By Graham Hubbs, Michael O’Rourke, Steven Hecht Orzack
Have you collaborated with people on a complex project and wondered why it is so difficult? Perhaps you’ve asked yourself, “Do my collaborators even conceive of the project and its goals in the way I do?” Projects involving collaborators from different disciplines or professions seem almost ready made to generate this kind of bewilderment. Collaborators on cross-disciplinary projects like these often ask different kinds of questions and pursue different kinds of answers.
This confusion can bedevil cross-disciplinary research. The allure of such research is its promise of solving complex problems by bringing together a variety of perspectives that when combined lead to solutions that any one perspective would fail to find. But combining different disciplinary perspectives also requires undertaking the tasks of translating different technical languages, reconciling different methodological preferences, and coordinating different ways of carving up the world. These tasks are difficult and it’s no wonder that cross-disciplinary research often fails to be truly cross-disciplinary.
Why disciplinary differences occur
These challenges are not surprising. Members of different disciplines read different literatures, acquire different skill sets, and learn to value different ways of knowing the world. However, we usually aren’t trained to understand and communicate with experts from other disciplines. The resulting failures of communication often produce what we call the “Problem of Unacknowledged Differences.” Collaborators from different disciplines often don’t really know how they are different; as a consequence, they struggle to identify how to integrate their different forms of expertise. This makes it hard if not impossible to marshal a coherent understanding of the problem that sparked the collaboration.
To make matters worse, collaborators are frequently discouraged from even talking about this problem. The aspects of a research project that any one collaborator finds problematic may not even be noticed by the others. Each collaborator may hesitate to point out what they find problematic in order to avoid being labeled as a troublemaker. The consequence is that these differences are unlikely to be resolved.
The Toolbox dialogue method and workshop
The Toolbox Dialogue Initiative has designed a dialogue-based method to address the Problem of Unacknowledged Differences and to nurture collaborative, cross-disciplinary research. This method – the Toolbox dialogue method – is deployed in a facilitated workshop setting, typically over a 3- to 4-hour period, and features a 60- to 90-minute philosophically-structured dialogue in which collaborators explore their unacknowledged differences so as to enhance their mutual understanding. After the dialogue, collaborators work on a co-creation activity (eg., concept mapping) that further builds on what they have learned about themselves and each other.
The dialogue in Toolbox workshops is structured by prompts that express commitments that are obvious to some disciplines and professions but are foreign to others. Presented as rating-response items, these prompts are organized into several thematically-focused modules (eg., “Methodology”, “Research Identity”, “Values”) that together constitute a Toolbox instrument. In a workshop, participants individually work through the instrument by scoring the items and then collectively talk about the issues the items raise.
Prompts include items such as, “Knowledge generated by research is valuable even if it has no application” and “Value-neutral scientific research is possible”. These are not psychometrically-validated survey items, but rather prompts designed to get people talking in a facilitated dialogue about issues that disclose key features of their worldviews. For example, consider the prompt, “Scientific research must be hypothesis driven”. Some may see this as self-evident – as simply just what science is – whereas others may rarely use hypotheses in their research practice. By comparing and discussing their responses, team members can work out just how central hypotheses are to each member’s scientific worldview and how important they will be to the conduct of their common project.
The primary goal of a Toolbox workshop is to enable collaborators to address the Problem of Unacknowledged Differences by articulating, sharing, and discussing their research perspectives with one another. Facilitated dialogue about the core beliefs and values that frame research perspectives can enhance mutual understanding among collaborators and improve their ability to collaborate effectively and to achieve their common goals.
In the 15 years since the Toolbox dialogue method was developed, workshops have been held with more than 370 cross-disciplinary teams. The method was initially used in interdisciplinary scientific contexts but can be used in other cross-disciplinary contexts and in non-academic settings. Toolbox workshops have proven useful to teams at the beginning of a project, but they can also support reflection and perspective taking throughout the entirety of a project.
Have you experienced the Problem of Unacknowledged Differences in a research collaboration? If so, how have you attempted to deal with it? If you have been involved in a Toolbox workshop, how did you find the process?
To find out more:
Hubbs, G., O’Rourke, M. and Orzack, S. H. (Eds.). (2020). The Toolbox Dialogue Initiative: The Power of Cross-Disciplinary Practice. CRC Press: Florida, United States of America. (Online – book description): https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/toolbox-dialogue-initiative-graham-hubbs-michael-rourke-steven-hecht-orzack/e/10.1201/9780429440014
Toolbox Dialogue Initiative website: http://tdi.msu.edu/
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.
Biography: Michael O’Rourke PhD directs the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative (TDI) and the Center for Interdisciplinarity at Michigan State University in East Lansing, USA, where he is Professor of Philosophy and faculty in AgBioResearch. He is a founding member of TDI, which has been funded by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and several US National Science Foundation programs.
Biography: Steven Hecht Orzack PhD is Senior Research Scientist and President of the Fresh Pond Research Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. He is a member of the advisory board of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative.