It’s hard to avoid “interdisciplinarity” these days, particularly when it comes to complex, real-world problems like global climate change. Social, natural, and computational scientists demand it. So, too, do research councils and philanthropic funders, scientific and professional organizations. Even the Earth itself, many say, demands it, since global climate change’s scale and complexity exceed what any discipline alone can offer. From whatever angle, it seems, interdisciplinarity is science’s solution to society’s biggest problem.

“Our common ways of thinking about interdisciplinarity and the disciplines prove poor guides to the complexities that this knowledge ecology, in practice, entails.”

But how, precisely, do we imagine and practice “interdisciplinarity” to save the planet? How do we attempt to solve the knowledge problems interdisciplinarity raises? And how, as scholars, might we analyze, theorize, and understand such things? These are some of the questions we’re exploring in our larger anthropological project on how scientific knowledges are produced, mobilized, and put to work in the name of policy-relevance. By “scientific knowledges” we mean knowledges from the natural and social sciences, as well as from the humanities. Our particular interest lies in the scientific knowledge ecology surrounding global climate change—an object of study that’s nearly as big, complex, and variable as the biophysical climate it seeks to comprehend. This, however, is manageable. More problematic, from our perspective anyway, is the fact that our common ways of thinking about interdisciplinarity and the disciplines, science and society, prove poor guides to the complexities that this knowledge ecology, in practice, entails.

Multiple modes of inter/disciplinarity

One such complexity is that interdisciplinarity in this arena works in many modes, which are entangled in practice. The first of these, a very popular one, employs collage and puzzle metaphors. It insists that all disciplines and knowledge domains matter, that all are required to solve the problem of global climate change. On their own, the reasoning goes, disciplines and knowledge domains are partial and of little practical use. But they can be combined to form the larger interdisciplinary whole, an act that purportedly renders them relevant and useful to society. Key here is the idea that disciplinary origins and distinct knowledge domains must be retained and kept in sight: the point is to bring together, link, and display diversity, not to erase it. By this metric, disciplines must remain legible, each visibly representing part of a larger, imagined knowledge whole; diverse scientific knowledges must sit alongside one another to represent and capture the planet’s complexities. This vision and set of knowledge practices is enacted alongside others in science policy documents, funding councils, scholarly publications and global institutions like the IPCC and Future Earth. “All disciplines aboard!” the motto might go. Given the preoccupation with broad representation and visible diversity, we could call this the United Nations mode of interdisciplinarity.

Another common mode of interdisciplinarity in this arena is the cosmopolitan mode, which works through particular data practices. In this mode, free-flowing data, information, and tools, which often originate in disciplines, become the means by which disparate knowledge domains integrate and also connect with various end-users. Research initiatives such as the fourth International Polar Year and large environmental data portals such as that operated by NOAA rely on the possibilities for connection and integration inherent in unencumbered open data. Unlike the UN mode of interdisciplinarity, though, this mode does not attempt to preserve and valorize disparate knowledge origins, but rather to render them obsolete. In order to travel freely through the massive climate change data economy, data are standardized and rendered interoperable. Metadata (data about data) are produced. Yet such operations are not always successful. Human data are often ensnared by ethical and epistemological entailments, making any career as cosmopolitan world traveler problematic; codified metadata don’t always capture relevant contexts. The origins of data, their contexts of production, thus regularly re-emerge as problems; they are not easily erased.

“Sheer scale and complexity present problems.”

Other modes of interdisciplinarity exist in this arena, too. For example, rather than maintaining and displaying disciplines and discrete knowledge domains, or attempting to erase them, others work hard to synthesize, integrate and overcome them. These efforts unfold under diverse banners: issue-driven interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, post-normal science, sustainability science, earth system science, etc. Their objects of interest—coupled human and natural systems (CHANS), social-ecological systems (SES), the earth system, among others—are often imagined as big, complex systems with manifold interactions among physical, chemical, biological, and social processes, themselves capable of capturing our complex world and producing policy solutions for it. Yet the sheer scale and complexity present problems. Because the academy and its disciplines took shape long ago, many note, they are ill-suited to the task at hand. Today’s world needs new types of scientists and sciences: ones that can synthesize, integrate, and transgress outmoded, conventional disciplines; ones that can move beyond the academy to produce knowledge-for-policy. These ideas animate myriad environment and society programs, initiatives, and centers found across North America and Europe that aim to span the social and natural sciences, as well as science and policy domains.1 For example, see the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, the Belmont Forum, and Columbia University’s Climate and Society program. In this mode, disciplines must be acknowledged, but also surpassed; they are part of the problem, not its solution. Since the aim is to actively manage scientific knowledge to achieve policy solutions, we call this the global managerial mode of interdisciplinarity.

Within and among these modes—and there are others—complications abound. For one thing, interdisciplinarities and their knowledges do not always remain “interdisciplinary” in practice. Some efforts to transcend disciplines give rise to new disciplines in all but name: “interdisciplinary disciplines,” one might say, that cohere around ideas of master synthesizers who can see, know, and do things disciplinarians cannot. Other explicitly interdisciplinary efforts manage to produce “new” knowledge that, truth be told, was disciplinary knowledge about a century ago.2 See Halls and Sanders’s “Accountability and the Academy: Producing Knowledge about the Human Dimensions of Climate Change” (2015). Read online →

Neither do conventional disciplines in this arena work in the ways sometimes imagined. Disciplines from across the natural and social sciences and humanities, for example, are engaging with supra-disciplinary concerns—witness the vibrant discussions around “the Anthropocene”—that enable both disciplinary revitalizations as well as more-than-disciplinary discussions, debates, and knowledges.3 See Halls and Sanders’s “Is There Hope for an Anthropocene Anthropology?” (2015). Read online → It’s not “whole disciplines,” of course, that enter into such conversations, but parts of them. Thus diverse social scientists swayed by, say, Marxism, poststructuralism, or human ecology often find more to discuss with colleagues “across disciplines” than they do with fellow disciplinarians of different theoretical persuasions. By the same token, social scientists guided by a positivist epistemology often share less with their interpretivist disciplinary colleagues than they do with like-minded souls elsewhere, including in parts of the natural and computational sciences. On close inspection, disciplines, disciplinarians, and their knowledges turn out to have been “interdisciplinary” and “relevant” all along.

