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A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the College of Natural Science Michigan State University

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Science


David Gordon Gossman

June 1979



A great deal has been written concerning the problems involved in specialization and the need for interdisciplinary research. The difficulties involved in initiating interdisciplinary research have also been written about. Very little, however, has been presented to try and solve these interdisciplinary research problems. What follows is a general synopsis of this literature.


The Problem of Specialization. Most scientists have knowledge and expertise in only one or two very deep and narrow fields of specialization. Because of this narrowness, the specialized scientist will be prone to waste time, energy, and resources on projects which have been rendered obsolete by advances in other fields.

In addition, Wren-Lewis(4) adds that: "Narrow specialists are liable to be able to envisage only the most pedestrian solutions to the problems they are working on." This seems to be not only a result of narrowness of knowledge but also because specialists seem to become restricted to the paradigm of their discipline. In fact history shows that narrow specialized training leads to scientific dogmatism, as much as the concept of "scientific dogmatism" seems to be a contradiction of terms.

The scientist's need for communication. Scientists spend a great deal of their time and effort communicating facts and ideas. This comes as a result of the increasingly larger amounts of information produced by scientific research. Observation indicates that modern scientists spend as much as, if not more than, 90% of their professional time communicating, either through the written or spoken word. Research has shown that of this time spent communicating, approximately 50% is spent reading and writing journal articles and 50% in personal conversations.

Kolb(5) has presented a model, shown in Figure II-1 , of learning/problem solving which fits quite well with both the general psychology of scientists and this observation concerning communication. The scientist spends most of this energy in the (OR) and (AG) portions of this model. It is also easy to see that these two areas will demand a great deal of effective communication. It should be noticed that this model is very simplistic and is provided here for background purposes only.


The communication problems of the specialist. There are two primary reasons that a specialist may have problems with the greatly needed communication in which he must participate. The first is that scientists and engineers are generally not formally trained in communication skills. There has been an increase in the number of courses geared towards training the scientist to write effective journal articles, but relatively little attention has been paid to increasing personal communication skills.

The other reason involves the basic psychology of the scientist. Scientists (with notable exception of some social scientists) are generally "idea" rather than "people" oriented. This is an additional stumbling block for the specialists to overcome in their quest for information. Sanders(6) sums up this position quite well.

"The typical scientist or engineer has, for every purpose but those of his own specialty, an average, or perhaps below average, ability to communicate."

My own experience indicates that even within a particular discipline scientists are not particularly adept at interpersonal communication.

The formulation of specialized languages. The formulation of specialized languages or dialects within individual disciplines and specialties is a well known phenomena which most researchers are aware of. According to Grupp(7) and Heidor: "Specialized vocabularies have developed because of the intrinsic nature of science...Labeling of new territory is essential." They then go further to make some observations of how these vocabularies develop. "Specialized disciplinary vocabularies are a product of the mechanics of communication as well as the distinguishing characteristics of the discipline from which it emerges." These distinguishing characteristics of the discipline not only involve the nature of the "new territory" but also the dominating paradigms of the methods of discovery. Thus the specialized disciplinary vocabulary not only has specialized thematic content but also specialized grammatic structure. This is the reason that it can be considered a specialized language; something more involved that a specialized vocabulary.


The need for interdisciplinary research. Many of the persisting basic and applied research problems in the sciences call for the application of skills and knowledge from many different specialties. In addition, the need for these skills and knowledge is holistic in nature and not satisfied by the methods of multidisciplinary research is called for.

The difficulties of interdisciplinary research. Probably the greatest difficulty in doing interdisciplinary research is establishing the communication links between and among disciplines. The reason for this difficulty has been best articulated by Sanders(8). "The precise terminology which promotes communication within special technical fields can hinder communication between fields and groups, sometimes leading to gross inefficiency or near chaos." Dubes(9) goes so far as to say, "Scientists themselves react like the lay public when they function outside their areas of professional specialization." Grupp and Heidor(10) suggest an explanation in their discussion of the problem, although I doubt that it is the only solution, as the seem to imply. "Because one must learn the vocabulary to participate in interdisciplinary communication it may be easier to remain in one's own area of specialization."

There is one additional problem involved in interdisciplinary research. In communication it is not only necessary to understand a given vocabulary, but also a set of conceptual referents. Frequently in the sciences both the basic paradigm and the concepts of a particular discipline are so different from another discipline that this too can cause difficulty. The concepts of theoretical nuclear physics, for example, are abstract formulations which do not correspond to anything perceived by the senses. Thus there is no way to communicate except through the suggestive value of approximate or analyagous language.

Present approaches. At the present time there seem to be two general approaches to solving interdisciplinary problems. The first is to attempt to solve the problem as a multidisciplinary situation. The results in this type of situation tend to be rather limited and incomplete. In addition, the nature of the problem frequently pushes researchers towards establishing those needed communication links between discipline areas. This can cause organizational strain by producing an informal organizational structure which is very different from the formal structure of the organization.

The other approach to interdisciplinary research is what I have chosen to call the "committee" approach. This involves all of the specialists getting together, learning each other's languages and solving the problem as a group. This of course runs into all of the problems mentioned earlier to being very time consuming. In the formation of a group like this there is also the problem of "group think(11)," the type of dogmatism and single minded approach that frequently occurs within individual disciplines.

In summary it can be said that problems exist in interpersonal communication among scientists. These communication difficulties lead to even more problems when interdisciplinary research is attempted. This is particularly true given the organizational nature of most inter-disciplinary research, i.e. the "committee" approach.

Continue to Chapter III