The Economy of Interdisciplinary Knowledge Transfer by Vannina Hofman, Jara Rocha and Josep Perelló

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From Disciplines to “Epistemic Zones of Action”

Official academic knowledge production is typically structured around the model of established disciplines. This model that became widespread in the 20th century focuses reality and analyses it, and as such it led to major advances both in scientific-technical disciplines in the “experimental sciences” and “natural sciences”, and in the humanities and social sciences.

In recent times, serious doubts have been raised about this model of knowledge production. One of the cases that led to this attitudinal change is the struggle against climate change, which requires a combination of disciplines ranging from physics to economics, in order to attack the problem through scientific knowledge. The scientific community is thus increasingly tending towards “problem-oriented-research”, and funding sources are valuing more highly interdisciplinary projects with different conceptual and methodological frameworks in which actors from outside the academy play key roles. But these inter-institutional, interdisciplinary practices generate tension within universities and research centres. And the tension is intensified even further when elements from outside the academic field, such as citizens for example, are added to this interdisciplinarity. Examples such as citizen science and the emerging transdisciplinarity in transformation sciences pose a challenge to existing channels of professional recognition, prestige, and legitimation, which are often insufficiently open to hybrid practices. Within the existing academic model, interdisciplinary (or transdisciplinary, or non-disicplinary) research is under pressure insofar as the criteria used to evaluate work and productivity are not appropriate to measure the time, effort, and processes required to generate new frameworks and methods. The tension between disciplinary and interdisciplinary interests can also be seen as a clash between two different types of capital, which Lisa Garforth and Ann Kerr (2011) have called “symbolic capital” and “scientific capital”, based on the Pierre Bourdieu’s earlier study Homo Academicus. Scientific capital has to do with disciplinarity, with the identity and evolution of disciplines, and to their assessment criteria, while symbolic capital is open towards models of interdisciplinary innovation.

Interdisciplinary research projects can only be successfully carried out if many diverse interests converge in them. We should aim towards using models that lessen the tension – although not necessarily the difference – between the different types of capital. Interdisciplinarity, of course, requires disciplines in order to exist. Disciplines, in the sense of accumulated knowledge capital and in the sense of sets of practices, cannot be eliminated from the outside. Only researchers working within the practices can blur their boundaries, build bridges, and expand territories. An interdisciplinary focus cannot be imposed. What can be done is suggest means to balance the tension between them, and generate catalysts for new models of knowledge production in the different stages pertaining to education processes.

One strategy for easing the tension of the disciplinary model with a view to expanding possible knowledge-production practices, which takes into account the permeable boundaries between different forms of knowledge and their heterogeneous sources, is to introduce the notion of practices into the heart of the apparently rigid structures of disciplines and the Academy. This generates dynamism and change in situations that seemed to be defined by pre-established limits. A notion that can be extremely useful in this sense is that of the “modes of extitutionalisation” that Daniel López (2014) works with, based on Michel Serres’ notion of extitutions, in as far as it allows us to question social organisations without first having to identifying them according to pre-established typologies.

The notion of “zone” can also provide a useful approach to studying the components and functioning of knowledge production: zones of contact and of contamination, time zones, language zones that entail a specific habitability and performativity, in which everything has be constructed, and where research action takes place. Underlying the term ‘zone’ there is also a less clearly-defined space with blurred boundaries, and the need to accept more vagueness in epistemic zones. It becomes easier to organise and communicate the ideas of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity if we imagine them not as closed, watertight spaces that have to be linked, but as interconnected zones, and as zones for knowledge production. They affect each other and are in turn affected. “Zooming” in and out even allows us to trance their coexistence, and as such their ecology, and the map the more obvious (or even the less obvious) connections in a research project or exploration. Similarly, intensifying the ideas of dynamism, process and construction, we can also think in terms of “action clusters”. Verbs.

Thinking in terms of epistemic zones changes our overall understanding of the relationships, trajectories, and mediations that emerge in interdisciplinary knowledge production projects. In regard to knowledge transfer, they allow us to question what is inside and what is outside (that which is unknown) and lead us to either make explicit or ignore that which is known. This approach leads us to question the role of technology in the change in participation structures, in the links between “inside” and “outside”, and in the capacity for diverse participation to promote a new kind of science. It requires us to accept that it is impossible to come up with certain answers unless we include or connect with other epistemic zones, and at the same time re-scales the knowledge/research outcomes with many-sided nuances depending on the zone from which the action is observed. It also allows us to go one step further and consider the possible implications of thinking in terms of connected-disconnected, instead of inside-outside, in an epistemic zone.

