Earth, wind, (water), and fire: Measuring epistemic boundaries in climate change research

Elsevier, Poetics, Volume 88, October 2021
Nanni A., Fallin M.
Scientific research is governed by strict disciplinary norms and symbolic boundaries. This highly structured context is the space of probables, which dictates what research is likely to occur. Interdisciplinarity may disrupt these disciplinary norms by bridging epistemic gaps across disciplines to foster originality. But can interdisciplinarity actually expand the space of probables over time? In this paper, we analyze the evolution of the interdisciplinary field of climate change research based on 30,228 scientific abstracts from 2000 to 2019. Using novel word embedding techniques interpreted from the perspective of Peircean semiotics, we examine the interdisciplinary dynamics and epistemic boundaries of the field over time. Despite interdisciplinarity increasing over the last 20 years, epistemic boundaries become more entrenched, and research becomes more predictable. We conclude that interdisciplinarity does not erode boundaries, but instead operates within a highly structured and constrained space of probables.