Interdisciplinary Collaborations as Trading Zones

University of Luxembourg | March 21, 2017
Groningen University (Slides in PDF)


  • About me
  • What is an academic discipline
  • What is interdisciplinarity
  • Trading zones
  • Practicing trading zones
  • Conclusions

About me

  • BSc Cognitive Artificial Intelligence (Utrecht University 2006-2009)
  • MSc Information Science (Utrecht University 2009-2011)
  • Junior researcher History department (Erasmus University Rotterdam 2011-2014)
  • PhD Candidate History department/Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (University of Luxembourg 2014-present)

Twitter: @MaxKemman


About my PhD

Digital History as methodological interdisciplinarity: using tools, methods, and concepts from other disciplines to the benefit of historical research (Klein 2014)

Alignment of scholarly values with digital technology as two-way street:

  • The tool needs to fit the practices (social shaping)
  • The practices need to fit the tools (technological determinism)

Other interests

  • Google Scholar
  • Open access, open data
  • Digital libraries: linked data
  • Artificial Intelligence

What is an academic discipline?

What makes your discipline a discipline?

How is it different from Computer Science?

Why did you choose this discipline?

Becher & Parry (2005) The Endurance of the Disciplines

Disciplines can be described according to 2 aspects: cognitive & social

Cognitive aspect

  • Subject - 'a particular, restricted aspect of reality' (Whitley 1974)
  • Techniques of enquiry
  • Methods
  • Resources
  • "Sustain an active and reasonably well-organised research frontier or pattern of conceptual development"

Social aspect

  • Incorporation within a typical academic organisation
  • Shared set of cultural values
  • Recognition by the Academy at large
  • Journals, conferences, associations

Sugimoto & Weingart (2015) The kaleidoscope of disciplinarity

  • Cognitive
  • Social
  • Communicative (discourse)
  • Separatedness (boundary work)
  • Tradition
  • Institutional


Technical terminology per field:

  • Hermeneutics
  • Annotation
  • Query
  • Event


Becher (1987) Disciplinary discourse

Praising peers

  • History: scholarly, original, rigorous, stimulating, well-written
  • Sociology: rigorous, stimulating, persuasive, powerful, perceptive
  • Physics: elegant, economical, productive

Criticising peers

  • History: thin, 'sound', sloppy, jargon-ridden
  • Sociology: anecdotal, contentious
  • Physics: sloppy, 'accurate', 'rigorous'


Gieryn (1983) Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science

Boundary work: defining a disciplinary field by contrasting it with other fields

Just as readers come to know Holmes better through contrasts to his foil Watson, so does the public better learn about "science" through contrasts to "non-science."
P. 791

Limitations of concept of 'discipline'

Is Digital History a disciplinary activity?

  • No room for different practices within a single department
  • No room for people from outside university

Communities of Practice

  • Mutual engagement (involving regular interaction).
  • Joint negotiated enterprise (mutual goal and accountability).
  • Shared repertoire of negotiable resources (such as jargon and practices).

(Wenger, 1998)


  • No room for non-human engagement

Epistemic Cultures

[T]hose sets of practices, arrangements and mechanisms bound together by necessity, affinity and historical coincidence which, in a given area of professional expertise, make up how we know what we know
Knorr Cetina (2007)


Disciplines demarcate a group of peers, concerned with specific techniques, and subjects

More flexible concepts are "community of practice" or "epistemic culture"

Why would we want to be interdisciplinary?

Wanneer er reden is om verschillende disciplines te onderscheiden ... is er tevens reden ze niet met elkaar te vermengen
Ankersmit (1983)

What is interdisciplinarity?

Did any of you follow courses from other disciplines? Why?

What are limitations of your discipline?

