The Process and Practice of Interdisciplinary Research

Monday, February 18, 2013
Room 300 (Hynes Convention Center)
Sarah Kaplan , University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Convinced that the nature of today’s scientific and technological problems demand interdisciplinary solutions, research policy makers and funders are increasingly calling for coordination among academic disciplines. Yet, interdisciplinary research must overcome challenges of two kinds that make coordination difficult: the incommensurability of different knowledge bases and the domination of departments and disciplines in the political economy of research. Scholarship on interdisciplinarity has with few exceptions treated it monolithically as a style of research or research outcome rather than considering the coordination as it happens. It is thus difficult to identify mechanisms of coordination and the consequent policy implications.

This paper traces the day-to-day activities of researchers in an NSF-funded university interdisciplinary research center (in nanotechnology), and in doing so, demonstrates how interdisciplinary coordination takes place both on the cognitive plane and in the political economy of research, being neither wholly about the generation of creative ideas across disciplines nor about the breaking down of barriers across departments. Drawing from the history and sociology of science literature on interdisciplinarity and matching it with organizational theories about coordination, we identify the objects (instruments) and boundary spanners (primarily graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) who operate at the nexus of disciplines. Our mapping of the research process provides a framework for understanding tensions in interdisciplinary work and identifying the micro-mechanisms by which change in the management of scientific research occurs.

We found that successful interdisciplinarity occurred when researchers coordinated the political and economic resources that adhere to established disciplines with the intellectual potential of new instruments on which young people were trained. Together they were enacting new research processes as they improvised new practices. Such a portrayal of situated organizational change in how university research is accomplished suggests that interdisciplinary research should not be understood as a “mode” but rather as a set of processes and practices. To the extent that disciplinary research is being challenged by interdisciplinarity, it is through the day-to-day practices of actors attempting to resolve the tensions between traditional professional demands and opportunities for new ways of working.