Toolbox approach

A tool to uncover implicit assumptions and shared understandings of scientific disciplines and to oppose them to the thought styles of other disciplines.

What is the Toolbox Approach? The Toolbox Approach consists of a set of questions and statements (i.e., the “Toolbox”) that are used to trigger dialogue in a workshop format. It helps researchers become aware of their own (disciplinary) thought style and the thought style of collaborating disciplines.
Why should it be applied? Often, researchers of various backgrounds start from the assumption that they all share the same scientific thought style. In fact, disciplines differ in what they consider a scientific method, a correct research design or a reliable source of evidence. The Toolbox Approach reveals these underlying assumptions by asking simple (philosophical) questions such as ‘What kinds of data constitute scientific evidence?’. Revealing the underlying assumptions and making them explicit enables deep mutual understanding and deliberation on what shared standards could be.
Workshop participants sharing their discipline's notions of science
Workshop participants sharing their discipline's notions of science (Image: G. Wülser)
Workshop participants sharing their discipline's notions of science
Workshop participants sharing their discipline's notions of science (Image: G. Wülser)
When should it be applied? The Toolbox Approach is best used early in a joint process of knowledge production to lay a sound basis for collaboration.
How does it work?

A Toolbox Approach workshop includes the following basic steps:

1) A facilitator distributes the Toolbox and asks the participants to respond to the prompts individually. The prompts can be either a set of open questions, or a set of statements to be answered by scoring Likert scales.

2) Depending on the size of the group, the individual answers are discussed in the whole group or in sub-groups. The discussion is self-organised.

3) In case of Likert scales, the participants can be asked to respond to the prompts a second time to check for changes as a result of the discussion.

4) The workshop closes by discussing the experiences with the Toolbox in plenary.

How are thought-styles bridged?

The Toolbox Approach bridges disciplinary thought styles by making underlying assumptions explicit so that researchers get a deeper understanding of their own and other disciplines' world-view.

What’s the output/outcome?

For an individual, the outcome is clarity about disciplinary world-views.

As a group, the outcome is clarity about different assumptions and positions.

Who participates in what role?

A facilitator moderates the workshop.

The researchers of the different disciplines involved in a project are the participants.

What do I need to prepare?

Besides going through one of the papers to learn more about the Toolbox Approach, the only thing to prepare is the Toolbox, i.e. the list of questions and statements per participant. A set of open questions can be found in Eigenbrode et al 2007, a set of statements to be answered by scoring likert scales in Schnapp et al 2012.

When not to use the method?

The Toolbox Approach was originally designed for a heterogeneous group of researchers. The prompts address issues researchers are familiar with, but not other societal stakeholders. The original Toolbox should therefore not be used in heterogeneous stakeholder groups. Currently, however, further Toolboxes are being designed to enable dialogue among societal stakeholders.


td-net toolbox – Toolbox approach

Learn more

O'Rourke M, Crowley S, Eigenbrode S D, Wulfhorst J D (eds) 2014. Enhancing Communication & Collaboration in Interdisciplinary Research. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.

O'Rourke M, Crowley S 2013. Philosophical intervention and cross-disciplinary science: the story of the Toolbox Project. Synthese, V190, N11, pp 1937-1954.

The open questions can be found on p. 61 of

Eigenbrode S D et al 2007. Employing philosophical dialogue in collaborative science. Bioscience, V57, N1, pp 55-64.

Profile provided by

Reviewed by Michael O'Rourke