is a great term. Thank you also for the link to your piece on “trading styles.” It resonates with the work I have been going on “trading zones” as spaces for collaboration. The boundary crossing that occurs within them can be explained generally but must also account for context. Wolfgang Krohn’s chapter on epistemic challenges of interdisciplinary research is also relevant: steering between the specific and the general, the idiographic and the nomothetic. It appears in the 2010 and the updated 2017 editions of The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity. Julie

      • Thank you both, Charles and Julie, for mixing in new ideas with this discussion. My focus is on the ways that our disciplinary beliefs (sometimes, hang-ups) block collaborations because, for instance, two disciplinary frameworks may have basic disagreements about how to achieve rigor or how to model causal relations. But epistemological differences are of course not the only difficulty in achieving interdisciplinary integration. Others, including Julie Thompson Klein, have shed light on the “translation problem” in interdisciplinary communication. And, as you note, Charles, communication practices and political differences can also block collaborations. The question that each of these three concerns (epistemology, communication, intergroup politics) converge on is: how can we design tools and norms so that invested collaborators are able to achieve their mutual goal?

        • Thank you, Evelyn, for raising the question of “translation.” I am currently frustrated by continuing reference to “application” and “transfer” in the discourse of transdisciplinarity. It is a reductive way of thinking. You are inspiring me to consider it as a form of “capture.”

  2. In thinking about your questions at the end of the piece, I realized that I enjoy applying the epistemological framework of other disciplines to my own, or relying on the results of the epistemology of other disciplines as a foundation for my own work. In these cases, there are no obstacles and it is the exact contradiction of disciplinary capture. I have used social science research methods to attempt to answer a question in the field of energy modeling.I am in the process of using data from archaeology as the foundation of research methods from my own field to turn around and inform the archaeological questions. (I think this may be the answer to your question about Pragmatism, above? That it’s less likely for Pragmatics to fall into disciplinary capture because they’re less likely to balk at epistemological differences),

    I think humility, curiosity, respectfulness, well-rounded education, and communication skills are required features for interdisciplinary work, but also for collaboration within disciplines. But I think an interesting place for you to look are the merged fields (such as my own) where two disciplines (architecture and mechanical engineering) see such an integrated goal that they regularly cross the epistemological boundary – without disciplinary capture. It might result in guidelines or end goals for ID research.

    • Hi Pam! Yes, it’s certainly true that the more people work to weave elements of two disciplines together, the more they can manage to create a new fabric of epistemological assumptions and methods. Inside disciplines, there are venues for doing this–conferences, for example. (Of course, some epistemic and methodological disagreements last for decades, nonetheless!) The problem is raised by singular or unique collaborations where researchers come together to solve a particular problem. I think you’re right that the more we can establish communities to figure out how to borrow methodological insights from other inquiries and fit them to our own, the better we can avoid disciplinary capture.
      I also know, though, from other things you’ve said, that you’ve found resistance from engineers and architects to importing social science methods. It’s that sort of obstacle–the refusal to bend our disciplinary frameworks to accommodate new insights–that leads to disciplinary capture.

      • Continuing thanks to Evelyn for stimulating a valuable conversation: I’ve been at a conference on Digital Humanities so unable to reply for a while but want to comment on the recent suggestion that conferences can be sites of learning about methods in other disciplines. Yes, indeed. I would also cite schools of thought within disciplines that incorporate methodologies and epistemologies of other domains. This source of disciplinary expansion is evident in textbooks and gateway courses at both undergraduate and graduate levels, in addition to training workshops. Reports from science-policy bodies and other professional organizations also benchmark this kind of change. Julie

        • Yes, Julie, and I think that sometimes going to conferences where there are different norms and assumptions can lead us think about why one thing or another is particularly engrained in our own field. Just a minor example–I’m a philosopher and gave a talk recently to physicists. The practice in philosophy is that the speaker goes through a presentation for 30 minutes and then there are questions at the end, including questions of clarification. But the practice in physics is that the speaker can be interrupted at any point with questions of clarification. A philosopher’s first reaction is bound to be “how rude!” but since it allowed confusions to be cleared up early, an inevitable second reaction is, “why don’t we do it this way?” Awareness of a wider range of practices can be fruitful.

