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Dr Justin Greaves University of Warwick Crossing the Interdisciplinary Divide: Political Science and Biological Science.

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Presentation on theme: "Dr Justin Greaves University of Warwick Crossing the Interdisciplinary Divide: Political Science and Biological Science."— Presentation transcript:

1 Dr Justin Greaves University of Warwick Crossing the Interdisciplinary Divide: Political Science and Biological Science

2 ‘We are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline’ (Popper, 1963)

3 Why interdisciplinarity? Policy challenges in today’s world require political science to work effectively with other disciplines (climate change, GM technology, stem cell research) This includes an imperative to work with natural science – less well mapped and explored

4 Not a new phenomenon American political scientist Charles Merriam a strong advocate Leonard White noted his ‘bold and persistent effort to marry political science with biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics and medicine’

5 The RELU programme The Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) is a £25 million research programme, funded by the ESRC, BBSRC and NERC Committed to pursue interdisciplinary working across the social and natural sciences in every research project it funds

6 RELU 1 at Warwick Project on the regulatory and environmental sustainability of biopesticides A collaboration between political scientists and plant scientists The University of Warwick brought together natural scientists from Warwick HRI and social scientists from the main campus The creation of the RELU programme created a relevant funding opportunity

7 RELU 3 at Warwick Project on the Governance of Livestock Diseases (GoLD) One challenge has been the large and diverse mix of disciplines involved Four team members from Biological Sciences (a veterinary epidemiologist, an infectious disease epidemiologist, an ecologist and a mathematical modeller), two from Political Science, two from Economics and one from Law

8 Hard and soft science Our main focus is collaboration between politics and biological science – perhaps the natural science that offers most to political scientists Distinction made between ‘hard’ sciences such as physics and chemistry and ‘soft’ sciences such as psychology, sociology and politics’ ‘Hierarchy of science’ (Cohen and Medley)

9 Hard and soft science (2) Harder sciences could be more difficult for political scientists to grasp – e.g. physics, chemistry ‘String theory’ (The Trouble with Physics) But collaboration with natural science could be easier than other social sciences – mutual respect and less fear of capture Competing methodologies - economics and methodological individualism

10 What is interdisciplinarity? ‘By interdisciplinary research I mean a mode of research... that integrates information... techniques, perspectives, concepts and/or theory from two or more disciplines or bodies of organized or specialized knowledge’ (Axelrod, 2008)

11 Politics: a junction subject In many ways politics is the junction subject of the social sciences, born out of history and philosophy, but drawing of the insights of economics and sociology and, to a lesser extent, the study of law, psychology and geography This openness (‘eclecticism’) can be seen as a strength allowing interdisciplinary work to flourish

12 However: Political scientists ‘are a rather insular lot’ (Andrew Jordan) A recent ESRC benchmarking review of political science notes that ‘interdisciplinary networks’ are patchy No reference here to natural science

13 ESRC Strategic Plan ‘Although much effort must be made to sustain the health of individual disciplines, the social scientist’s value is increasingly realised in interdisciplinary work. The natural and physical sciences are extending the boundaries of technical possibility... alongside this we need to understand the social and economic implications of such advances. This too is science’

14 Current literature Moran (2006) and McKenzie (2007) focus on interdisciplinarity within the social sciences Warleigh-Lack and Cini (2009) touch on the potential for collaboration between natural and social science, hard and soft science – but this needs to be developed further

15 Biology and political science The first chapter of Mackenzie’s survey of political science is ‘The Biological Context’ Punctuated equilibrium models have their origins in evolutionary biology The interaction between entity and setting is one that is amenable to political scientists

16 Biology and Political Science (2) Aristotle first asserted the biological uniqueness of human political behaviour with his famous observation: ‘Man is, by nature, a political animal’ Fowler and Schreiber (2008) describe recent advances and argue that biologists and political scientists must work together to advance a new science of human nature

17 Methodological reflections Working with natural scientists has encouraged us to think again about some of the methodological challenges we face in political science It has allowed us to focus on issues relating to the philosophy of social science – e.g. differences and similarities between social and natural science

18 The problem of agency Social science deals with conscious and reflective objects which may act differently under the same stimuli Units making up physical science are assumed inanimate, unreflexive and predictable in response to external stimuli Animal biology involves animate and, arguably, reflexive objects. Overlaps with social and political science?