Thinking about the economy and interdisciplinary knowledge transfer in terms of epistemic zones and/or action clusters seeks to:

- Explicitly point out notions of inside and outside (known/unknown), instead of taking them for granted as immovable constructs. Reconfigure them, if possible, so as to move towards inclusive, rather than exclusive, territories.

- Develop situated knowledge about action clusters and dynamism.

- Detect the role of the strategies and technologies used to describe the boundaries and borders between inside and outside (or connected and disconnected).

- Include forms of knowledge that do not fit within disciplinary boundaries, on equal terms and with equal recognition.

- Visualise the circulation of different types of capital (and come up with an appropriate narrative) and their systems of legitimation. Set out the tensions and the conflicts that they may generate.

Review the specific conditions of possibility, temporalities, spaces, and trajectories of the different epistemic zones that come together in a specific project. Avoid automatically dragging in (pre)concepts learnt in the disciplinary framework, which may not be effective. In other words, recognise the limits disciplines, and accept the possibility of other forms of knowledge construction of other zones. This applies to knowledge production and also to knowledge dissemination, to the way in which the outcomes of the research results and processes will be shared (this point connects to the dissemination and transmission of outcomes).

Creating Community

“Community” here refers to the agents who participate in a specific interdisciplinary knowledge production program. It may be useful or even necessary to include both humans and non-humans in the notion of “community” that emerges in a project. It is important to carry out the research action through the creation of a community (ideally, not a pre-existing community).

The community itself defines new inside-outsides, different to the inside-outsides of its component parts, which may be more or less permeable and may vary over time (thinking in terms of connection-disconnection). As such, the idea is to create a diverse community that is prepared to share, and to reach consensus through action. The community must negotiate its own shared code of ethics, which can be renegotiated in the course of the project. This code of ethics should be appropriate to an interdisciplinary project, and may even end up becoming one of the outcomes of the project itself, rather than just a tool. A code of ethics will generate trust and safe spaces in which to take on and share the risks of any ambitious research project.

Communities may be temporary and circumstantial, but it may be interesting to consider how a particular community can continue to exist as such beyond the occasional convergence mediated by a shared interest in a specific project. Different types of capital will come into play within the community, and the expected benefits should be explicitly stated and negotiated.

A community may also come up with frameworks and tools for negotiating competencies with other parties, such as funding bodies for example. If we start thinking in terms of zones instead of disciplines, and instead of extitutionalisation instead of institutions, we can also appraise how these funding bodies, to continue with the same example, could become an “inside”, “connected”.

In terms of economy and transfer, community poses challenges such as:

- How to produce and sustain, with changes, the ethical ties that sustain it, with a view to developing a project and communicating it, or even going beyond this.

- Increasing the number of (heterogeneous) agents that make up the community, taking into account the expectations and potentialities of each.

Minkalab is an example of a community with continuity created through an interdisciplinary project. Minkalab is based in Columbia and connects very different types of knowledge from indigenous groups, farmers, Afro-Colombian communities, and creative young people in order to develop a stable social network to create opportunities and tackle issues of local priorities in areas such as traditional and contemporary technologies, sustainable agriculture, and others that emerge in the meetings. Minkalab began in 2013 and held its third meeting this year, which was funded through a series of crowdfunding campaigns. All its activities are recorded and distributed online, in video, text, and audio format. This means that the community has flexible boundaries, and includes those who physically attend the Minkalab meetings, participants in other parts of the worlds, crowdfunding patrons, and sponsors (such as the University of Caldas).

Interruption as Continuity

Our success-worshipping system does not leave much room for abandoned paths, for projects that do not attain their original objectives, for outmoded or untimely inventions. Many fields of knowledge, such as media archaeology, look back at the past in search of these cases, analyse them, and give them value, because they believe that “dead ends, losers, and inventions that never made it into a material product have important stories to tell” (Huhtamo & Parikka, 2011). Media archaeology attempts to create divergent histories that can transform the notion of history as linear progress. It recognises that research or inventions that do not appear to have been successful, or which were abandoned prematurely, may have influenced subsequent events. Or at least that acknowledging their existence can help us to construct a more complete and more complex history of socio-technical innovations, of the media, and also of art. The ongoing re-evaluation arising from the process-based dynamic of interdisciplinary projects generates spaces for reflection and renewal. For example, a community may decide to terminate the project during one of those self-valuation breaks, as long as the option was allowed for in the original negotiations. But does it make sense to simply throw away the whole process up to that point, so that the knowledge archaeologists of the future will have to reconstruct it? We need to find ways to represent and transfer knowledge related to a research project that is cut short, and to the processes leading to the termination of a project at different levels of the community and its boundaries. An unsuccessful project would then become a precedent for the community (if it continues to exist) and for other communities that try to follow similar paths. Some disciplinary traditions consider the documentation of “error” in a more positive light than others. Likewise, certain entrepreneurial sectors appear to consider the sum of previous failures to be a sine qua non for success. No matter what earlier attitudes exist, the possible interruption of the project and its conditions should ideally be placed on the table at the start of an interdisciplinary process.

