Disciplinary capture and epistemological obstacles to interdisciplinary research: Lessons from central African conservation disputes

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 56:82-91 (2016)
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Complex environmental problems require well-researched policies that integrate knowledge from both the natural and social sciences. Epistemic differences can impede interdisciplinary collaboration, as shown by debates between conservation biologists and anthropologists who are working to preserve biological diversity and support economic development in central Africa. Disciplinary differences with regard to 1) facts, 2) rigor, 3) causal explanation, and 4) research goals reinforce each other, such that early decisions about how to define concepts or which methods to adopt may tilt research design and data interpretation toward one discipline’s epistemological framework. If one of the contributing fields imposes a solution to an epistemic problem, this sets the stage for what I call disciplinary capture. Avoiding disciplinary capture requires clear communication between collaborators, but beyond this it also requires that collaborators craft research questions and innovate research designs which are different from the inherited epistemological frameworks of contributing disciplines.

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Evelyn Brister
Rochester Institute of Technology


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