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Epistemological Perspectives and Intercultural Encounters


Epistemological beliefs are parts of the underlying mechanisms of metacognition (Schommer, 1994) and often constitute domain-specific knowledge and disciplinary practices. As such, scientists and scholars differ in many aspects of their academic socialisation and epistemological commitments. Given that disciplinary communities frequently possess little or no detailed insight into other academic cultures, a number of misconceptions might arise which, if not addressed appropriately, result in a further widening of the epistemological gap. Owing to the increasing need for cross-border and interdisciplinary collaborations, mutual appreciation and deeper understanding of the other party`s cultural and disciplinary coding are pre-conditions for fruitful common endeavours. This paper outlines a design-as-an inquiry process intended to address this complex challenge of fostering appreciation among diverse professional cultures. For these purposes, an international team of researchers from Austria, Germany, Spain and India underwent a creativity process during a summer school in Helsinki where they jointly conceptualized their ethnorelative understanding of the task which resulted in a card game that might have the potential of uncovering the underlying assumptions of the interviewees. By taking this design-as-inquiry approach the researchers addressed the complex problem of different intercultural epistemological assumptions by first learning about the problem (creating knowledge) through a design process and, as such, generated innovative solutions. This card game was jointly developed within the "Designing Spaces for Active Engagement” summer school which was part of the EU-funded project “Creating Knowledge through Design and Conceptual Innovation”. A particularly interesting aspect of this process lies in the differing backgrounds of the stakeholders in terms of ethnical and professional backgrounds. In this paper the design-as-inquiry process will be sketched by shedding light on how the intercultural group succeeded in finding common ground on the ideation and the prototyping phase. Initial piloting of the produced artefact was carried out in Finland and Germany.


Increasing cross-border and interdisciplinary collaborations raise a number of challenges among which a smooth interplay of different disciplines often seems one of the most challenging tasks. Therefore, a deeper understanding, and, as a result, mutual appreciation of each other`s disciplines is of ever-increasing importance. Within a 2013 summer school hosted in Finland that was predominantly concerned with  "Designing Spaces for Active Engagement", this issue was addressed by a team that had a different mindset in both socio-cultural and disciplinary socialisation. By employing a design as inquiry approach, the six team members underwent an ideation proces where they sought to negotiate meaning and find common ground.

It seems that fostering appreciation among disciplines is a rather  "wicked" problem. Allert & Richter (2012, as related to Rittel & Weber, 1973) define wicked problems as impossible to break down into parts of a problem or analyse the problem as a whole. Such issues are highly complex and there are no right or wrong answers how to solve them.

Design as Inquiry especially aims at problems whose solution is far from obvious and needs a deeper exploration and high sensitiveness to find approaches to deal with such problems.The solution might be as complex as the problem itself which is why Design as Inquiry is an appropriate approach to deal with the topic at hand. The creation of knowledge throughout the process - knowledge that is explicit, but also implicit knowledge -  opens up a whole new outlook for addressing challenges of this kind.


State of the Art

Much of the common understanding about disciplinary differences and categorizations is based on Biglan’s conceptualisation (1973). Already back then, he identified the cultural and social structures of academic disciplines and provided a classifications based on hard/soft, pure/applied, and life/nonlife systems. Base on this perspective, Becher and Trowler (2001) up-dated the categorisation in four different disciplines: (a) the pure sciences, (b) the humanities; (c) technologies, much like the hard-applied disciplines in Biglan’s model; and (d) applied social sciences, like Biglan’s soft-applied areas. Becher also contributed to the common understanding of “rural” and “urban” fields, further explaining the social structures within disciplinary cultures. Whereas in rural fields, many researchers will focus upon relatively few research problems, urban researchers are generally fewer in number with more problems to be investigated.

These disciplinary groupings and organizational systems allow for a better understanding of the contrasting identities and characteristics of particular fields of study. However, in current knowledge-society, there is an increasing need for cross-border and interdisciplinary collaborations, and deeper understanding of the other party`s cultural and disciplinary coding are pre-conditions for research.

Scholars versus Scientists

Stressing the classical dichotomy of science and scholarship and side-lining what Ostreng (2007, p 29) suggests, a broader approach replacing this dichotomy by concepts like academic research or post-academic science, researchers in hard science seem reluctant to accept that all fields share one common methodological approach, namely interpretation. Despite the development of a different set of interpretative matrices, both ends of the disciplinary spectrum tend to appeal to intuition as a basis for academic judgement (Shay, 2003, p. 95).

