Accepted paper:

To collaborate interdisciplinarily but work disciplinarily? Trading zone and the cognitive dynamics of interdisciplinary collaboration


Lianghao Dai (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)

Paper short abstract:

This paper investigates a key tension between working independently and interdependently in interdisciplinary teams. A clear division of labor that turns research problems that require heterogeneous academic expertise partially into homogeneous questions using single disciplinary means is found.

Paper long abstract:

This paper investigates a key tension in interdisciplinary collaborative research, i.e., the tension between working independently with discipline-bounded expertise and working interdependently in a collaborative team with heterogeneous knowledge and methods in order to solve a common research question. Based on a case study of a huge research group of biologists, statisticians and physicists in a German university, this paper focuses on the mechanism of research collaboration that involves not only established scholars but also junior researchers (e.g. doctoral students and junior post-docs). By using cognitive mapping method and by treating the quadruple-people interaction (consisting of one advanced researcher and one junior researcher for each of the two participating disciplines) as a minimum ideal type, this research analyzes three distinct ways of interpersonal interactive. It is found that the dynamics of these interactions can be regarded as a 'trading zone', in which resources, time and knowledge are being exchanged and integrated. In such a zone, the epistemological and theoretical discussions between advanced researchers are clearly separated from the technological and specific operations between junior researchers. Such a clear division of labor has been found as a key to unlocking the interdisciplinary tension. In so doing, a difficult research problem that requires heterogeneous academic expertise can be partially turned into a set of simplified and homogeneous questions using single disciplinary means. Thus the transaction costs in the interdisciplinary collaboration have been successfully decreased.

panel C11
Scientific meetings across disciplinary boundaries