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What is the difference between inter- and multidisciplinarity? Knowledge integration. But what is knowledge integration? That what distinguishes interdisciplinarity from multidisciplinarity. Put like this, such circular reasoning is easily exposed and problematized. Yet it is surprisingly common in talking and writing about interdisciplinarity and knowledge integration. Or maybe not so surprising…  Considering the struggle, also in the academic literature, to define or understand what knowledge integration is.

There are ample metaphors that can be very useful to open up a conversation about knowledge integration. But can we also gain more understanding about what knowledge integration is or can be, and how it comes about? Insight into the mechanisms underlying knowledge integration may help create conditions that increase the chances of those ‘mysterious events’ occurring.

With these questions in mind, CUCo, in collaboration with UU researcher Annemarie Horn, recently brought together the UCo and Spark teams in two events. These co-learning events were aimed at fostering reflection and peer learning on knowledge integration practices.

Ingredients for integration: inputs, process, outputs 

We acknowledge that integration is very much an open-ended and emergent process, and that it is thus not possible to provide a ‘recipe’ for successful integration. But we set out to explore some of its ‘ingredients’ with the experts from practice from the UCo and Spark teams. In doing so, we distinguished between the inputs, processes, and outputs of integration. Starting out from moments of disagreement, conflict, misunderstanding or surprise, we tried to unpack some of the ingredients that feature into those moments.

Considering inputs, we looked at what UCo and Spark teams integrate, e.g. disciplinary perspectives represented in the team and  ‘elements’ that are the subject of integration, such as data, concepts, theories, methods or insights. But for instance, also which disciplinary perspectives feature into a team and how disciplinary diversity affects integration and collaboration. 

In terms of the process of integration, we among others explored who is doing the integration. Is an insight integrated unilaterally into another discipline, or is the integration more of a mutual process? If it happens bilaterally instead, does it happen between two or more members of an interdisciplinary research team, or with the entire team? And who puts in the effort to integrate perspectives – is it a collective responsibility of the team, or are there (designated) individuals with the task of knowledge integration?

Finally, considering outputs, we explored what kind of integrative relations emerge, e.g. comparison, combination, consensus, reconceptualization in the unusual collaborations of UCo and Spark teams.

Takeaways: learning to cook

While it’s too early to tell if these ingredients are a useful way of looking at knowledge integration practices, the prompts certainly helped members from different teams to share reflections and led to rich conversations. Although we cannot share a recipe for knowledge integration, the current experiences provide some insights on how we may learn to engage in these elusive processes, and thus maybe learn to ‘cook’. We share a few preliminary takeaways.

Our first takeaway is that growing our sensibilities to recognize moments in which knowledge integration might be happening, could be helpful in increasing the chances of it occurring. Potent spotlights of recognizing key moments for integration proved to be moments at which team members experienced discomfort, when there was a misunderstanding and possibly a miscommunication about the meaning of key concepts, but also when there were sparks of energy or when the project took an abrupt turn to take another focus or approach. 

A second takeaway is the value of reflecting on the design of collaborative research for integration upfront. Multiple UCo and Spark team members shared that there is often limited time for reflection when we are busy in their day to day work. But once we slow down for a moment and sit down to think, interesting observations surface: looking back at their processes so far, the UCo and Spark teams reported that they could recognize key moments, patterns or dynamics, while they were often not actively designed as such. For instance, when reflecting on disciplinary diversity – in terms of number of disciplines, disciplinary distance, and disciplinary distribution – the team members experienced this to affect collaboration in their practices. They suggested that this could possibly already be taken along in  project design stage to aid the integration processes in subsequent execution of the research. 

A third and last takeaway is the tension we experienced by focusing on disciplines in order to address interdisciplinarity. How can we discuss disciplines and disciplinary grounding, while avoiding that we essentialize disciplines? On the one hand what sets us apart is key to the premise of interdisciplinarity, on the other,  we also want to focus on what we have in common. How do we hit a middle ground between difference and similarity? How can we acknowledge that we are all grounded in fields of knowledge and there’s value in that diversity of expertise, without essentializing differences between disciplines or type casting their representatives? 

The insights from these events will help us shape a dynamic learning agenda for 2024 to further the understanding of and support for the mysterious process of knowledge integration.

Anke de Vrieze and Annemarie Horn