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by Bianca Vienni Baptista
16th April 2020

“Connections change too (…) The information revolution, stock options, floating assets, occupational restructuring, multinational corporations – what is good, what is bad (…) Boundaries between things are disappearing all the time. Maybe that is why cannot speak to cats any more.”
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

To what extent do collaborative practices present a changing setting for research? Can we learn from the enabling or hindering conditions under which they are developed?

Collaborative research implies more than putting disciplines, insights or methods together in a joint effort. It’s an integrative process, performed and conceived with others, where ’others‘ are disciplines, people from different institutions, local communities, etc. Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity, as collaborative practices, deal with multi-dimensional problems, those that present unknowns and differing interests. Within the spectrum of collaborative research, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity reveal a heterogeneity of definitions and understandings (Vienni Baptista, Maryl, Wciślik, Fletcher, Buchner, Wallace and Pohl, 2019).

As in the above quote, connections change and boundaries disappear all the time. In many scientific contexts, there is often a lack of awareness about the structural contexts that encourage or discourage connections between disciplines. How then can good and bad practices be identified to better integrate Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research?

There are many different conditions that affect whether or not interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research achieves successful and impactful outcomes. A provisional list of 25 factors that are considered to help or hinder interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research has been identified in the first results of a systematic literature review developed in the project “Shaping interdisciplinary practices in Europe” (SHAPE-ID, 2018). The team studies how to better support the integration of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) perspectives with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) into interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, particularly in the context of addressing social challenges.

We find heterogeneous understandings of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity, reflecting a diversity of practice and expectations across disciplines and communities (Vienni Baptista, et al). Some patterns of consensus are evident: interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity involve inter-dependence, cooperative labour, and are mutuality oriented towards shared purposes. From our perspective, the challenge is not to arrive at a single understanding that collapses differences, but to build dialogue between different understandings while recognising their differences (Vienni Baptista, et al).

The term ‘factor’ is used, in general, to describe an element that actively contributes to the production of a result or situation, namely an agent. Factors are markers. They operate in conjunction with institutional conditions. While analytically distinct, in practice factors are deeply entangled, structuring each other.

Factors are associated with conditions, challenges, principles, incentives, drivers, and guides for research. In our study, we confirm that factors influencing the success of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research are interrelated, context-dependent and dynamic. They depend on such contextual features as the way interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity are defined, the phase a project is at, the roles assigned to different partners, etc (Vienni Baptista, et al).

The cognitive, emotional, and interactional factors are present for all networks, to different degrees, and relate to the importance for successful collaborations of alignment between individuals, groups and institutional missions. Three broad areas are relevant: (i) institutional, (ii) disciplinary, and (iii) epistemic, though the boundaries between these are porous (Tuana, N, 2019).

We argue that factors are not negative or positive per se, but rather that they hinder or help interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. From our perspective, factors can act positively or negatively depending on the context, in particular the phase of the project. Factors can potentially be transformed from problematic to enabling during the research process (Vienni Baptista, et al).

Take academic tribalism as an example – the notion that academics in the same discipline are “united by customs, tradition, and adherence to a largely common worldview” (Robinson, Vasko, Gonnerman, Christen, O’Rourke and Steel, 2016, p. 3). Academic tribalism in a positive view, implies “understanding the preoccupations of each member of a team when developing concrete solutions to a specific problem” (Broto, Allen and Rapoport, 2012, p. 13). When it is used as a barrier to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, team members show uniformity of points of view (Robinson et al., 2016, p. 3) and question the validity of certain disciplines.

If we consider interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity as dynamic phenomenon with multiple understandings and a heterogeneity of practices, trying to set a list of factors divided into positive and negative conditions for research can be tricky. Acknowledging the negative factors that are influencing a research process can prove useful in order to implement specific strategies to turn those conditions into positive ones. Changing the setting – from negative to positive – can add a fresh perspective to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research practices and processes.

 

Bianca Vienni Baptista is a postdoctoral researcher at the Transdisciplinary Lab at ETH Zurich, Switzerland.  She is currently working on the EU-funded project SHAPE-ID, addressing the challenge of improving interdisciplinary cooperation between the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, STEM and other disciplines.  They have recently published a Preliminary Report providing a literature review on understandings of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.  You can follow SHAPE-ID on Twitter at @shapeID_eu

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