19 Social science and prediction In the social sciences predictions may affect outcomes (Oedipus effect) ‘Paradox of prediction’. Bad outcomes may not happen - people take action to ensure they do not become true Objects of natural science rarely react to attempts to observe them Many research effects in the social sciences (Hawthorne effect, Pygmalion effect). Placebo effect in medical science

20 Can research be objective? Social and natural science do not differ much in this respect ‘They [scientists] like an experiment whose result is entirely comfortable, confirming their prejudices and satisfying the promises they made in the grant application which is funding their work’ (Cohen and Medley)

21 The experimental design ‘We are limited by the impossibility of experiment. Politics is an observational, not an experimental science’ (Lowell, 1910) But in recent years an increased use of experimentation in political science Our work with natural scientists has provided an insight into the experimental design

22 Experimental design (2) Experiments are often more varied than social scientists assume We should not push the notion that natural science is dominated by experiments too far Causation is a very complex area – perhaps political scientists do not always understand this?

23 Individualistic fallacy Drawing conclusions about groups based on data on the individual Social scientists prone to committing this Model organisms in biology Scaling up problem (pot plants to field to farm to broader level) Care needed when generalizing from one organism to another

24 Hasty and anecdotal? Can be broadened out to fallacy of ‘hasty generalization’ Natural scientists may feel that social science is not rigorous, anecdotal Interdisciplinary research requires mutual respect and confidence in each other’s findings

25 Positivist or interpretivist? Positivists may find it easier to work with natural scientists than interpretivists would (and vice versa) Scientific realism ‘can straddle the natural and social sciences’ and is compatible with the interdisciplinary ‘turn’ opening up collaboration between natural and social scientists

26 Complexity Hard science makes clear and rapid progress, soft science goes round in circles Key distinction ‘complexity’ Particle physics deals with simplest objects – atoms Biology more complex – social and political world more complex still

27 Strong and weak inference Hard science allows for strong inference Softer science deals with complexities which yield only probabilistic answers Social scientists need to be more realistic and honest in their claims – and this may not be easy

28 Justified beliefs We should import the notion of ‘justified belief’ from philosophy Are our conclusions justified given the evidence (or arguments) we produce to support them? Are they backed up by sufficient evidence to justify the confidence to which they are asserted?

29 Probability This links to debates on probability Different forms of probability – a priori calculus of chance, ‘long term frequency’ samples, probability that the Big Bang theory of the universe is true Shared understandings of what constitutes justified beliefs will allow successful interdisciplinary research to flourish

30 Our projects in practice Steep learning curve for the political scientists Biologists thought that political scientist might be identified with a particular political position, or at least researching the legitimacy of different political positions

31 Creating understanding A procedure followed of each discipline reading literature selected from the other disciplines and presenting their understanding of the article to team meetings Allowed misunderstandings to be resolved and helped create an understanding of how the other disciplines worked in terms of methodology and vocabulary

32 Language and terminology Often talk of the need for a common language in interdisciplinary research The phrase ‘trading zone’ is often used to denote an interdisciplinary partnership in which two or more perspectives are combined and a new, shared language develops (Collins, Evans and Gorman, 2007) Perhaps the key is a ‘shared understanding’ (Bracken & Oughton, 2006)

33 Co-authorship Biological scientists used to tersely argued research papers that present key findings in a few printed pages Political science articles more discursive Challenge of writing together - difficult to carve out a coherent and readable paper How do you standardise the jargon of different disciplines without losing thread of the content?

34 Conclusions Hopefully we have encouraged the natural scientists to reflect on ‘the scientific method’ We must be careful not to treat bio- science as an undifferentiated whole (engagement may be easier with some areas rather than others)

35 Conclusions (2) Some obstacles remain RAE based around disciplinary panels How will REF impact on interdisciplinarity? Use of metrics We have had a positive experience and encourage others to cross the interdisciplinary divide

36 Please visit our websites biopesticides c/gld Thanks to all members of the RELU 1 and RELU 3 project teams (principal investigators Wyn Grant and Graham Medley)


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