Conditions for the application and performance of supradisciplinary research projects

Philipp Balsiger

ISSC Workshop, BBAW. Berlin, 14-15 March 2002

1. Introduction

Since the late 1980s persons interested in the development of Science could and still can follow an increasing debate about different forms of research. Most of these forms in discussion are characterized by their common need of transgressing disciplinary boundaries to solve given scientific problems. Such forms have been seriously developing at least since the late 50s (e.g.(Luszki 1958)), even if we can find some early discussions already in the 1920s. For more historical details see also Weingart/Stehr "Practising Interdisciplinarity" (2000).

Without specially focussing on this point, I would mention the environmental debate in the late 1970s and the 1980s as one of the key issues leading to a certain public awarness of such forms of research. The reason for my argument is, that with the environmental debate, the intention of a more holistic approach, quite programmatically formulated in the so-called students movement of the late 1960s, got its scientific counterpart in research. Hence it switched from an ideological claim to a scientific necessity.

Even if an observing outsider could now easily get the idea that research in general, was and still is nothing but predominantly performed by transgressing disciplinary boundaries, he may rest assured that this is not the case. I do agree with Peter Weingart and Nico Stehr that today we seem to have a sort of a break up of formerly strong disciplinary fields, but I would argue that this is only the case if you are looking at science as a specific institutional expression of society. If on the other side you are focusing on the act of performing scientific processes you will find that in most cases Imre Lakatosā research program is still a valid description of what in fact is going on.

2. Terminological assumption

Most of the time the term "interdisciplinary" is used in a general and rather unspecific way. Julie Klein Thompson does point it out when she mentions that asking three researcher what, for them, "interdisciplinarity" means, one will get three different answers which do not necessarily coincide . To avoid such troubles my colleague Rudolf Koetter and I suggested that it would be more sophisticated to reserve the term of "Interdisciplinarity" for a very specific and clearly defined use. Instead of using this term as a sort of label and therefore handling with some semantic ambiguities, we suggest the term of "supradisciplinary scientific practice" as a collective term for all such forms of scientific collaborations where the field of a single discipline is transgressed.

Any form of unspecified collaboration will be called multidisciplinary. The term interdisciplinary will only be used for such forms of supradisciplinary collaboration where various disciplines, keeping their own autonomy (i.e. without becoming a serving discipline), solve a given problem which cannot be solved by one discipline alone, in a joint way. As soon as a given problem raises from outside of the scientific context and it has to be solved in form of a joint collaboration between scientists and practioners the terminological suggestion is to use the term transdisciplinarity. But there is a special danger which has to be taken in consideration. Transdisciplinary projects should not be loaded down with tasks which do not belong to the scientific context. In no way can the implementation of suggested solutions into practice be carried out by science as a substitute for practice. If this occurs there is a definite danger of science drifting into ideology.

The netherlands Associate professor for Ethics and Engineering, Henk Zandvoort also focused on the methodological collaboration outlined, in a paper of note published in 1995, in which he concentrated primarily on ecological research. In his opinion, scientific disciplines, in an interdisciplinary research project-group are related in a so-called "interactive model." There is no strict hierarchical relationship between the participating disciplines in a model of this type but merely a "guide-supply-relationship." This means that in the "guide-mode," a discipline formulates a task, which is adopted and dealt with by another discipline which is claimed to be the "supply-mode."


"The cooperative development of research programmes comes about in the following way. Some of the research programmes do not define their own primary problems. Instead, they aim at solving problems arising in and defined by other research programmes. The latter programmes may not themselves have the (efficient) means to solve those problems. The programmes generating the problems I have called 'guide programmes,' because they act as guides for the programmes that aim at solving those problems. The latter programmes I have called 'supply programmes,' because, when successful, they satisfy the needs of the other programme." (Zandvoort 1995, 53).

