By Stephen Crowley and Graham Hubbs
How can we improve our understanding of knowledge integration? What are the elements of integration?
Sometimes what gets integrated are products of science, such as data sets or scientific models. Sometimes it is not the products that are integrated but instead the methods, as can happen on interdisciplinary teams. On these teams, scientists work together, so sometimes it is the people themselves (scientists are people!) or their disciplinary cultures that get integrated.
These are only some of the possible elements of integration. There is just as wide a variety of processes and products of integration as there are elements. The process of integrating data sets might be a sort of analysis, and the result might be a table or graph that displays the results of research in a conspicuous manner. Integrating diverse scientists into an interdisciplinary team, by contrast, is a matter of people working together, and the result of the integration is not a table or a graph but the team itself. A successful interdisciplinary research project might require integrating data sets, and scientists, and methods, and more—what it means to integrate each of these seems different in every case.
Can anything general be said, then, about all of these sorts of integration?
We at the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative (TDI) have developed a model of integration—the IPO model—that we find informative for both general and case-specific accounts of integration. Each part of the model focuses attention on a collection of questions that can help illuminate a given integrative process, and the model as a whole allows for broader, more global questions about a specific integration.
The model starts by separating
- an initial stage (INPUTS), in which there are things to be combined, from
- an intermediate stage (PROCESS) in which combining occurs, from
- a final stage (OUTPUTS) in which there are new whole(s) to be identified and described.
These divisions, in turn, allow us to separate out the following elements and questions:
- INPUTS – Thinking about inputs begins with appreciating their diversity. How many are there? What are their natures? What is the nature of their differences?
- PROCESS – If you are thinking about the process itself you can begin by asking about features of the integrative relation – just what is being done to the inputs in order to combine them? Further, is the combining intentional? Algorithmic? How much change (number and kind) is occurring?
- OUTPUTS – Thinking about outputs, like thinking about inputs, involves a focus on their diversity. What kinds of thing(s) are they? How many are there? How do they differ among themselves and (where possible) how do they differ from the inputs from which they ‘descended’?
In addition to questions that arise out of a focus on particular parts of the integrative process, the model helps us identify more global issues. More specifically, it encourages us to home in on the following three parameters:
- Commensurability – How easy (or hard) is it to combine the inputs? What are the barriers to combining and what is involved in doing so?
- Scale – Is the integration operating on a more local (eg., combining data from different experiments within a single lab) or a more global (eg., combining major theories within a discipline) level?
- Comprehensiveness – Roughly, does the integration yield new perspectives that are broader (address phenomena not covered by the inputs) or deeper (fuller understanding of some focal phenomena) but perhaps with reduced breadth?
The aim of this model is not to answer questions but rather to systematize them. By highlighting these basic features of integration, the model helps researchers and practitioners to be clearer on the aspects of integration they are investigating, to compare different integrative efforts, and to work on new aspects of integration.
While there is clearly more to be said—and we hope you will in the comments!—we’d like to wrap up with a puzzle about the model that we find particularly engaging.
What, exactly, counts as an integrative relation that might occur during the PROCESS stage? There are some paradigm examples, as when a bunch of bits of disparate information comes together to reveal the perpetrator in a murder mystery. What, though, about resolving an apparent contradiction? That feels like some sort of move toward combination, but is it enough for integration? Or, consider someone sorting pieces of multiple jigsaw puzzles. Recognizing that two pieces belong to the same puzzle is real progress, but it’s not the same as actually connecting the pieces and solving the puzzle. Or, what do we say about a situation where we recognize one alternative is better than another and discard the weaker alternative? Does this sort of “winner take all” scenario count as integration? If so, why, and if not, why not? We have our own hunches about how to address these questions, but we don’t have well-developed answers, and we’d love to hear what you reckon.
Finally, we and others are just getting started applying the model to case studies. If anyone has material they think fits or undermines the model, we’d love to hear about that too!
To find out more:
O’Rourke, M., Crowley, S. and Gonnerman, C. (2016). On the nature of cross-disciplinary integration: A philosophical framework. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 56: 62–70. (Online) (DOI): http://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2015.10.003
Toolbox Dialogue Initiative (Online): http://tdi.msu.edu/ with information about the research program on integration at https://tdi.msu.edu/research-overview/tdi-integration-research/
Biography: Stephen Crowley PhD is chair of the Philosophy Department at Boise State University, Idaho, USA. He is also a member of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative. He helps facilitate team science projects (as part of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative) in a variety of areas as well as working on models of such collaborations and how to support them.
Biography: Graham Hubbs PhD is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and Philosophy at the University of Idaho in Moscow, USA. He is also a senior member of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative. He contributes to cross-disciplinary integration through his work with the Initiative.