Erasing the Social from Social Science: The Intellectual Costs of Boundary-Work and the Canadian Institute of Health Research

By Albert, Katelin | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Erasing the Social from Social Science: The Intellectual Costs of Boundary-Work and the Canadian Institute of Health Research


Albert, Katelin, Canadian Journal of Sociology


INTRODUCTION

In 2000, the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) was established to encourage interdisciplinary health research and in 2009, all funding for social science health research shifted from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to CIHR. The following year, the Canadian Institute of Health Research held a grants-crafting workshop for social scientists. (1) The workshop, which took place in a large auditorium at Congress 2010 for the Social Sciences and Humanities, involved a PowerPoint presentation that conveyed the following guidelines: CIHR encourages team projects over individual projects, applied research projects, and the use of scientific language. During the question and answer period, many audience members raised the concern that the philosophies and traditions of their research did not seem appropriate for CIHR. They worried over the practicality of creating an application that would 'match' CIHR's goals and style while maintaining the unique methods and contributions of social science. In response to these concerns, the workshop's speaker provided the following suggestion:

   Imagine I travelled to a foreign country and refused to speak the
   native language of where I was. How could I ask for help? How could
   I ask for food? How could I say anything? If I wanted something, I
   would have to learn the language. I would have to follow their
   rules. I would have to accommodate them ... Just use our language;
   it's not that bad. [recorded from memory after the presentation]

Scholars typically conduct their research within the distinct organizational structures of university departments and disciplinary boundaries (Abbott 2001). Disciplines are highly specialized, with their own particular language, theories, and methods. Yet, interdisciplinary studies and institutes continue to grow, and it is becoming increasingly common to argue that research must occur outside traditional disciplinary boundaries. Health research, which has historically been dominated by the biological and medical sciences, is now taken up by social scientists who can provide richness and complexity to the field.

Despite the scholarly benefits of interdisciplinarity, such as pursuit of complex research questions, there are barriers to interdisciplinary work (Jacobs and Frickel 2009). Many scholars have questioned what is meant by 'interdisciplinary' and how interdisciplinary projects occur (Apostel, Berger, Briggs and Michaud 1972; Frodeman, Thompson and Mitcham 2010). The conversation surrounding the practicalities, benefits, and disadvantages of interdisciplinarity are part of an ongoing 'interdisciplinary debate.'

This research contributes to the debate by considering the micro-level processes through which the boundaries that separate 'scientific' and 'non-scientific' research projects are negotiated in the process of becoming 'more interdisciplinary.' My particular concern is with the intellectual costs of boundary work in health research, where medical and natural science models have historically dominated funding priorities and where there is a trend toward greater interdisciplinarity.

This research focuses on the Canadian Institute of Health Research as an interdisciplinary funding organization to illuminate the ways in which social scientists at the graduate level (junior social scientists, hereafter) attempt to bridge the boundaries between qualitative social science and biomedical science. I draw on Gieryn's (1983) concept of 'boundary-work,' which addresses the power struggles between scientific communities in the process of delineating science from non-science. This paper thus identifies moments of boundary-work when demarcations of scientific fields of knowledge are produced, challenged, or reinforced. This focus exposes the intellectual costs incurred when researchers attempt to cross the boundary between two disciplines--specifically, when qualitative social science researchers feel tremendous pressure to erase the social aspects of their work to align with what they perceive to be CIHR's epistemic culture. …

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