Newtonian understanding of science was characterised by the discovery of universal laws, the ability to prove cause and effect and the ability to predict. Whereas scientists focused on measurable methodologies of “real sciences” from the very beginning, the interpretive social universe was left to the scholars, who, for their part, started copying observable variables of the natural sciences and by applying statistics and mathematical methods as a means for measurement, scholars have been gauging social phenomena with objective parameters whenever possible. Although trying hard to get rid of them, scientific pecking order remained persistent, often excluding the interpretative fields of humanities from the definition of real science. In other words, while natural science has not challenged normative views and questions about what ought to be the case, issues of value and ethics were left to philosophy and not touched by scientists whose neutral position might be endangered by asking questions off the beaten track of objective knowledge.

According to Kuhn (1970) the way how scientists judge contributions and agree on their reliability and universal truth results in a shared perception of the world leading to visible outcomes and considerable headway in science in general. Hard scientists seldom venture into foreign research territory mainly restricting themselves to objective issues that are more tractable. As such, the boundary of science is defined by how successful it is to reach agreement on the means of research, on the basis of utility and convenience.

The Intentional Stance

How do we anticipate each other when engaging in interactions and according to which criteria do we interpret spoken speech? In Dennett’s terms, we adopt an intentional stance, a predictive strategy of interpretation through which we attempt to predict and explain an entity`s behaviour by presupposing the behavioural pattern of the rational agent (Dennett, 1998).

As a result, there are various ways of understanding and interpreting the world around us. Adopting a certain kind of intentional stance often depends on the circumstances and on underlying epistemological beliefs somebody might have about a specific setting leading to some kind of predictive convenience. In other words, adopting an intentional stance relates to a system which is treated as if it has intentions. By ascribing certain beliefs to this system, it is possible to predict its behaviour and, as a result, generate valuable information on cognitive processing.



The Wider Setting

The second Summer School on Design as Inquiry, hosted by the Metropolia University in Helsinki, revolved around the topic “Design as Inquiry” which aimed at both scientists and scholars interested in design as a knowledge creating process. During the four-day event several design processes were conducted, one of which was the one under investigation.

The process was framed by a deeper insight into the methodological approach and a number of key note speeches that related to this research field. Further, a World Café was held to address the definition of “spaces that encourage active engagement". For these purposes, cultural probes (Mattelmäki, 2006) were used and the open space for meaningful questions served as a perfect entry point to the design process. A pool of subjects was generated for further exploration. In a second step the participants of the summer school formed groups in line with their interests.The intercultural group that created the card game got together due to their common interest for the topic at hand. As such, they contributed their experiences both in terms of intercultural and interdisciplinary expertise.

The Design Process

A group consisting of one Indian IT student, two Spanish educational researchers, one German junior researcher, one Austrian information systems student and one Austrian linguistist underwent a design process which will be briefly described below.To grasp a tentative understanding of the topic, the concept of appreciation was first explored from different perspectives (cross-culturally, epistemologically and interdisciplinary). In a brainstorming session the team sought to find common ground and negotiate meaning by exploring the terminological concepts behind the subject. Since the next step of a design-as-inquiry process is the “framing” of the idea, each group member prepared an elevator pitch to zoom in on their individual conceptual understanding of how to narrow epistemological gaps. Employing a "visioning" stance, the stakeholders brought to light the complexity of the task, each envisioning a number of design options targeted towards a possible solution. Arguably, the majority of approaches fell into the basket "not convincing enough" and were thus outruled which left the social actors with, according to their views, the most feasible idea. During the “prototyping” phase the selected design option took shape in form of a card game which seemed to be the best suited for the purposes at hand.

Prototyping of the Card Game

The prototype of the card game comprises 10 questions and is designed for two to four players. Each player is supposed to take one card and read out the question. The questions are based on five different categories which were generated in the design process: (1) mindful listening, outside perspective including (2) deconstruction of stereotypes, (3) display interest, internal perspective including (4) self-description (discipline), (5) self-description (working style).

In general the game aims to foster appreciative communication and collaboration between scientists and scholars drawing from a wide range of academic socialisation, but also seeks to increase the epistemological understanding for each other. For these purposes, the category “mindful listening” was created. To facilitate the presentation of one's own discipline and ontological mindset, questions about the “internal perspective“, including the description of the self-perception and individual working practices, the “outside perspective” with the subcategories “deconstruction of stereotypes“ and “display interest“ were conceptualized. For a list and relation of the cards to the categories see the appendix.

The viability of the prototype was tested during the summer school in a realistic environment where, in three different settings, one hard and one soft scientist played the card game together and, in a next step, reflected on the outcome and their learning curve. Through this probing phase the groups not only shared their ideas and reflected on stereotpyical views on each other`s disciplines, but also helped to develop the prototype at hand. Fieldnotes were taken which should serve as valuable input for further exploration of this card game.

