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Some things are better left unsaid, argues anthropologist Nick Verouden after studying researchers in international and interdisciplinary projects. He received his doctorate on May 11.

Universities are seen as stores of expertise and knowledge, as the breeding grounds for social change and innovations, which are needed to address the world’s biggest problems. Global challenges like climate change, material scarcity or plastic soup require international and interdisciplinary approaches.

But, says Nick Verouden, there is a gap between the ideals of interdisciplinary research and its day-to-day reality. Multiparty collaborations have even been described as ‘exercises in frustration that often exacerbate rather than improve the situation’.

Verouden, an anthropologist by training, observed TU researchers in three large collaboration projects for his PhD research project at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management. In his thesis, Silence that matters, he argues that saying nothing is an essential part of communication. Silence, he writes, has a capacity to shape social processes indirectly because, like the zero in mathematics, silence has meaning as an absence with function.

In fact, Verouden distinguishes no fewer than four different functions of silence, each with its own risks.

  • Silence out of respect – experts gathered together from different disciplines use this silence to retain a respectful distance towards one another in interactions with unclear boundaries of expertise. The risk here is that the respectful silence stops people from asking penetrating questions and putting each other’s ideas to the test.
  • Relational silence – Keeping one’s opinion to oneself can be a way to protect one’s own position within relation networks. Relational silence ensures friendly and smooth interaction with a wide variety of different participants in the network. But when disagreements are not acknowledged and expressed in the course of an interaction, differences in opinion are not managed effectively.
  • Tactical silence – Typical coordination problems in research groups are the lack of a formal work structure, dealing with time pressure, and attributing responsibilities. Silence may be used as a tactical means of management, says Verouden. Not naming parts of a plan can increase ambiguity, allowing different interpretations to coexist. Also, instead of discussing the same issues over and over, conversations may be more productive when not addressing stuck items. The risk, of course, is that goals are so vaguely formulated that confusion and frustration arise at later stages.
  • Interpretative silence – Don’t you think so? Silence may be a polite or tactful way to turn down a proposal without openly offending anybody. The jeopardy is that this lack of communication may be interpreted as a sign of passivity, lack of commitment or even disrespect.

Nick Verouden, Silence that matters | Understanding conversations in interdisciplinary collaboration, PhD supervisor Professor Jeroen van der Hoven (TPM), Co-promotors Professor Noelle Aarts (SIS, Nijmegen University) and Dr Maarten van der Sanden (SEC, TU Delft), 11 June 2018

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