          • Great point, Evelyn. Not only do protocols of listening differ but presentation style as well: e.g., PPT slides, reading texts, etc. I was at a conference this past weekend where nobody imagined asking a quick question or response until the entire LONG sequence had presented. I did. Better timekeeping would have allowed that kind of interaction to happen (the result of one presenter going beyond allotted time). These small details are not small. They are the surface of epistemological differences you have taught us to understand as part of “disciplinary capture.”

  3. As a brand new interdisciplinary scholar in Executive Leadership and Communication, I am seeking to expand my understanding before I begin collaborating on a specific project/event. This article and commentary are helpful for me because I will be able to use this wisdom at the start, and, hopefully, be able to avoid some of the pitfalls of rushing in, or of being too slow, as we proceed with it. I am now looking at the suggested toolbox project website and see this could be very valuable for our advisory board. Thank you for sharing.
    Donna Marie Johnson
    Founder of Market Like A Queen

    • I’m glad you found it thought-provoking. I like the way you’ve framed the issue as being a matter of hitting the mean–not too quick to presume that one discipline’s answer is the right way to frame a problem, and also not too slow.

  4. Great discussion! Thanks Evelyn.

    From experience, this incommensurability also manifests in different visions, values, priorities and vocabularies, and one of the errors people make trying to cooperate across boundaries is to seek to agree on shared vision, values and priorities and establish a common vocabulary at the onset, before cooperation and discussion on the ‘real stuff’ can take place. I’ve seen this again and again.

    I think that grand narratives which encapsulate epistemological and cultural gestalts indeed can’t be interchangeable and adopted in one piece unless one of them ‘wins’ and captures the whole. Gerald Midgley and Wendy Gregory call this disciplinary capture a slippage into methodological imperialism: a likely side effect of consensus in seeking to integrate pluralistic methodologies. On the other hand, starting from a blank slate only leads to misinterpretation and misunderstanding…

    I believe that working on small narrative may be more effective, as it can enable people to compare perspectives and interpretations in ‘chunks’ that are easier to process, digest, and build upon, the shared elements being an output of the process rather than an input.

    I’m currently working on the hypothesis that using patterns as units of meaning-making at various levels of granularity in a “manner of deconstructing, exploring, and rebuilding the intricacies of problem solving” (just as our brain works) as described by Katie, in a pragmatic critical inquiry approach as described by Jon, could help interconnect and mediate fragmented epistemologies and cultures. I called patterns ‘epistemological threads’ in one of my papers.

    More about my explorations here – Patterns that Connect: Exploring The Potential of Patterns and Pattern Languages in Systemic Interventions Towards Realizing Sustainable Futures – https://www.academia.edu/27465412/Patterns_that_Connect_Exploring_The_Potential_of_Patterns_and_Pattern_Languages_in_Systemic_Interventions_Towards_Realizing_Sustainable_Futures

    Thanks Jon for the link to your paper which is very relevant to my research. I am also looking forward, Julie, to learn more about the Toolbox.

    I would be interested in your top of mind thoughts about using observed or imagined patterns as ‘boundary objects’ and the combinations of patterns as a ‘shared’ inquiry language.

    • Thanks for the reference, Helene. I’m not familiar with the language of patterns in the systems thinking literature. This is something to investigate.

  5. Dear Evelyn,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on epistemological obstacles to ID research. You raise an interesting question about whether Pragmatism provides a model for finding a way through, beyond, around, under these epistemological questions. About a year ago, I read Dewey’s “How we Think”, and had vivid brainstorms of how his manner of deconstructing, exploring, and rebuilding the intricacies of problem solving would be an excellent basis for developing activities for ID and TD teams to develop shared understandings and appreciations of where each person was coming from in their joint endeavour.