Methodology and Study Design

Since the Summer School in Helsinki was all about Design as Inquiry it was only a logical step to use this qualitative exploratory research approach for the study at hand. To get a deeper understanding of this process, the authors will provide a short introduction in this innovative methodology.

Definition of Design as Inquiry

An inquiry-based design process can be described as an iterative process. It is iterative, because the focus of the design is not only on the product, but also in the whole system of people, their activities and the context. In this approach, designers may use various methods such as participatory design.

As such, Design as Inquiry is a process-driven research method (Richter & Allert, 2013a) to foster design abilities and creative thinking among various disciplines by putting its focus on knowledge creation during a design process. This epistemic process not only deepens the understanding of the design challenge, but also sheds light on the object of inquiry and develops innovative, sustainable and suitable products and services to solve an often wicked problem. The generic process model encompasses the following six activities which are highly interwoven: (1) questioning, (2) exploration and framing, (3) hypothesizing, (4) materializing, (5) probing, and (6) communication and explanation. Given that the design solution serves as a hypothesis to understand the problem, it may be constantly developed, changed or discarded while probing and reflecting on it (Richter & Allert, 2013b).

The core activities comprise questioning, exploration & framing, envisioning, prototyping, probing as well as presenting & reflecting. These activities mark the main epistemic challenges we are facing throughout the design and inquiry process. It is vital to note that these stages are not always followed in a strict order. In practice, it is highly flexible and it is most usual to go back and forth among the different activities. Besides, as previously mentioned, design and inquiry are not completed in one iteration but go through these activities repeatedly (Richter & Allert, 2012b).

Piloting the Card Game

Apart from the piloting phase during the summer school in Helsinki, the game was tested on more occasions as described below.

Within the framework of a pilot study both feasibility and latent implications of the card game were further explored in Germany. The card game should thereby not be seen as the final product but rather as a prototype to probe into a direction and trust in an idea:

"Prototyping is an activity with the purpose of creating a manifestation that, in its simplest form, filters the qualities in which designers are interested, without distorting the understanding of the whole." (Lim, Stolterman, & Tenenberg, 2008)

The pilot study took place in two different Bachelor courses in the winter term 2013 at the Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel (Germany) in the first session. The courses consist of 27 and 30 students, majoring in informatics or pedagogy. The students were asked to play the game in pairs and to write down their insights in the other discipline afterwards. Lateron they were asked to answer the following question in writing: "What did you learn about your interlocutor´ s discipline?"

For this task originally 20 minutes were planned, but the deadline had to be extended for about 10 minutes. During the envisioning of the design options and the materializing of the card game discussed at the Summer School a time limit was set for each card to encourage brief prompts. While some cards predetermine the quantity of maximum items (e.g. "Find 5 keywords that you  think are important in your partner´s discipline" or "Find a symbol for your discipline"), other cards were presented with a time limit (e.g. "You have a minute to describe a research phenomenon in your discipline"). ´Given that there are cards without any timeframe, tthe research team reconsiders a redesign in a next iteration.

One student wanted to have more time after the card game to discuss her own questions with her interlocutor as well as other players. Potentially, in a context of hard and soft scientists, it might also be interesting to change fellow partners during the game or to play two rounds with the same cards but different fellow players to support communication between as many researchers as possible and thus to explore different perspectives on unfamiliar disciplines.

Since some students were unsure if they had to answer their own upcard or if they had to direct the question to their fellow player, a more thorough introduction might be advisable. In a further testing such a game instruction will bring clarification.

On the face of it, one student struggled to specifiy a matching symbol for his discipline which might be justified by the recent start of his studies. Being a freshman in his Bachelor degree programme, he had just begun to deal with the epistemological foundations of his field and thus only reluctantly succeeded in allocating a symbol. Arguably, the cultivation of working practices throughout his studies, the introduction into ontological theories and approaches, plus the framing of an individual research field of interest during and after his course might lead to a more confident handling of this challenge.

Altogether the students seemed to be interested and dedicated while playing the card game. As the following quote shows they gained some new insights in their partner´s discipline:

"I now understand that informatics is highly interwoven with team work. The study does not only contain programming, but also includes for example legal aspects and questions. Furthermore there is a lot of terminology which I do not understand as a non-professional. During our lectures we use pen and paper instead of laptops."


