Dialogue: philosophically structured ‘Toolbox’ to improve cross-disciplinary communication

Purpose: To help those involved in research – including researchers from various disciplines as well as decision makers and other stakeholders – understand different ways in which research is conceived and undertaken.

Description:  An important source of differences among those involved in research is in how research is conceived and undertaken. Disciplinary training is key to these differences, especially among researchers. Stakeholders – both those affected by the problem and those in a position to do something about it – may also have a range of views about research. These different views are generally hidden and do not become evident unless they are pointed out.

A questionnaire and a workshop process can be used to expose these differences.

Questionnaire

A questionnaire based on philosophical analysis can help make implicit differences in how research is understood and practised explicit. The questions address motivation, methodology, confirmation, objectivity, values, and reductionism–emergence. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Motivation
The key issue here is whether basic or applied research is seen as more important. Under the core question “Does the principal value of research stem from its applicability for solving problems?,” those whose differences are being assessed (usually team members) are asked about the extent to which they agree or disagree with the following statements:

  1. The principal value of research stems from the potential application of the knowledge gained.
  2. Cross-disciplinary research is better suited to addressing applied questions than basic questions.
  3. My disciplinary research primarily addresses basic questions.
  4. The importance of our project stems from its applied aspects.
  5. The members of this team have similar views concerning the motivation core question.

Methodology
The key issues here include what counts as evidence, whether research is hypothesis driven and issues of scale, including spatial and temporal scale. Under the core question “What methods do you employ in your disciplinary research (e.g. experimental, case study, observational, modelling)?,” participants are asked about the extent to which they agree or disagree with the following statements:

  1. Scientific research (applied or basic) must be hypothesis driven.
  2. In my disciplinary research, I employ primarily quantitative methods.
  3. In my disciplinary research, I employ primarily qualitative methods.
  4. In my disciplinary research, I employ primarily experimental methods.
  5. In my disciplinary research, I employ primarily observational methods.
  6. The members of this team have similar views concerning the methodology core question.

Confirmation
The key issues here are what type and amount of evidence are seen as constituting “knowledge,” as well as how the accuracy of findings is validated. Under the core question “What types of evidentiary support are required for knowledge?,” participants are asked about the extent to which they agree or disagree with the following statements:

  1. There are strict requirements for the validity of measurements.
  2. There are strict requirements for determining when empirical data confirm a tested hypothesis.
  3. Validation of evidence requires replication.
  4. Unreplicated results can be validated if confirmed by a combination of several different methods.
  5. Research interpretations must address uncertainty.
  6. The members of this team have similar views concerning the confirmation core question.

Objectivity (or reality)
The key issue here is whether or not objectivity is attainable. Under the core question “Do the products of scientific research more closely reflect the nature of the world or the researchers’ perspectives?,” participants are asked about the extent to which they agree or disagree with the following statements:

  1. Scientific research aims to identify facts about a world independent of the investigators.
  2. Scientific claims need not represent objective reality to be useful.
  3. Models invariably produce a distorted view of objective reality.
  4. The subject of my research is a human construction.
  5. The members of this team have similar views concerning the objectivity core question.

Values
The key issue here is whether or not value-free research is possible. Under the core question “Do values negatively influence scientific research?,” participants are asked about the extent to which they agree or disagree with the following statements:

  1. Objectivity implies an absence of values by the researcher.
  2. Incorporating one’s personal perspective in framing a research question is never valid.
  3. Value-neutral scientific research is possible.
  4. Determining what constitutes acceptable validation of research data is a value issue.
  5. Allowing values to influence scientific research is advocacy.
  6. The members of this team have similar views concerning the values core question.

Reductionism – emergence
The key issue here is whether or not systems can be understood by investigating their individual, independent elements. Under the core question “Can the world under investigation be fully reduced to independent elements for study?,” participants are asked about the extent to which they agree or disagree with the following statements:

  1. Differences in spatiotemporal scales impede useful synthesis in cross-disciplinary research.
  2. The world under investigation is fully explicable as the assembly of its constituent parts.
  3. The world under investigation must be explained in terms of the emergent properties arising from the interactions of its individual components.
  4. My research typically isolates the behaviour of individual components of a system.
  5. Scientific research must include explicit consideration of the environment in which it is conducted.
  6. The members of this team have similar views concerning the reductionism-emergence core question.