    In response to the question that you pose at the end of the blog, one of the techniques that has worked on our TD projects in the past, in terms of integrating more qualitative and complexivist forms of research, is to both collect ‘data’ and analyse collaboratively. This may be a simple example, but we found that if we conduct interviews of stakeholders with team members from across different disciplines, that the experience of seeing/feeling the situation together, and then debriefing afterwards as a form of shared-meaning making, is a step towards building trust in the more qualitative forms of research. Ultimately I wonder if it comes back to trust in each other as team members and as people?


    • I’m sure that having personal trust supports the ability to collaborate. But epistemological obstacles pose a special kind of challenge to building trust because when we’re skeptical that people are using the right facts or concepts, we can (and, often, should) feel entitled to that doubt, even when we’d be willing to say that we like them as people. After all, our time and resources are precious enough that we don’t want to collaborate with just anyone. We want to work with people whom we think are getting something right. If we don’t build THAT kind of trust, then it’s possible to think that those people (whomever they are) are nice but wrong-headed–and to give them a smaller role or less responsibility.

      We DO want to make judgments about rigor, competence, and quality of judgment; but we ALSO ought to be aware of differences in standards across disciplines. I think this sort of collaborative personal involvement is often necessary but not always sufficient. It sounds to me like the debriefing step you’re describing probably presents a chance to explain the reason for disciplinary differences, to educate across those differences, and then, as you say, to evaluate via meaning-making. In other words, it requires an investment.

  6. I appreciate calling attention to this important concern. I wonder, though, what Brister thinks about a proposed solution to clarify perspectives: the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies (C4I) Toolbox Dialogue Project. Is that a viable tool for addressing related concerns? Julie T. Klein

    • Hi Julie, I agree that the Toolbox Project (http://toolbox-project.org) is one way to help directly with these concerns. Michael O’Rourke, Stephen Crowley, and the Toolbox Project team have described what they do as facilitating communication between members of interdisciplinary teams. From what I understand, they use an open-ended approach that permits team members to explore various differences in practices, norms, and methods, and this openness includes facilitating dialogue about epistemological obstacles. The Toolbox Project has a wider scope that is especially useful at a) identifying where problems lie; b) navigating to simple resolutions when they exist. In the cited article, I highlight the Toolbox Project as an effective method for identifying epistemological obstacles. Another is Nancy Tuana’s proposal for embedding philosophers of science in research teams.

      • Thanks very much for your reply, Evelyn. I have run a couple of Toolbox workshops, though as demonstrations for groups at conferences rather than teams working on the same project. In both instances, though, the tool definitely facilitates communication. I am not a philosopher, so the implications for me lie well beyond epistemology. When using a shorter variant in training workshops, I like to introduce participants to the fuller range of institutional and personal factors that come into play. Julie

  7. A few more thoughts —

    Awbrey, S.M., and Awbrey, J.L. (May 2001), “Conceptual Barriers to Creating Integrative Universities”, Organization : The Interdisciplinary Journal of Organization, Theory, and Society 8(2), Sage Publications, London, UK, pp. 269–284. Abstract

    • Thank you for this reference! I agree with you that we ought to aim for integration but that, yes, there is no ontological promise that integration can be achieved. Integration is a non-trivial achievement. Hyperspecialization enhances our effectiveness at solving disciplinary problems, but it puts up conceptual barriers between disciplines. We also become invested in our identities as rigorous political scientists or as rigorous philosophers, etc. Pragmatist commitments (whether Deweyan or Peircean) support reorganizing the community of inquiry to attend to our ultimate (and changing) aims–the problem our research is meant to solve. Pragmatism, therefore, is optimistic about integration. Do you have any thoughts about whether pragmatism provides a model for leaving these kinds of epistemological obstacles to the side? I’ve been wondering whether the pragmatist response to disciplinary capture would be: it’s okay, go with the flow.


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