To summarize the above, a number of recommendations can be drawn from the experiences of the pilot study that might serve as a useful foundation for a refined prototype:

  • Limitations of both time and items for each question play a considerable role in the design of the card game given the significant impact on the results, provoking more spontaneous and intuitive answers.
  • Additionally, the duration of the entire card game calls for reconsideration. Both dedication and concentration of the players allow for a broader scope of questions, and as such, should provide more space for employing both an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural lens.
  • A change of partners would bring more diverse experiences and results. To achieve the most promising results, the setting must ultimately be coupled with the greatest possible diversity both in terms of intercultural and interdisciplinary encounters.
  • The rules of the card game would have to be explained in more detail given that a few uncertainties of how to play the game appeared.
  • An unexpected finding was the possibility of using the card game as a means to foster self-identification among elementary students.



One limitation of the current pilot study is related to the biased nature of the sample given that participants were Bachelor students only. Inclusion of Master students could have provided richer and more comprehensive information regarding epistemological and ontological foundations of the disciplines involved. We hope to address this shortcoming by taking a larger sample both in terms of disciplines and levels of education with the refined prototype. Furthermore it might be query that all of them already have cultivated a professional self-perception. Possibly, some cards initiated a first reflection on the self-image and public image of the players' own disciplines and academic socialisation. Future research might thus explore mechanisms of action of the card game in other contexts with people working regularly in interdisciplinary teams who have already cultivated a sound epistemic frame of their disciplinary work.

Conclusions and Outlook

The major conclusion that can be drawn from this paper is that by employing a Design as Inquiry approach which takes into account both cross-cultural and interdisciplinary considerations, a jointly developed prototype of a card game which itself goes back to fruitful negotiations of meaning and intercultural establishment of common ground, was successfully piloted and as such, succeeded in addressing both cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary misconceptions. In an era of extraordinary change in higher education it is most crucial that we not only understand the epistemological foundations of other disciplines, but, more importantly, can relate them to intercultural settings which might apply additional parameters. It is essential, therefore, that initiatives are geared towards providing the international arena with tools for reflection to promote intercultural awareness and appreciation of others, be it in terms of disciplinary diversity or intercultural dialogue. As such, this card game jointly conceptualized by a group that is heterogenous in so many regards serves as a reference for professionals that seek to work together in a partnership of equals towards a common outcome. At the outset of this experience, the intercultural team was asked to articulate any intercultural stereotypes and disciplinary preconceptions they were holding against each other. By doing so, not only a reflection process was triggered, but, more importantly, they were given space to elaborate on their epistemological understandings which allowed for further exploration, and hence contributing to deeper knowledge and enhanced appreciation.


Allert, H., Richter, C. (2012). Design als Untersuchung: Act & Inquire in an Unfinished Universe. In: „’digital turn’? – studieren, kommunizieren, protestieren und die Macht des Digitalen“. Sammelband Ringvorlesung. V&R unipress GmbH: Vienna University Press

Dennett, D. (1998). The Intentional Stance. Massachusetts London: The MIT Press Cambridge .

Kuhn, T. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lim, Y.-K., Stolterman, E., & Tenenberg, J. (2008). The Anatomy of Prototypes: Prototypes as Filters, Prototypes as manifestations of Design Ideas. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 15(2), 1-27.

Mittelmäki, T. (2006). Design Probes. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.

Ostreng, W. (2007). Confluence: Interdisciplinary Communications. Centre for Advanced Study at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, (S. 11-15). Oslo.

Richter, C. & Allert, H. (2013a). Handbook – Design as Inquiry (Section A – Foundations). Retrieved from

Richter, C. & Allert, H. (2013b). Handbook – Design as Inquiry (Section B – Principles and Process). Retrieved from

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). 2.3 Planning Problems are Wicked. Polity, 4, 155-69.

Shay, S. (2003). The Assessment of Undergraduate Final Year Projects: A Study of Academic Professional Judgement. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Cape Town.

Schommer, M. (1994). Synthesizing epistemological belief research: tentative understandings and provocative confusions, Educational Psychology Review, 6, 293–319.



Remarks to figure x: mapping of the playing cards under categories


Mindful Listening

  1. Rephrase your partner´s answer


Outside Perspective

Deconstruction of Stereotypes

  1. Find 5 keywords that you think are important in your partner´s discipline.
  2. Find a keyword from your discipline and ask your partner to describe it from the viewpoint of your discipline.

Show Interest

  1. You are free to ask a question.


Internal Perspective

Self-Description (discipline)

  1. You have a minute to describe a research phenomenon in your discipline.
  2. People from my discipline are usually?
  3. Find a symbol for your discipline.

Self-Description (working style)

  1. I cannot work without…
  2. You should avoid … when working with me in my discipline.



Discuss & brainstorm

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dear all,

feel free to add/delete/change, adapt whatever you like. The headings are just a short skeleton to get an idea of where the paper might lead; I have also added the names accordingly.
Happy working then,
best, Martina