Thursday, February 13, 2014

Rhoten (2004) - Interdisciplinary Research: Trend or Transition

About the Author
Diana Rhoten is currently a board member at the Institute of Play and Chief Strategy Officer at Amplify Education. She has degrees in International Relations, International Education, and Sociology. Her PhD. is in International and Comparative Education. She’s held many positions over the years, including work in education policy and as an associate professor. At the time this article was published (2004), Rhoten was the Founder/Director of the Knowledge Institutions Program at the Social Science Research Council. More information on her career can be found at LinkedIn (where she consulted for 5 months):

Research Question
Rhoten begins her report with a discussion of consilience, defined by E.O. Wilson as the “‘jumping together of knowledge’ across disciplines ‘to create a common groundwork of explanation’” (Rhoten 2004, 6). Proponents of interdisciplinary research claim that consilience leads to “critical breakthroughs” in science, and that the traditional nature of research (described here as “homogenous, disciplinary, hierarchical”) is transitioning to a new, interdisciplinary mode (“heterogeneous, interdisciplinary, horizontal, fluid”). This group is opposed by those who see no such change in universities and the academic community. Rhoten seeks to understand how interdisciplinary research is being performed, how how various structures are supporting or implementing it.

Data and Methods
This report is the result of an NSF funded investigation of six interdisciplinary research centers and/or programs. Rhoten claims that this work is one of the first (or at least the few) such empirical studies. Research took place over 18 months (Jan 2002-June 2003), and included both network analysis and ethnographic fieldwork. This was accomplished through a combination of a census (73% response rate) and site visits to five of the six research centers (with a total of 13 interviews). Research centers were all funded under the same National Science Foundation portfolio, although they differed in a variety of ways (size, structure, research, etc). 

It seems to Rhoten that the interdisciplinary model preached in university and researcher rhetoric is not a reality. Despite new labels and collaborative titles, researchers appear to be working in isolation from each other in the majority of cases, and structures of research are not being reorganized. This failure was attributed to three factors by her informants, summarized in Figure 1, based on Huy and Mintzber’s triangle of change (9):

Rhoten finds no lack of extrinsic attention or intrinsic motivation, with several examples cited. She instead sees fault in the systemic implementation of interdisciplinary structures, or indeed lack there of. There is interdisciplinary rhetoric (in all three areas), without real or effective reform. Research centers are “loosely connected individuals searching for intersections, not cohesive groups tackling well-defined problems.” Despite the availability of funding and researcher motivation to collaborate, science is (still) becoming increasingly specialized.

Rhoten suggests the following changes:
  1. Research centers require independent physical locations and “intellectual direction” separate from departments. These centers should be well funded (although from her results this doesn’t seem like an issue for concern).
  2. Researchers should be chosen based on how they can contribute to a center’s specific principles or purpose (described by Rhoten as problems, products, or projects).
  3. Although the centers should not be a temporary organization, researchers should be transient (depending on center/project needs).
  4. The academic community should not expect outcomes to follow traditional forms.
  5. Centers should recruit individuals who fit the roles of “stars” and “connectors,” and these are not always the same person. Universities should train graduate students to fit these roles. Graduate students should not only be experts in the discipline where they receive training, but should also learn the skills required for working across disciplines.

Rhoten ends her article with this inflammatory statement: “The universities that successfully reform themselves to meet the challenges presented by ID research will find themselves at the center of what some observers liken to a second scientific revolution. Those who fail will find themselves watching from the sidelines” (11).

Discussion Questions

  1. Is Rhoten’s vision achievable? Desirable?
  2. Rhoten doesn’t question the view that interdisciplinarity is important and possible. She defines interdisciplinarity (in the endnotes) as collaborative teamwork achieved through the integration of different methods or concepts (as I read it, disciplines). Would her interpretation change with a different definition of interdisciplinarity? How does multidisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity fit in her vision?
  3. Who are “stars” and who are “connectors”? How does each participate in the research center as imagined by Rhoten? How might each be rewarded in both the traditional academic structure and the future structure advocated for here? Are they they only members (besides administration) of research centers?
  4. At both the beginning and conclusion of her report, Rhoten suggests that the work of Watson and Crick is the ultimate example of interdisciplinary work leading to important “breakthroughs.” Are they the “stars” or the “connectors”? What role did Maurice Wilkins play? Rosalind Franklin?
  5. Did Rhoten collaborate on this paper (the political ‘we’ is used throughout, but she is sole author of the paper)? What role did the members of the Hybrid Vigor Institute play, as they don’t seem to be acknowledged directly? Is Rhoten a “star” or a “connector”?
  6. Do you feel like there was adequate data collection? Would her findings change if she included academic departments or the private sector in her analysis?
Without knowing too much about how interdisciplinary research centers are structured, I like many aspects of Rhoten's suggested reform. It seems like a research center gathered around a unifying problem would be more effective than one organized under broad goals. The idea that researchers should be allowed flexibility to move on from research centers once their specific contributions have been made is also appealing. However, there seem to be many invisible faces in Rhoten's vision. She mentions in passing that one research center had undergraduate students, and it seems that others must have graduate students. I'm not sure that a strictly organized and ever-changing environment is necessarily conducive to quality graduate and undergraduate training. The model proposed here certainly favors research over teaching, which seems to be a remnant from the traditional academic structure otherwise rejected. In addition, I find the categories of "stars" and "connectors" to be deeply troubling. It's very possible that I'm bringing my own bias to my understanding of these terms, but it seems like connectors will be disenfranchised in this model, even if the old standards of the academic community are left behind in the transition. Will the invisible faces of the research centers be pushed ever deeper into obscurity? Are graduate students identified as and trained to be "connectors" have the same employment and tenure opportunities as "stars"? How would each type of person be identified, if the qualities cannot always be combined in one individual? I can't help but feel like this is an unethical approach to graduate education.

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