Multi, Inter, Trans

Choi & Pak (2006) Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in health research, services, education and policy

  • Multi-: "draws on knowledge from different disciplines but stays within the boundaries of those fields" (additive)
  • Inter-: "analyzes, synthesizes and harmonizes links between disciplines into a coordinated and coherent whole" (interactive)
  • Trans-: "integrates the natural, social, and health sciences in a humanities context, and in so doing transcends each of their traditional boundaries" (holistic)

A case for transdisciplinarity

Gibbons (1994) The New Production of Knowledge

Mode 1: complex of ideas, methods, values, norms, and ensure "compliance with what is considered sound scientific practice"

Mode 1 Mode 2
  • Problems are solved within academic context and interests of the community
  • Disciplinary
  • Homogeneous
  • Hierarchical, tends to preserve its form
  • Problems are solved within context of application
  • Transdisciplinary
  • Heterogeneous
  • Heterarchical and transient
  • + More socially accountable and reflexive

Challenges to practicing interdisciplinarity

Let's view interdisciplinary per the typology of Becher & Parry (2005)

Cognitive challenges

  • Subject - 'a particular, restricted aspect of reality' (Whitley 1974)
  • Techniques of enquiry
  • Methods
  • Resources
  • "Sustain an active and reasonably well-organised research frontier or pattern of conceptual development"

Social challenges

  • Incorporation within a typical academic organisation
  • Shared set of cultural values
  • Recognition by the Academy at large
  • Journals, conferences, associations

"What do you call a grad student without a supervisor: Interdisciplinary." - @ChadGaffield
(via @AcademicsSay)


Interdisciplinarity is interesting, but not the easiest route to take

To be truly interdisciplinary, need coordination

Trading Zones

[A]n arena in which radically different activities could be locally, but not globally, coordinated
Galison (1996)

Local vs global?

The assumption is that the different communities in this 'arena' cannot coordinate actions on a global scale

Why not? For example, why can't history and computer science do that?

  • Ideas of what is interesting
  • Values of what is important
  • Jargon
  • Communication (e.g., publications)

Global incommensurability

Cannot judge one discipline in the terminology of another

No neutral ground on which to compare the two

Local coordination

Define common goals

Create a shared language: pidgin/creole

Establish shared practices?

Acculturation & Dimensions

[T]he process by which the beliefs and practices of one community diffuse across the boundaries of another and subsequently alter the second community's practices and interpretations
Barley (1988)
  • Contact & Participation
  • Cultural maintenance
  • Coercion

Collins et al (2007) Trading zones and interactional expertise

What kind of trading zones do we see with Digital History?

Homogeneous Heterogeneous
Collaboration Digital History as inter-language
- A new discipline?
- McCarty (2005)
Digital History as fractioned trading zone
- A dual citizenship for practioners and research objects?
- Svensson, Klein, Hunter, Rieder & Röhle
Coercion Digital History as subversive
- Historians assuming the practice
of Computer Science, but not the expertise (or vice versa)?
Digital History as enforced
- A power struggle of who decides what the digital technology will do?
- Mounier (2015)

Problem: DH discussed as a homogeneous phenomenon, a single trading zone

Fractioned trading zones

Commonly assumed the category of digital humanities TZ

Two different types: boundary objects and interactional expertise

Boundary objects

[O]bjects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual site use.
Star & Griesemer (1989)

Related to the earlier mentioned pidgin

Interactional expertise

Evans & Collins (2010) describe 3 forms of expertise:

  1. No expertise
  2. Interactional expertise
  3. Contributory expertise

Both types of experts share the same social environment

Interactional experts can share the discussion, but not add in practice

Imitation Game

Contact & Participation

  • Digital History as collaboration with (a.o.) computer scientists
  • Digital History as end-users of tools
  • Digital History as building tools independently
  • Project
  • Lab
  • International network
  • THATCamp

Different forms of interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinarity can then occur on several levels:

  • Contact between different disciplines
  • Individuals taking methods, concepts, tools from other disciplines
  • Within a discipline focused around a subject, with different methods/concepts around it
    When is a discipline?


Global incommensurability between disciplines

Within trading zones: local coordination

Acculturation: what happens when you are long enough in a TZ?

Practicing Trading Zones

Sit in groups of 4, with people from different backgrounds

Discuss the following questions

  • What do you understand by data?
  • What is evidence?
  • Can research be objective?
  • What are questions you can ask to distinguish an expert from non-expert in your discipline?

Conclusions (last time)

Academia structured into disciplines

Interdisciplinary research promising for engaging with a subject from different perspectives, but not easy

Within interdisciplinary contact, trading zones form to coordinate language and practices

Trading zones can either take the form of:

  • A new field/discipline
  • A fractioned zone with people from different disciplines collaborating
  • One discipline assuming the practices of another
  • A power struggle of who gets to decide what to do


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