This means, in particular, that abstract descriptions which arise from the perspective of a discipline that is actually in the "guide-mode" have to be concretized in such a way that new tasks are created for disciplines in the "supply-mode." It is then decisive from our point of view that both the direction in which the abstraction is to be put into concrete form as well as the other disciplines can only be gained by means of the initial nature of the problem. A serving relationship differs from a guide-supply-relationship, for in the latter the discipline is not and does not remain solely responsible for the treatment of a given problem but merely takes over the additional task of distributing complementary research. Even if one discipline is especially recommended as the first partner in the treatment of a problem, such as climatology and the carbondioxide problem, that problem will be developed by consulting further disciplines. Finally, there must be a guarantee enabling the guide-supply-relationship to change during the execution of the project, which will never be the case in a serving relationship.

This is then the keystone of the problem of interdisciplinaritary. An interdisciplinary research combination only attains a unique position amongst all disciplinary research if it is based on a well-defined problem which interrelates various research programs. A problem needs a solution which forces various scientific disciplines to collaborate in a specific way. In contrast, a thematic topic only needs to be treated and the various forms of treatment considered. Nor is there a priori any need for interrelationship between these forms. Therefore, the decisive step to successful interdisciplinary collaboration is carried out through the formulation of a structural description of the given problem. It can be seen in a description of this nature:

  • (a) that the given problem cannot be handled by one discipline alone, and
  • (b) what expectations each discipline has in regard to the contributions of other disciplines towards solving the given problem (i.e. which guide-supply-relationships exist between the participating disciplines).

In order that common ground is found for structural descriptions of this type, the above mentioned expectations have to be adopted and accepted in a natural way. This means in particular that a common language for describing the presentation of the problem and its results needs to be agreed upon and that those specific heuristics, which in any discipline are needed to distinguish the scientific problems have to be explained.

3. An epistemological differentiation implying terminological consequences

The fact that interdisciplinary research is only successful if it is based on and driven by a concrete problem is greatly underestimated in research practice. The reason that a lot of so-called interdisciplinary projects end up unsatisfactorily, that scientists are disappointed and turn away from projects like this or start to deal with interdisciplinarity only in an opportunistic manner, as was indicated at the beginning, is due to the fact that most of these projects begin research without an established goal. One believes that a scientific problem has been labeled, when at the very most only the outline of a theme has been formulated.

The term "problem-oriented research" was introduced by the Belgian philosopher of science, Pierre de Bie in 1970. However, de Bie's terminological solution focused on a type of practice which today could be best described as transdisciplinary (see de Bie 1973, 9). Added to this, the terminology I presented in this text will only help differentiating the various forms of scientific research. The essential differences are a close form of collaboration defined by the relationship of a problem and an open form which is guided by a theme. By formulating a theme the conceptual frame is set, inside of which scientists dealing with the theme are free in the formulation of their own concrete scientific problems. All contributions then will be taken as elements of a set, which is bounded by the theme, but they don't need to show any closer relations among each other. One can work on themes but they will not be solved.

A problem needs a solution and by posing a problem the expectations and criteria are delivered, which a good solution has to meet. Every step in a problem oriented research regarding its content or its organizational framework has to contribute to the solution of the problem.

4. Final remark

Supradisciplinary research in comparison with disciplinary research is not that different that it merits a label as "mode 2". Such a label can easily contribute to the emergence of the idea that science is developing in a new direction. But concerning to my observations this is wrong. The remark Sheila Jasanoff made yesterday about the IPCC and climate change in general may be seen as a certain proof for this thesis. The development indicated by Nowotny et al. and others may be valid for institutions but not really for the process of research itself.

If one looks at the processes as they are performed in research he will see that they usually follow the description we got from Imre Lakatos: There is a hard core which we are not allowed to attack, there exist positive and negative heuristics which both direct the way research can be done! This is not only valid for disciplinary but also for supradisciplinary research as well.

5. Bibliography

Luszki, M. B. (1958). Interdisciplinary Team Research. Methods and Problems. o.A., New York University Press.

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