Research as a process in the methodology in interdisciplinary research framework
The Methodology for Interdisciplinary Research (MIR) framework was built on the process approach (Kumar 1999), because in the process approach, the research question or hypothesis is leading for all decisions in the various stages of research. That means that it helps the MIR framework to put the common goal of the researchers at the center, instead of the diversity of their respective backgrounds. The MIR framework also introduces an agenda: the research team needs to carefully think through different parts of the design of their study before starting its execution (Fig. 1). First, the team discusses the conceptual design of their study which contains the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of the research. Second, the team discusses the technical design of the study which contains the ‘how’ of the research. Only after the team agrees that the complete research design is sufficiently crystalized, the execution of the work (including fieldwork) starts.
Whereas the conceptual and technical designs are by definition interdisciplinary team work, the respective team members may do their (mono)disciplinary parts of fieldwork and data analysis on a modular basis (see Bruns et al. 2017: p. 21). Finally, when all evidence is collected, an interdisciplinary synthesis of analyses follows which conclusions are input for the final report. This implies that the MIR framework allows for a range of scales of research projects, e.g., a mixed methods project and its smaller qualitative and quantitative modules, or a multi-national sustainability project and its national sociological, economic and ecological modules.
The conceptual design
Interdisciplinary research design starts with the “conceptual design” which addresses the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of a research project at a conceptual level to ascertain the common goals pivotal to interdisciplinary collaboration (Fischer et al. 2011). The conceptual design includes mostly activities such as thinking, exchanging interdisciplinary knowledge, reading and discussing. The product of the conceptual design is called the “conceptual frame work” which comprises of the research objective (what is to be achieved by the research), the theory or theories that are central in the research project, the research questions (what knowledge is to be produced), and the (partial) operationalization of constructs and concepts that will be measured or recorded during execution. While the members of the interdisciplinary team and the commissioner of the research must reach a consensus about the research objective, the ‘why’, the focus in research design must be the production of the knowledge required to achieve that objective the ‘what’.
With respect to the ‘why’ of a research project, an interdisciplinary team typically starts with a general aim as requested by the commissioner or funding agency, and a set of theories to formulate a research objective. This role of theory is not always obvious to students from the natural sciences, who tend to think in terms of ‘models’ with directly observable variables. On the other hand, students from the social sciences tend to think in theories with little attention to observable variables. In the MIR framework, models as simplified descriptions or explanations of what is studied in the natural sciences play the same role in informing research design, raising research questions, and informing how a concept is understood, as do theories in social science.
Research questions concern concepts, i.e. general notions or ideas based on theory or common sense that are multifaceted and not directly visible or measurable. For example, neither food security (with its many different facets) nor a person’s attitude towards food storage may be directly observed. The operationalization of concepts, the transformation of concepts into observable indicators, in interdisciplinary research requires multiple steps, each informed by theory. For instance, in line with particular theoretical frameworks, sustainability and food security may be seen as the composite of a social, an economic and an ecological dimension (e.g., Godfray et al. 2010).
As the concept of interest is multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional, the interdisciplinary team will need to read, discuss and decide on how these dimensions and their indicators are weighted to measure the composite interdisciplinary concept to get the required interdisciplinary measurements. The resulting measure or measures for the interdisciplinary concept may be of the nominal, ordinal, interval and ratio level, or a combination thereof. This operationalization procedure is known as the port-folio approach to widely defined measurements (Tobi 2014). Only after the research team has finalized the operationalization of the concepts under study, the research questions and hypotheses can be made operational. For example, a module with descriptive research questions may now be turned into an operational one like, what are the means and variances of X1, X2, and X3 in a given population? A causal research question may take on the form, is X (a composite of X1, X2 and X3) a plausible cause for the presence or absence of Y? A typical qualitative module could study, how do people talk about X1, X2 and X3 in their everyday lives?
The technical design
Members of an interdisciplinary team usually have had different training with respect to research methods, which makes discussing and deciding on the technical design more challenging but also potentially more creative than in a mono-disciplinary team. The technical design addresses the issues ‘how, where and when will research units be studied’ (study design), ‘how will measurement proceed’ (instrument selection or design), ‘how and how many research units will be recruited’ (sampling plan), and ‘how will collected data be analyzed and synthesized’ (analysis plan). The MIR framework provides the team a set of topics and their relationships to one another and to generally accepted quality criteria (see Fig. 1), which helps in designing this part of the project.
