8 Boundary Spanning Cultures in Applied Doctoral Research

Alice MacGillivray

Applied doctoral research takes many forms. This paper focuses on boundary-spanning trans- or inter-disciplinary doctoral programs at Fielding Graduate University (Fielding), in which students often explore and address complex social, cultural and leadership challenges. By boundaries, I mean socially constructed differentiators (Richardson & Lissack, 2001), which can have different impacts on different groups (Midgley, 2000).

I have been associated with Fielding since 2002: as a student between 2005 and 2009, a member of several doctoral committees, co-facilitator of workshops with faculty and with alumni, organizer of Canada-based intensives for doctoral students, co-investigator for internal research, governance member, chair of the alumni council, a fellow, and member of the president’s sustainability advisory council. As context for comparisons, I have played smaller roles in the development or delivery of doctoral studies in three other institutions.

Doctoral students from over 25 countries have studied at Fielding, and many—such as Alison Granger Brown—have done applied research in Canada (Fielding, n.d.). The faculty portion of the website (Fielding, n.d.) uses the phrase “40 Years of Delivering Personalized Learning” implying curricula with permeable boundaries (geographic, methodological, disciplinary…).

I am interested in applied, boundary spanning doctoral studies because I believe they are essential for wicked problems facing the world in this century. Universities have deep traditions with discipline-based doctoral programs; evolving programs with applied inter- and trans-disciplinary work can benefit from learning with and from each other. Successful boundary- spanning relates to culture as much as to content, and culture change is never easy.

What is applied? Some applied doctoral research is labelled project in contrast with dissertation. Scholars such as Connolly (2020) worry about the business-oriented slippery slope in higher education. Connolly values applied work and is concerned about threats to generative imagination. Fielding’s applied dissertations use both short term and more generative, upstream approaches (See Appendix A). Key to me is that students embark on doctoral research with the desire to catalyze or effect positive change. This would include but would not be restricted to action research. In practical terms, research spanning a few years—or even a decade—may not be fully applied for some time. After all, wicked problems such as biodiversity loss, climate change, and unequal access to resources have developed over centuries. And as with all complex challenges, research may yield unexpected results. Bentz and Shapiro (1998) describe research done by Don Bushnell (Fielding Faculty Emeritus) in which he developed resources for members of urban gangs. “Whereas one gang used the resources and personal support Bushnell provided through his project to develop a legitimate enterprise in cooperation with a rival gang, another used it to become more efficient at extortion and other illegal activities” (p. 55). In such cases, the definition of applied may lead to ethical debates. In this paper, I consider applied as research with the intent of positive change.

Boundary spanning experiences I share in the full paper are linked to the work of two other scholars. The first is systems scientist Gerald Midgley’s work with systemic intervention (2000, Fazey et al., 2018, Sydelkoa, P. et al., in press) including theoretical and methodological pluralism, marginalization, and the Theory of Boundary Critique. Midgley’s work creates space between entities (such as theory and practice) in order to explore emergence, synergies and marginalization. Midgley’s research, which I have built on in the past, frames perspectives for experiences I share.

I also connect experiences with principles of dialogue such as “Members have the knowledge and wisdom to jointly address an organization’s adaptive challenges” from a post by Nancy Dixon (2021), retired professor from The George Washington University. Her list of principles draws explicitly on the work of some systems scientists, and implicitly on others, such as C. West Churchman’s idea of sweeping in as much as possible to understand a problem and make decisions. Ulrich (2004) noted that Churchman’s sweeping in principle “embodies nothing less than a pragmatic criterion of truth: true knowledge and understanding of a problem are the result of a process of inquiry that in principle is endless and must remain open to considering ever more aspects of a problem’s environment” (p. 202). Ulrich also raised the question of exactly what should be swept in, and how that may relate to the limitations of science (and implicitly the growing value of social sciences).

Conclusions describe how the cultures of Fielding’s doctoral research spaces facilitate relevant, applied social research through a not-for-profit institution. The conclusions address elements of culture including boundary-spanning, systems perspectives, egalitarianism, dialogue, and inclusion.


Bentz, V. M., & Shapiro, J. J. (1998). Mindful inquiry in social research. SAGE Publications.

Connolly, J. (2020). Dialogue across Divides. Academe, 106(2), N.PAG.

Dixon, N. (2021, March 30). What needs to be in place for an organization to be dialogic. Conversation Matters. https://www.nancydixonblog.com/2021/03/what-needs-to-be-in-place-for-an-organization-to-be-dialogic.html

Fazey, J., Schäpke, N., Caniglia, G., Patterson, J., Hultman, J., Mierlo, V.B., Säwe, F., Wiek, A., Wittmayer, J., Aldunce, P., Husam Waer, A., Battacharya, N., Bradbury, H., Carmen, E., Colvin, J., Cvitanovic, C., D’Souza, M., Gopel, M., Goldstein, B.,…Wyborn, C. (2018). Ten essentials for action-oriented and second order energy transitions, transformations and climate change research. Energy Research & Social Science, 40, 54–70

Fielding Graduate University (n.d.) Alumni, faculty, & students creating real impact. https://www.fielding.edu/our-impact/

Fielding Graduate University (n.d.). Fielding faculty. https://www.fielding.edu/who-we-are/our- faculty/

Midgley, G. (2000). Systemic intervention: philosophy, methodology, and practice (Ser. Contemporary systems thinking). Kluwer Academic/Plenum

Richardson, K. A., & Lissack, M. R. (2001). On the status of boundaries, both natural and organizational: a complex systems perspective. Emergence, 3(4), 32–49.

Sydelkoa, P., Midgley, G., Espinosac, A. (In press). Designing interagency responses to wicked problems: Creating a common, cross-agency understanding. European Journal of Operational Research.

Ulrich, W. (2004). In memory of C. West Churchman (1913–2004) Reminiscences, retrospectives, and reflections. Journal of Organisational Transformation and Social Change, 1 (2/3).

Appendix A: Sample of Applied Fielding Dissertation Research

Changes in Society and Systems

Cloutier, C. J. (2017). Resolving the wicked nature of compensation: A meta-ethical approach (Order No. 10622078) [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

Zayas, N. L. (2011). A comparative analysis of online versus traditional teaching of environmental literacy using participatory action research (Order No. 3457978) [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

Changes in Groups, Organizations and Services

Benally, T. (2017). Toward true educational sovereignty for the Navajo nation: Structure, politics, curriculum, and quality (Order No. 10255095) [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

Brown, J. (2002). The world café: Living knowledge through conversations that matter (Order No. 3041666) [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Institute]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

Charles-Ford, S. (2014). Improving post-incident trauma-informed care for drive-by shooting Victims/Survivors by building collaborative leadership systems among agencies and their clients (Order No. 3633100) [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

de Jonge, L. (2013). Creating shared value: Using social media to extend a corporation’s commitment to social responsibility (Order No. 3555533) [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

Changes Through Self

Berg, M. (2010). What are the lived experiences of women over 50 who report a dramatic shift from a negative to positive self-image? (Order No. 3418918) [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

Garthwaite, L. J. (2014). Personal practices for emancipatory systems change (Order No. 3628944). [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.


Boundary Spanning Cultures in Applied Doctoral Research Copyright © 2022 by Alice MacGillivray. All Rights Reserved.

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