Understanding and managing unknowns

Why is dealing with unknowns important in integrated research?

Gabriele Bammer in her book Disciplining Interdisciplinarity, highlights the importance of considering unknowns in integrated research. The main reason to consider unknowns more explicitly is to help those who we are trying to make impact for (e.g. policy-makers, farmers, a community) make the best decision they can. Ignoring unknowns can lead to misguided actions and negative consequences.

In integrated research it is useful to understand:

  1. the types of unknowns that you are dealing with,
  2. whose unknowns or whose gaps are they, and
  3. how you intend to manage them.

These are decisions that we already make in research projects, often implicitly. Thinking about these concepts can help make those decisions more transparent and explicit, and thereby more useful for the end users of our research.

Different types of unknowns

A common way of distinguishing different types of unknowns is a matrix adapted by Smithson of Kerwin (1993).

Known Unknown
Known Known knowns Known unknowns
(conscious ignorance)
Unknown Unknown knowns
(tacit knowledge)
Unknown unknowns

The three orange boxes are different types of unknowns. The known unknowns are what we know that we don’t know –we usually call them the ‘gaps’. This is the area where most research focuses. The unknown knowns, or tacit knowledge are things that we just know. Often, because of our training, we just know things about our disciplinary field but it is hard to name it when asked. The Unknown unknowns, or what we don’t know we don’t know. We find about things in this category by surprise, or where unknown unknown are specific to a community or an individual, and others can see their unknown unknowns and alert people to them.

Whose unknowns?

In integrated research it is important to consider unknowns that are raised beyond the research team. There may be unknowns that are of great importance to stakeholders, but that wouldn’t be considered or covered by a discipline.

Managing unknowns

Bammer identifies different approaches to managing unknowns, the four main ones are described here. Classifying different approaches to managing unknowns is useful in integrated research as it helps to make those decisions more transparent and explicit.

This is the gaining of more knowledge and is a very common approach to dealing with unknowns in research. In integrated research the ability to bring different methods and concepts from different disciplines and knowledge sources can effectively reduce unknowns that aren’t abled to be tacked by single disciplines.
This approach makes some unknowns out of scope and is also a very common approach to dealing with unknowns in research. When a research project team decides that it will not consider whether a pest eradication technology is socially acceptable, but will focus on the eradication method itself, the team is banishing some unknowns. Banishing is an inevitable and an important approach in integrated research (and all research).
This approach acknowledges within a research project that some unknowns may be too important to ignore and not possible to reduce, and therefore the project accepts the need to manage them in another way. A project may consider use statistics to describe the probability of something occurring, or use scenarios to describe a range of plausible futures. In economics, diversification is an commonly used ‘acceptance’ response to unknowns and similarly the use of the precautionary principle in resource management planning.
There are several aspects to the exploitation of unknowns in a project. If you have ever deliberately left a concept vague in a research bid with the intention to tighten up later, or if you have deliberately not tied down a precise definition to allow different people to bring different view points, then you have exploited unknowns to the benefit of the research. There are other ways that unknowns are exploited, often by those outside of the research team. An example of this is when a politician uses the unknowns around an issue to delay making a decision or to cast doubt on the argument. This type of exploitation occurs outside the research team, but it still may impact the project and therefore needs to be thought about.

In this blog Gabriele describes six examples of unknowns in an integrated research project.

  1. Disciplinary unknowns
  2. Unknowns of concern to stakeholders
  3. Unknowns marginalised by power imbalances
  4. Unknowns in the overlap between disciplines
  5. New problem-based unknowns
  6. Intractable unknowns.

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