Interdisciplinary teams need be pragmatic as the research questions agreed on are leading in decisions on the data collection set-up (e.g., a cross-sectional study of inhabitants of a region, a laboratory experiment, a cohort study, a case control study, etc.), the so-called “study design” (e.g., Kumar 2014; De Vaus 2001; Adler and Clark 2011; Tobi and van den Brink 2017) instead of traditional ‘pet’ approaches. Typical study designs for descriptive research questions and research questions on associations are the cross-sectional study design. Longitudinal study designs are required to investigate development over time and cause-effect relationships ideally are studied in experiments (e.g., Kumar 2014; Shipley 2016). Phenomenological questions concern a phenomenon about which little is known and which has to be studied in the environment where it takes place, which calls for a case study design (e.g., Adler and Clark 2011: p. 178). For each module, the study design is to be further explicated by the number of data collection waves, the level of control by the researcher and its reference period (e.g., Kumar 2014) to ensure the teams common understanding.
Then, decisions about the way data is to be collected, e.g., by means of certified instruments, observation, interviews, questionnaires, queries on existing data bases, or a combination of these are to be made. It is especially important to discuss the role of the observer (researcher) as this is often a source of misunderstanding in interdisciplinary teams. In the sciences, the observer is usually considered a neutral outsider when reading a standardized measurement instrument (e.g., a pyranometer to measure incoming solar radiation). In contrast, in the social sciences, the observer may be (part of) the measurement instrument, for example in participant observation or when doing in-depth interviews. After all, in participant observation the researcher observes from a member’s perspective and influences what is observed owing to the researcher’s participation (Flick 2006: p. 220). Similarly in interviews, by which we mean “a conversation that has a structure and a purpose determined by the one party—the interviewer” (Kvale 2007: p. 7), the interviewer and the interviewee are part of the measurement instrument (Kvale and Brinkmann 2009: p. 2). In on-line and mail questionnaires the interviewer is eliminated as part of the instrument by standardizing the questions and answer options. Queries on existing data bases refer to the use of secondary data or secondary analysis. Different disciplines tend to use different bibliographic data bases (e.g., CAB Abstracts, ABI/INFORM or ERIC) and different data repositories (e.g., the European Social Survey at europeansocialsurvey.org or the International Council for Science data repository hosted by www.pangaea.de).
Depending on whether or not the available, existing, measurement instruments tally with the interdisciplinary operationalisations from the conceptual design, the research team may or may not need to design instruments. Note that in some cases the social scientists’ instinct may be to rely on a questionnaire whereas the collaboration with another discipline may result in more objective possibilities (e.g., compare asking people about what they do with surplus medication, versus measuring chemical components from their input into the sewer system). Instrument design may take on different forms, such as the design of a device (e.g., pyranometer), a questionnaire (Dillman 2007) or a part thereof (e.g., a scale see DeVellis 2012; Danner et al. 2016), an interview guide with topics or questions for the interviewees, or a data extraction form in the context of secondary analysis and literature review (e.g., the Cochrane Collaboration aiming at health and medical sciences or the Campbell Collaboration aiming at evidence based policies).
Researchers from different disciplines are inclined to think of different research objects (e.g., animals, humans or plots), which is where the (specific) research questions come in as these identify the (possibly different) research objects unambiguously. In general, research questions that aim at making an inventory, whether it is an inventory of biodiversity or of lodging, call for a random sampling design. Both in the biodiversity and lodging example, one may opt for random sampling of geographic areas by means of a list of coordinates. Studies that aim to explain a particular phenomenon in a particular context would call for a purposive sampling design (non-random selection). Because studies of biodiversity and housing obey the same laws in terms of appropriate sampling design for similar research questions, individual students and researchers are sensitized to commonalities of their respective (mono)disciplines. For example, a research team interested in the effects of landslides on a socio-ecological system may select for their study one village that suffered from landslides and one village that did not suffer from landslides that have other characteristics in common (e.g., kind of soil, land use, land property legislation, family structure, income distribution, et cetera).
The data analysis plan describes how data will be analysed, for each of the separate modules and for the project at large. In the context of a multi-disciplinary quantitative research project, the data analysis plan will list the intended uni-, bi- and multivariate analyses such as measures for distributions (e.g., means and variances), measures for association (e.g., Pearson Chi square or Kendall Tau) and data reduction and modelling techniques (e.g., factor analysis and multiple linear regression or structural equation modelling) for each of the research modules using the data collected. When applicable, it will describe interim analyses and follow-up rules. In addition to the plans at modular level, the data analysis plan must describe how the input from the separate modules, i.e. different analyses, will be synthesized to answer the overall research question. In case of mixed methods research, the particular type of mixed methods design chosen describes how, when, and to what extent the team will synthesize the results from the different modules.