The questions themselves highlight links between the six subsections. The questions can be modified depending on the circumstances in which they are used; it is the discussion that they stimulate that is important.

Workshop

The questionnaire is intended to be used in a dialogue-based workshop by current or potential collaborators. The protocol suggested for running such a workshop is that:

  • someone knowledgeable provides an introduction about the philosophical structure that underpins the questionnaire.
  • participants fill out the questionnaire.
  • the group discusses the questionnaire responses. This is best done with a facilitator and 1-2 hours should be set aside for this activity. The discussion can begin with any of the questions and progress to other questions in any order. The aim is to make it possible for participants to connect how their responses relate to the philosophical assumptions, to tease out similarities and differences among participant views, and to appreciate where differences can lead to misunderstanding and conflict. The trajectory of the discussion should be determined by the characteristics of the project and the particular concerns and backgrounds of the team members. Digressing from the main purpose of the exercise is to be discouraged.
  • It can be helpful to record the discussion so that the project leaders and those with expertise in the philosophical underpinnings of research can reflect on it to identify issues that may arise for the team.

A note on the philosophical underpinnings

Challenges to cross-disciplinary research arise out of “conflicting assumptions about the nature of the world, the development and verification of knowledge, and the role of values in the scientific process (Eigenbrode et al., 2007, p. 58).” Discipline-based researchers tend not to reflect on such assumptions “because their metaphysical and epistemic traditions are ingrained and tacit (Eigenbrode et al., 2007, p. 60).” Disciplinary training “instills specific research approaches and techniques that constrain questions, frame observations, and determine methods of interpretation and standards for validation; (Eigenbrode et al., 2007, p. 58)” that is, it instills a complex, distinctive conceptual scheme for perceiving and investigating the world.

“Conceptual schemes are networks of (a) concepts that frame an investigator’s pursuit of knowledge about the world and (b) concepts that represent the inherent nature of that world. Philosophical analysis of the concepts that frame the pursuit of knowledge is considered epistemology …, while analysis of the concepts that represent the nature of the investigated world is considered metaphysics …. (Eigenbrode et al., 2007, p. 58).”

Collaboration across disciplines and with stakeholders “can bring very different conceptual schemes into conjunction, revealing their metaphysical and epistemic aspects in ways that demand attention (Eigenbrode et al., 2007, p. 60).” 

More detail about the philosophical underpinnings can be found in Eigenbrode et al. (2007).

The questionnaire (PDF 103KB) can also be found at www.class.uidaho.edu/toolbox.

Video (1 hour): “Structured Dialogue to Uncover Research Assumptions” presented by Michael O’Rouke was a workshop at the First Global Conference on Research Integration and Implementation held in Canberra in Australia, online and at three co-conferences (Lueneburg in Germany, The Hague in the Netherlands and Montevideo in Uruguay), 8-11 September 2013. The Microsoft PowerPoint presentation from the video below is available as a  PDF (700KB).

 

 

Reference: Eigenbrode, S. D., O’Rourke, M., Wulfhorst, J. D., Althoff, D. M., Goldberg, C. S., Merrill, K., Morse, W., Nielsen-Pincus, M., Stephens, J., Winowiecki, L. and Bosque-Pérez, N. A. (2007). Employing Philosophical Dialogue in Collaborative Science. BioScience, 57, 1: 55-64. Full text online at: https://i2s.anu.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/eigenbrodeetalbioscience.pdf (272KB).

Website: http://tdi.msu.edu

This tool is also included in the td-net Toolbox for Co-producing Knowledge featured elsewhere in i2S resources: https://i2s.anu.edu.au/resources/knowledge-coproduction-td-net-toolbox

Posted: May 2011
Last modified: September 2020