Expanding the scope of “Comparative Frontiers” as a transdiscipline.

Preliminary Thesis Proposal

Geoffrey Evamy Hill



How might we better understand relationships between complex systems?

I believe that by examining frontiers, the murky boundary spaces between interacting entities, we can generate greater insight into the nature of the entities themselves. I propose expanding the scope of the sub-discipline known as Comparative Frontiers by further integrating it with the interdisciplinary concept of “Trading Zones” and introducing more techniques of systems thinking to its toolbox of inquiry. The western frontier is a rich metaphor for general inquiry. Therefore, I believe that we will be able to use this transdiscipline to better understand complex entities at any scale.

Areas of Specialization

After general discussion of the concept of frontiers, I will use a series of cases to demonstrate the transdisciplinary relevance of the topic. The main focus will be on how comparative frontiers relates to arts, the humanities, social science and knowledge integration itself. Topics will start broadly, then focus down into the interface between individuals, and pull back out to a more abstract level. This will demonstrate that frontiers are an emergent phenomenon and can be compared between seemingly disparate levels to generate interesting insights. At this point, I see the key possible examples as:


  • “Progress as a Frontier”: What is the nature of humanity’s propensity towards ever growing complexity as manifested by civilization? Could civilization be seen as a dynamic technology made up of interacting technologies used to push the frontier of nature further away?
  • “Inter-Societal Frontiers”: Why were there differences in the frontier experience between Canada, the United States and South Africa? How and why does cultural transmission differ between cases of inter-societal interface? (conventional comparative frontiers)
  • “Intra-Societal Frontiers”:  How do communities organize to interact within a society and what basis does race and gender (standpoint in general?) play in this process? (exploration of women in emerging industries, industrialization or information era)
  • “Inter-Individual Frontiers”: What can the intersect between cognitive science and economics tell us about the nature of the transmission space between people?
  • “Knowledge as a  Frontier”: What are the similarities and differences between how high science and fine art interface with and tame the unknown?


These examples will likely integrate to physical manifested frontiers and conceptual frontiers, in which case a key part of the work will be to try to blend this apparent dichotomy, making comparative frontiers a more holistic investigative enterprise. It poses a similar problem to that of dualism in Cognitive Science.

It will be important to create a compelling case for people to use comparative frontiers for analysis of various situations. Thus, developing a series of tools and techniques for analyzing frontiers in general will be essential. I would imagine that these tools will be inspired and adapted from Philosophy ( specifically Collins & Evans ideas on Trading Zones) geography and GIS (like software as tools for analyzing physical and conceptual space, metamaps.cc philosophy) and current comparative frontiers research in history.


There is an obvious problem of scope given the topic and the particular questions I have raised. It would be ideal to cover all of these topics to achieve the goal of a holistic expansion of this field. I believe that given more time to think I could better integrate the topic and tighten things up. In the end, the key goal will be to develop a compelling case for the idea of a frontier as a useful as an analytic tool, and to further develop this particular analytical toolbox.

The process will likely be developing a fuller understanding of comparative frontiers as it stands, gathering knowledge of existing tools and concepts from other disciplines to integrate into this study, and then applying this theory to these questions in a compelling way. The intent is really to produce a high level, accessible thesis that raises valuable questions rather than something that answers specific aspects of any of these questions I have raised.


In the first stage, it will take a significant amount of discovery and analysis to produce well-considered supporting topics and examples as well as a suitable research agenda.

The thesis will likely take the form of the presentation of general theory and background, proposal of methods, assessment of questions with suitable examples, integration of examples, discussion and argument for general theory.

I would like to take as academically rigorous an approach as possible to produce a final deliverable. I would equally like this research to be as accessible as possible to engage the lay population to think in terms of frontiers and trading zones. This might involve adapting the thesis into a more readable, popular type publication. It may also involve reinterpreting the research in some kind of new media way, whether it is a video, an interactive website,  or a series of GIFS. Finding a good balance in scope between these two outcomes will be essential.


Why this topic? It’s because the examples I listed above, in descending order, are based on questions I have asked in each year of my undergrad and have yet to answer. I feel that these questions are not so different from one another, and can be understood to a very deep level by looking at them from an comparative frontiers standpoint. By introducing expanded transdisciplinary systems thinking into the field, I will be able to create a particular set of tools and techniques for analyzing many situations. In addition, this project would help me develop greater ownership of the skills of systems thinking and transdisciplinarity. It will be a vehicle for me to better understand some outstanding questions of my undergrad. This topic is an ideal capstone for my undergrad, and may possibly generate valuable knowledge and tools for others.

Potential Supervisors

This topic will likely require joint supervision in order to sufficiently cover topics with depth and insight. At this point I have developed this list:

  • Russell Adams- Anthropology Adjunct Assistant Professor- expert on the emergence of complex societies
  • Andrew Hunt- History Associate Professor- research interests in the American West
  • Katherine Plaisance- Philosophy- Research interests in Interactional Expertise & Trading Zones

I have a number of other people I intend to talk to this term to open up and inform my solution space for this project.

  • Peter Johnson- Geography- mapping frontiers physical and non-physical
  • Derek Koehler- Cognitive Economics- decision making
  • Linda Carson- creative thinking and intersect of fine art/ high science
  • Karla Fehr- interdisciplinary frontiers
  • Paul Thagard- Interacting consciousnesses
  • Someone from Econ department

Intention to override recommended course sequence.

As of Fall 2013 I am in my 3B term. I intend to graduate in Fall 2014, and therefore must take the thesis courses out of sequence. I hope to begin in Winter 2014 with 421 as my 420, and the reverse for Fall 2013 as well. This will complicate the submission of deliverables. I hope to discuss an alternative with Ed and the new course supervisor in W13 but I have some ideas for how I could make up for potentially missing the poster fair.

  • Participating in poster fair with research up to that point
    • I have effectively started this project as of September 2013 and will be prepared with some material by March 2014
  • Presenting at a KI seminar towards the end of F14
    • I would be comfortable in presenting my thesis to the KI group

question, agree or disagree

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