An emblematic example when talking about complex systems is the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary research institute that employs very few permanent researchers, and where the first thing you are asked to do is to work in a field other then your own. This forced shift has generated supra-disciplinary methodologies, led to the application of certain disciplines in fields other than their own, and even to the invention of new disciplines. When terminating a project, it is important to consider certain aspects and the questions associated with them:

a) Interrumption followed by continuity with changes:

- Should the project be interrupted and totally discarded, or can it be recycled through some kind of “spin off”?

- Can the project be entirely or partially continued by another community?

- Can the project continue under other models (methodological and financing)?

b) Consensus:

- Is there an agreement in place about interrupting the project? Was it one of the possible scenarios negotiated at the start?

- What methods are to be used when deciding whether to interrupt and/or continue with alternatives?

c) Costs:

- Has the community considered how to manage the costs involved in an interruption?

- Even when a project has been interrupted, is funding available for dissemination of the process and its results, even if they were not the expected outcomes?

Dissent, Dissonance, and Conflicts

In communities working on interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary projects, dissent or disagreement are likely to emerge at different points during the working process. The management of this dissent may end up taking on different overtones and it may even become a powerful strategy for creation. Generating spaces in which dissent can become creative dissonance can be a good option for some communities. But badly managed dissent can also end up turning into conflicts, which may be impossible to resolve and end up destroying the project or affecting third parties “outside” the community.

Ensuring that there is transparency in regards to what different members of the community expect for the project, and planning spaces in which to manage dissent, can be useful strategies for transforming differences into opportunities. Another option is to create highly mutable zones or spaces in which a need arises from a particular challenge, different individuals come together, collaboration and participation takes place, and then the community is disbanded. In the context of citizen science or knowledge, for example, we can think about this action-based form of science or knowledge (more like a guerrilla than an army), which is more liquid and multifaceted. This approach can involve radical experimentation with high levels of risk, but shared risk. In these cases the idea is to generate conditions that allow intense experimentation, free and without protocols, and avoid recreating the kind of laboratory that disciplines generate through their protocols.


Ethics cut through all the different spheres of interdisciplinary knowledge production and transfer. It is perhaps one of the most complex aspects. At the very least, mutual respect would be expected from all those who participate in a community. And if we consider that the community is also made up of non-human elements, this includes respecting the objects, devices, and materials that we work with, are familiar with, and operate ourselves, and those that we don't. We could call this minimum requirement the “principle of symmetry”. Other levels can then be built on this symmetry, such as showing an interest in the work of others, the need to learn, pleasure, and so on. The effectiveness of the results from the point of view of the values and expectations of each participant, which may differ, is also important. Certain values should not dismiss or belittle others. The original transparency of the expectations of the people participating in a project is essential in this sense.

A project may affect other communities, beyond the community that generates it. Each project will be different in this sense, and some will have more implications than others. These implications should also be negotiated. In any event, it is essential to build a space of trust and reciprocity, in which to take risks and produce at the same time.

Transparency and Visualisation

Transparency during the different stages of the process makes it possible to detect potential disagreements before they become unsolvable conflicts. These can include different expectations in regard to the transfer of the results of the research, for example. Transparency in processes and decisions generates trust and strengthens the community. Likewise, being aware of the grounds on which decisions are made allows participants to question them. Transparency can help to mitigate conflict and allow for creative dissonance. Participants may even have different values, which do not necessarily have to be competing.

And just as transparency is key in terms of methods and sources of data, it is also essential to disclose results (and processes, were applicable). To share data.

Transparency in validation processes is invigorating. Open peer review is an example of a participatory model that allows for interdisciplinary research.

Cited Bibliography

Garforth, L., & Kerr, A. (2011). “Interdisciplinarity and the social sciences: capital, institutions and autonomy”. The British Journal of Sociology, 62(4), 657–676.

Huhtamo, E., & Parikka, J. (2011). Media Archaeology. Approaches, Applications and Implications. Berkeley & Los Angeles; London: University of California Press.

López, D. “No hay extitución sino modos de extitucionalización” published in Networks and Matters a blog on Actor-Network Theory and philosophical empirism, 07/08/2014 [Retrieved 17/04/2015]