When the natives are us

Now, if one wishes to capture and make sense of this complex knowledge ecology, its many problems and proposed solutions, there are many ready-to-hand concepts and conversations that might help. Many academics these days, after all, aim to produce useful knowledge to solve real-world problems, and there is no shortage of advice on how to do so. Interdisciplinarity (or trans-, pluri-, multidisciplinarity, etc.) is one common solution, and more specifically, the need to overcome “boundaries” or “barriers” between the social and natural sciences, and between science and society. The trouble is, these common concerns and dualisms provide little theoretical purchase over the messy knowledge practices that the global climate change knowledge ecology entails. What’s more, as natives of the academy, keen both to understand and intervene in the world, it’s not always easy to escape our customary ways of thinking about these things.

In the 1920s, Bronislaw Malinowski famously claimed that the anthropologist’s goal was to grasp “the native’s point of view”—a dictum that has guided anthropology ever since. At the same time, he insisted that grasping the native’s point of view was never the endgame but merely the beginning. While natives understood and could explain in the vernacular their own motives, the rules of social engagement, and how and when they followed them, they could not see the big picture, as it were, nor did they possess the analytic vocabulary needed to do so. This was—and still is—the anthropologist’s job. Not that anthropologists write much about “natives” these days. We don’t. But we still insist that constructing properly anthropological accounts demands soaking in our interlocutors’ categories, conundrums, and concerns, while also moving beyond them, to construct analyses around anthropologists’ own categories, conundrums, and concerns (e.g., “society,” “culture,” “subsistence economy,” etc.). It is the epistemic distance and constant tacking between the two—between “their” point of view and “ours”—that affords theoretical perspective and new insights into the worlds we seek to understand.

“When anthropologists set our sights at home, when we become the natives, things get trickier.”

Yet when anthropologists set our sights at home, when we become the natives, things get trickier. The productive distance between “them” and “us” diminishes; the native’s point of view aligns with—or is—the analyst’s point of view; and anthropological analyses, for these reasons, threaten to power down. And this, in a way, is the state of play when it comes to interdisciplinarity today. Our native cum analyst point of view is well-known, our dualistic vernacular widely spoken: in the climate change arena, we indefatigably demand interdisciplinarity over disciplinarity; C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” problem commands much attention; efforts to put Science to work for Society remain robust.4 Cambridge University Press, 1959.More info →

But these common conversations and concerns often leave us analytically flatfooted, unable to gain theoretical traction, precisely because we’re conversing in the vernacular and articulating the native’s point of view, which is our own. For anthropologists and for other analysts too, the challenge is how to gain perspective when the natives are us. We need to cleave analytic spaces, and find ways of thinking that differ from common sense.

Finding alter/native points of view

Doing so can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. This is because the native was never as short-sighted or monolithic as has sometimes been imagined. As it happens, natives commonly speak many languages, hold many points of view, and have many ways of thinking. This multiplicity makes the native-analyst’s task possible: the aim is not to get beyond our native point of view, but to locate and leverage other such views that are very much alive and with us—including right here in the academy.

“Scientific knowledge ecologies can be reimagined not as battlegrounds for dualisms and parts/whole problems, but as complexly entangled, emergent forms of life.”

For us, this has meant dwelling on notions of “process,” “emergence,” and “becoming,” which today animate a range of vernaculars, ways of thinking, and modes of enquiry (consider, say, assemblages, actor networks, rhizomes, relational ontologies, hybridities, etc.). From this point of view, scientific knowledge ecologies can be reimagined not as battlegrounds for dualisms and parts/whole problems, but as complexly entangled, emergent forms of life. Science and society always already contain each other. The proverbial “Two Cultures” are not—or not reliably so. And “disciplines” and “interdisciplinarity” become shapeshifters, periodically fixed, but only provisionally, by the questions we choose to ask of them. What becomes important about discipline in one context may not matter, or even be visible, in another.

A further move we find productive, one that comes naturally to anthropologists, is to analyze interdisiplinarity not as a generic knowledge problem but as a Euro-American one. Contextualizing our object in this way does double duty. First, it provides an additional perspective on our knowledges, knowledge problems and their imagined solutions, furthering the analysts’ tricky work of rendering the familiar strange. What seems unremarkable and obvious from our native point of view can seem remarkable and requiring explanation when juxtaposed with knowledge practices from elsewhere. Second, such contextualization draws attention to an old social science commonplace, but one that remains underappreciated when it comes to interdisciplinarity and complex, real-world problems: science and society solve each other. In this instance, solutions to the problem of interdisciplinarity are solutions to the problem of society. When it comes to global scientific knowledge, however, the question of which society or societies looms large and invites further reflection.

Posted on October 18, 2016


See Halls and Sanders’s “Accountability and the Academy: Producing Knowledge about the Human Dimensions of Climate Change” (2015). Read online →
See Halls and Sanders’s “Is There Hope for an Anthropocene Anthropology?” (2015). Read online →
Cambridge University Press, 1959.More info →