Robert Frodeman on Gabriele Bammer: Disciplining Interdisciplinarity: Integration and Implementation Sciences for Researching Complex Real-World Problems

Bammer, Gabriele. Disciplining Interdisciplinarity: Integration and Implementation Sciences for Researching Complex Real-World Problems. Canberra: Australian National University E Press, 2013. http://epress.anu.edu.au/titles/disciplining-interdisciplinarity. xxiv + 472 pp. E-Book ISBN: 9781922144287.

Gabriele Bammer has recently offered a book length account describing the process of creating a discipline of interdisciplinarity – titled, aptly enough, Disciplining Interdisciplinarity (ANU Press, 2103). Her goal is laudable. She asks: “How can academic research enhance its contributions to addressing widespread poverty, global climate change, organized crime, escalating healthcare costs or the myriad other major problems facing human societies?” Her answer: through the development of a method for combining disciplines for problem solving:

there is no substantial, well-established, internationally accepted methodology. There are no standard procedures for deciding, for example, which disciplines to include, what each discipline will contribute or how the different findings will be melded together (Bammer, 2013).

Bammer suggests that the field of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) could function as a discipline on the model of statistics.

In an advance over others, Bammer recognizes that this project calls for both theoretical and institutional elements. Theoretically, I2S consists of an intellectual architecture of three ‘domains’ combined with a five question framework. The three domains consist of

  • Synthesizing disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge,
  • Understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and
  • Providing integrated research support for policy and practice change.

These domains are then framed by five questions:

  1. What is the integrative applied research aiming to achieve and who is intended to benefit?
  2. What is the integrative applied research dealing with—that is, which knowledge is synthesized, unknowns considered and aspects of policy and practice targeted?
  3. How is the integrative applied research undertaken (the knowledge synthesized, diverse unknowns understood and managed, and integrated research support provided), by whom and when?
  4. What circumstances might influence the integrative applied research?
  5. What is the result of the integrative applied research?

Like William Newell, Allen Repko, and others, Bammer pursues the goal of identifying a uniform set of questions applicable to every interdisciplinary situation. But she matches her theoretical account with a call for a worldwide, Manhattan Project or Human Genome Project-level effort to collect and collate information on thousands of interdisciplinary research projects, looking for “concepts, methods and case examples.”

One would expect positive results from such an endeavor – if Bammer and colleagues can get it off the ground. But the source of its value is unlikely to reside where she thinks. Rather than in the development of an interdisciplinary methodology, its value will more likely come from the sharing of a wealth of particular insights and rules of thumb that have developed in a piecemeal manner.

There is another, non-methodological way to approach interdisciplinarity. Martin Heidegger shows us the way here. Heidegger goes largely unappreciated as a thinker of interdisciplinarity, even though much of his œuvre in effect functions as a critique of disciplinarity. On Heidegger’s account, a methodology is the last thing you want in the search for truth – a point that analytic philosophers of science have come around to, having mostly given up on identifying a scientific method.

Heidegger sees the application of a methodology is a kind of theoretical brutality where we disregard the individuality of an event. The imposition of a method forces a given situation to live up to a pre-established standard rather than allowing the situation to suggest its own standard for evaluation. Methodism thus fundamentally misunderstands the nature of thinking, which is at root a kind of questioning. “Words are not terms, and thus are not like buckets and kegs from which we scoop a content that is not there. Words are wellsprings that must be found and dug up again and again, that easily cave in, but that at times also well up when least expected.”

Perhaps, in a given situation, the political stakes are particularly high. Perhaps a great deal is at stake in terms of cost or environmental protection. Perhaps a cultural legacy is at risk, or the matter is particularly religiously fraught. Lists like Bammer’s or Newell’s – for Newell, ‘defining the problem’, and ‘determining which disciplines have relevant information’ – are not pointless; addressing a problem will require moments of introspection on topics such as those he lists. But someone who seeks to promote an interdisciplinary perspective on a problem needs to be able to do more than list propositions. The project of creating a discipline of interdisciplinarity, with its accompanying dependence on a rigorous methodology, brings too much theoretical firepower to our problems. Interdisciplinary success is more a matter of practicing a set of virtues — openness to new perspectives, a willingness to admit the inadequacies of one’s own point of view, to be wrong and to play the fool, and generosity in interpreting the position and motives of others.

Robert Frodeman
University of North Texas