Symbiont Practices in Boundary Spanning: Bridging the Cognitive and Political Divides in Interdisciplinary Research

Academy of Management Journal, Forthcoming

Rotman School of Management Working Paper No. 2635061

57 Pages Posted: 25 Jul 2015 Last revised: 20 Jun 2016

See all articles by Sarah Kaplan

Sarah Kaplan

University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Jonathan Milde

Boston Consulting Group

Ruth Schwartz Cowan

University of Pennsylvania - Department of History

Date Written: June 19, 2016

Abstract

Organizing for interdisciplinary research must overcome two challenges to collaboration: the cognitive incommensurability of knowledge and the political economy of research based in the disciplines. Researchers may not engage in interdisciplinarity because they would have to invest in new knowledge unrelated to their discipline or risk losing career-related rewards. Our field study of a university interdisciplinary research center shows that boundary spanning occurred as students interacted with scientific instruments in a symbiotic relationship through what we call symbiont practices: matching disciplinary language and methods with the experimental possibilities of instruments, developing co-specialization between students and instruments, and engaging disciplinary actors to design experiments using instruments. Instruments engendered incipient interdisciplinary possibilities, but they required the students – engaging in symbiont practices – to actualize that potential. Simultaneously, students required instruments in order to be classified, staffed on projects and placed in jobs. These practices resolved both the cognitive and economic challenges of boundary spanning by mobilizing material resources that were costly (cognitively and politically) for actors on either side of the disciplinary divide to engage. In conceptualizing interdisciplinary research as occurring through symbiont practices, we develop a sociomaterial perspective on boundary spanning.

Keywords: interdisciplinarity, boundary spanners, sociomateriality, research management, research centers, cognition, political economy of research, instrumentation

JEL Classification: O31, O32

Suggested Citation

Kaplan, Sarah and Milde, Jonathan and Schwartz Cowan, Ruth, Symbiont Practices in Boundary Spanning: Bridging the Cognitive and Political Divides in Interdisciplinary Research (June 19, 2016). Academy of Management Journal, Forthcoming, Rotman School of Management Working Paper No. 2635061, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2635061

Sarah Kaplan (Contact Author)

University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management ( email )

105 St. George Street
Toronto, Ontario M5S 3E6 M5S1S4
Canada

Jonathan Milde

Boston Consulting Group ( email )

J.F. Kennedylaan 100
3741 EH Baarn
United States

Ruth Schwartz Cowan

University of Pennsylvania - Department of History

College Hall 208
Philadelphia, 19104-6379
United States

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