Interdisciplinary Cases as Real-World Experiments
Wolfgang Krohn
Bielefeld University
Institute for Science and Technology Studies
Faculty of Sociology
Interdisciplinary cases and fields which I have
Ecological restauration projects (in collaboration with Matthias
Gross, Holger Hoffmann-Riehm)
Interorganizational innovation networks between developers, suppliers, and
users of high-tech tool machines (with Uli Kowol)
Waste management, waste research and regulatory regimes in
Germany 1960-2010 (with Ralf Herbold)
Case study on situated man-machine communication research (embodied
language theory to construction of talking robots; with Tobias Knobloch)
Formation of interdisciplinary expert advice in the German Commission on
Radiation Protection (Gesellschaft fuer Strahlenschutz); ongoing, with
Cornelia Altenburg and Martin Carrier)
Relations between scientific and artistic research; starting
These fields of interdisciplinary research are predominantly
determined by features of mission oriented research
- Problem identification, reconstruction, and solution
- product development (create a lake, a machine , a
recommendation, an artistic performance)
- strategies of experimental implementation and recursive
-transdisciplinary heterogeneous actor networks (scientists,
professional experts, civil servants, stakeholders)
- project format: negotiating and contracting research goals
and innovation strategies.
The following slides provide impressions from
sanitation projects in a strip-mining area
Bitterfeld Waterfront Project – Public information
A strip-mining area in operation
Field researchers at work
Restauration in progress
No trespassing - an open space laboratory marked as isolated
A botanist documenting success
A professor talking to the public
The following diagram hints at the work of sociological reconstruction.
The content is of no concern here
Experimental Governance:: a working model
Socio-Economic Structure
Legal Framework
Project Vision
Engineering office
(e.g. investigation)
new knowledge
Courtesy Matthias Gross, UFZ Leipzig
Three observations with epistemological implications:
(1)Interdisciplinary communication and cooperation are two
very different things.
Interdisciplinary communication is successful if scholars irritate each
other. After a while irritation fades away or stimulates new ideas.
Interdisciplinary cooperation is successful when a common good
is generated on the basis of organic division of labor.
Standard problem of interdisciplinary projects: Communication is
expected to lead to a common good. In fact, it leads to the least
common denominator.
 Welcome irritation and stimulation as eminent objectives of
interdisciplinary discourse
Interdisciplinary discourse as organized mutual theft of intellectual
properties with the intent to make use of the goods carried off in the
domains of the specialists.
Academic interdisciplinary research groups usually get funded on the
promise of deeply rooted concept work and far reaching perspectives
for science and society. As they progress, they discover the difficulties
involved and compromise on the common denominator or fall apart
(with members either frustrated or enriched)
(2) In mission oriented cooperative interdisciplinary projects
participating parties set each other boundary conditions which must
be met by the design of their respective contributions.
However, the process is iterative: conditions can be changed upon
changes of other constraints: recursive learning dynamics.
Problems of understanding and comprehension occur. To suppress them
can become expensive. Appropriate ways of handling them are boundary
concepts, models, maps, prototypes.
 Welcome the specialists’ competences and be careful with
high investments in developing a common language,
knowledge base, and method.
(3) The programs and projects observed display oscillating research
interests between solving a case and augmenting more general
Solving the case: Cases, problem solving innovations, installations
count in itself. They are not (only) an exemplar of a scientific
set (a value of a variable) - but a reality to be accounted for in
its complexity and singularity. A solution ‘in principle’ is no
Openness to contingencies and surprises originating in the their
social and ecological environments of projects have to be part of
the design.
Design is important, delimitation of areas is impossible
Nomothetic ideal
Idiographic Ideal
Reduction of complexity by
Increase of complexity by
Value free
Value laden
Similarity between objects
Differences relevant
Contingencies restrict validitiy
claims (ceteris paribus clause)
Contingencies increase validity
Usefulness increases with
Usefulness increases with
(expert knowledge model)
 The tension between these dual goals is epistemologically
interesting and leads to issues which philosophy of
interdisciplinarity should address:
- How do the contrasting knowledge ideals of nomothetic and
idiographic knowledge relate?
- How would a theory of scientific learning look like in which
mastering cases and generating theoretical knowledge are
equally relevant? (Does modeling play an intermediation role?)
- Is it an appropriate view of knowledge society as being
determined by projects in which research dynamics and
innovation strategies coincide? (Experimental society; society as
Nomothetic and idiographic knowledge:
from divergent to complementary knowledge ideals
Wilhelm Windelband
Heinrich Rickert
(1848 - 1915)
Distinguishing between nomothetic and idiographic sciences
“in seeking knowledge of what is real, the empirical sciences are
looking for the general in terms of natural laws or for the singular in its
historically determined shape.
Those are sciences of natural laws, these are sciences of events.”
(Windelband 1894, p. 145)
Examples of events worth scholarly interest are, according to Windelband,
“Actions of a person, the character and life of a single man, or of an entire
people, the character and development of a language, a religion, a legal
order, a product of literature, art, or science: and each of these subjects
demands a treatment corresponding to its peculiarities.” (Windelband,
1907, 363)
Theorists and practitioners of real-world experiments
John Dewey, pragmatist philosopher:
proposed an ‘experimental ethics’ with which
modern society should expose its values to
hypothetical reasoning and methodical testing.
Robert E. Park, sociologist:
‘Chicago: An Experiment in Social Science
‘The City as a Social Laboratory’.
The development of the city is an ongoing process
of collective self-experimentation, gratuitously
offered to the sociological observer.
Theorists and practitioners of real-world experiments
Donald Campbell, social psychologist and
evolutionary epistemologist,
‘Reforms as Experiments’.
a new methodological toolkit for
designing, performing and evaluating public reform
projects as collective experiments.
C.S. Holling, founder of the adaptive
management paradigm
Unpredictability of dynamical systems advanced to
a theoretical term. Experimental strategies
public input and planning,
interventions and regulatory action,
monitoring and evaluation,
readiness to start new.
Theorists and practitioners of real-world experiments
Sir Karl Popper proposed in The Open
Society and its Enemies (1945) piecemeal
social experiments with single institutions,
e.g. unemployment, as opposed to grant
scale experiments with complete societies

Interdisciplinary Cases as Real-World Experiments