Interdisciplinarity in the Making
Models and Methods in Frontier Science
- Long-listed for the Nayef Al-Rodhan book prize
A cognitive ethnography of how bioengineering scientists create innovative modeling methods.
In this first full-scale, long-term cognitive ethnography by a philosopher of science, Nancy J. Nersessian offers an account of how scientists at the interdisciplinary frontiers of bioengineering create novel problem-solving methods. Bioengineering scientists model complex dynamical biological systems using concepts, methods, materials, and other resources drawn primarily from engineering. They aim to understand these systems sufficiently to control or intervene in them. What Nersessian examines here is how cutting-edge bioengineering scientists integrate the cognitive, social, material, and cultural dimensions of practice. Her findings and conclusions have broad implications for researchers in philosophy, science studies, cognitive science, and interdisciplinary studies, as well as scientists, educators, policy makers, and funding agencies.
In studying the epistemic practices of scientists, Nersessian pushes the boundaries of the philosophy of science and cognitive science into areas not ventured before. She recounts a decades-long, wide-ranging, and richly detailed investigation of the innovative interdisciplinary modeling practices of bioengineering researchers in four university laboratories. She argues and demonstrates that the methods of cognitive ethnography and qualitative data analysis, placed in the framework of distributed cognition, provide the tools for a philosophical analysis of how scientific discoveries arise from complex systems in which the cognitive, social, material, and cultural dimensions of problem-solving are integrated into the epistemic practices of scientists. Specifically, she looks at how interdisciplinary environments shape problem-solving. Although Nersessian's case material is drawn from the bioengineering sciences, her analytic framework and methodological approach are directly applicable to scientific research in a broader, more general sense, as well.
“Nancy Nersessian's Interdisciplinarity in the Making is an original and important contribution to the epistemology of science. It explains how cognitive, social, cultural, and material factors work together (and sometimes pull apart) at the cutting edge of inquiry. It illustrates the ways scientists and engineers negotiate conceptual and methodological issues in devising models and methods that bridge disciplinary divides. Although Nersessian's method is ethnographic, Interdisciplinarity in the Making is no mere ethnography of scientific/engineering practice. For it also shows how norms, standards, and methods emerge and come to be justified through the process of inquiry. As a result, it shows why and to what extent it is reasonable to think that the fruits of such research are trustworthy.”
Catherine Z. Elgin, Professor of the Philosophy of Education, Harvard University
“This vibrant and meticulously crafted ethnographic account of science in the wild reveals how material and mental models of natural phenomena co-originate and become interactively coupled to generate an epistemic culture of warranted innovation that constructs interdisciplinary fields of endeavor. The investigation of research labs pursuing the emerging intersection of biology and engineering exposes the origins and subsequent evolution of model-based reasoning. Case histories reveal how model-based explanation is distributed across multiple scales of organization, agency, artifact, and time to 'interlock' diverse forms and functions of activity into the epistemic enterprise of science. Nersessian eschews traditional characterizations of STEM integration to focus instead on the critical role of cross-cutting 'epistemic virtues' as means for navigating the epistemic tensions that ineluctably arise in pursuit of interdisciplinary innovation. These virtues guide the design and initial implementation of new pedagogies of interdisciplinary that will be of significant interest to contemporary practitioners in K-16 STEM education.”
Richard Lehrer, Professor Emeritus, Vanderbilt University
“Effective interdisciplinarity is the Holy Grail of contemporary science, and this book is the ultimate guide to what interdisciplinarity actually means in practice. As a 'cognitive ethnographer' of bioengineers' practices of investigation and verification, Nersessian successfully harnesses insights from a vast array of disciplines to capture the intersections between cultural and cognitive aspects of scientific reasoning, modelling, and learning strategies. But she does not stop there: her rich findings ground a novel philosophy of interdisciplinarity, centered on research labs as distributed systems for problem solving. A must-read for anyone interested in understanding and supporting scientific research.”
Sabina Leonelli, Professor of Philosophy and History of Science, University of Exeter
The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding and support from MIT Press Direct to Open