Patterned Diversity in Interdisciplinary Dialogues: Lessons from an Empirical Study of Interdisciplinary Research at the Frontier
Veronica Boix Mansilla
In recent years, interdisciplinary research has been equated with all things novel, collaborative and adventurous. Under closer scrutiny, cross disciplinary dialogue confronts researchers with new communicative and epistemic demands, including the demand of establishing what constitutes a productive dialogue and a fruitful interdisciplinary synthesis. This paper synthesizes the lessons learned in an empirical study of experts interdisciplinary work at five major research institutions in the Unites States: The Santa Fe Institute, the MIT Media Lab, the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania the Center for the Integration of Medical Innovations and Technologies. We asked: how do researchers integrate disciplinary traditions to advance their work? and what criteria do they use to validate their findings? Our analysis was based on in depth interview data (N = 55), complemented by samples of published work and institutional documentation.
Our study revealed that amidst the broad variety of seemingly idiosyncratic interdisciplinary research practices, at least three approaches can be identified. Each approach embodies its own preferred epistemological mechanisms for disciplinary integration and validation criteria by which experts assess their findings. A conceptual-bridging approach capitalizes on analogies across domains to advance a mathematical model or theoretical account of phenomena like network behavior or innovation. A comprehensive approach advances multidimensional characterizations that capitalize on the complementarity among disciplines. A pragmatic approach focuses sharply on expected outcomes, integrating disciplines through a process of strategic backfilling.
Understanding the distinct intellectual mechanisms by which experts cross disciplinary boundaries sets the foundation for a much needed dialogue across the sciences and with the humanities.
Note: An extensive account of these findings will appear in the journal Issues in Integrative Studies.