Unfortunately, in our experience, when some of the research modules rely on a qualitative approach, teams tend to refrain from designing a data analysis plan before starting the field work. While absence of a data analysis plan may be regarded acceptable in fields that rely exclusively on qualitative research (e.g., ethnography), failure to communicate how data will be analysed and what potential evidence will be produced posits a deathblow to interdisciplinarity. For many researchers not familiar with qualitative research, the black box presented as “qualitative data analysis” is a big hurdle, and a transparent and systematic plan is a sine qua non for any scientific collaboration. The absence of a data analysis plan for all modules results in an absence of synthesis of perspectives and skills of the disciplines involved, and in separate (disciplinary) research papers or separate chapters in the research report without an answer to the overall research question. So, although researchers may find it hard to write the data analysis plan for qualitative data, it is pivotal in interdisciplinary research teams.
Similar to the quantitative data analysis plan, the qualitative data analysis plan presents the description of how the researcher will get acquainted with the data collected (e.g., by constructing a narrative summary per interviewee or a paired-comparison of essays). Additionally, the rules to decide on data saturation need be presented. Finally, the types of qualitative analyses are to be described in the data analysis plan. Because there is little or no standardized terminology in qualitative data analysis, it is important to include a precise description as well as references to the works that describe the method intended (e.g., domain analysis as described by Spradley 1979; or grounded theory by means of constant-comparison as described by Boeije 2009).
To benefit optimally from the research being interdisciplinary the modules need to be brought together in the integration stage. The modules may be mono- or interdisciplinary and may rely on quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods approaches. So the MIR framework fits the view that distinguishes three multimethods approaches (quali–quali, quanti–quanti, and quali–quant).
Although the MIR framework has not been designed with the intention to promote mixed methods research, it is suitable for the design of mixed methods research as the kind of research that calls for both quantitative and qualitative components (Creswell and Piano Clark 2011). Indeed, just like the pioneers in mixed methods research (Creswell and Piano Clark 2011: p. 2), the MIR framework deconstructs the package deals of paradigm and data to be collected. The synthesis of the different mono or interdisciplinary modules may benefit from research done on “the unique challenges and possibilities of integration of qualitative and quantitative approaches” (Fetters and Molina-Azorin 2017: p. 5). We distinguish (sub) sets of modules being designed as convergent, sequential or embedded (adapted from mixed methods design e.g., Creswell and Piano Clark 2011: pp. 69–70). Convergent modules, whether mono or interdisciplinary, may be done parallel and are integrated after completion. Sequential modules are done after one another and the first modules inform the latter ones (this includes transformative and multiphase mixed methods design). Embedded modules are intertwined. Here, modules depend on one another for data collection and analysis, and synthesis may be planned both during and after completion of the embedded modules.
Scientific quality and ethical considerations in the design of interdisciplinary research
A minimum set of jargon related to the assessment of scientific quality of research (e.g., triangulation, validity, reliability, saturation, etc.) can be found scattered in Fig. 1. Some terms are reserved by particular paradigms, others may be seen in several paradigms with more or less subtle differences in meaning. In the latter case, it is important that team members are prepared to explain and share ownership of the term and respect the different meanings. By paying explicit attention to the quality concepts, researchers from different disciplines learn to appreciate each other’s concerns for good quality research and recognize commonalities. For example, the team may discuss measurement validity of both a standardized quantitative instrument and that of an interview and discover that the calibration of the machine serves a similar purpose as the confirmation of the guarantee of anonymity at the start of an interview.
Throughout the process of research design, ethics require explicit discussion among all stakeholders in the project. Ethical issues run through all components in the MIR framework in Fig. 1. Where social and medical scientists may be more sensitive to ethical issues related to humans (e.g., the 1979 Belmont Report criteria of beneficence, justice, and respect), others may be more sensitive to issues related to animal welfare, ecology, legislation, the funding agency (e.g., implications for policy), data and information sharing (e.g., open access publishing), sloppy research practices, or long term consequences of the research. This is why ethics are an issue for the entire interdisciplinary team and cannot be discussed on project module level only.