I have come to appreciate that the challenges of working within and across disciplines, or in the field with diverse populations, or in inter-governmental programs have more similarities than differences. In each case, we are part of cultures and subcultures shaped by histories and myths of origins, ancestors, languages and coded behavior, norms and moral codes, rites of passage, institutions and organizations, and a variety of contradictions between idealized and actual behavior. Our various identities are situational and can be reinforced, or dismissed. We love and hate the stereotypes associated with these dispositions. We can be quite ethnocentric (or discipline-centric), but we also appreciate the richness that emerges from respecting differences, and regret the conflicts that stem from them.
Discussions about interdisciplinarity tend to bring these “intercultural” tensions and opportunities to the fore. Amid these conversations, we often clash over institutional territories, protection of professional identity, contrasting epistemologies, even claiming methods as property, even though in our practices we may transgress all of these in favor of understanding problems, learning from collaborations, and producing knowledge. Thus, I have also come to appreciate that interdisciplinarity is less about an institutionalized process or a structure, but an intrinsic part of thinking about problems, questions, and evidence, whether the subject is narrow or broad. A series of superb essays in Items have explored some of these issues in recent months. Here, I take the opportunity to share a perspective gained from working collaboratively on social-environmental issues, from local to global, in the Amazon region and elsewhere.
The nature of scholarly collaboration“By nature, knowledge production transcends organizational boundaries, whether it emanates within or across disciplines.”
When debating interdisciplinarity, we often conflate disciplines as organizational structures and disciplines as domains of knowledge production. These two dimensions of disciplines may be interlocked by history and institutional organization, but they are not always correlated. For this reason, defining disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge often creates unnecessary and unproductive deadlocks. By nature, knowledge production transcends organizational boundaries, whether it emanates within or across disciplines. For instance, social-environmental problems involve questions that are social and biophysical, factual and subjective in nature, on issues that are material and immaterial, using diverse forms of evidence that are observed and/or inferred, at multiple scales. Any disciplinary separation of these dimensions is merely historical accident and/or analytical pragmatism, which can be useful and productive or fragmentary and disastrous. The complexity of social-environmental problems inherently calls for complementary forms of knowledge, views and values, approaches, and levels of analysis. It is here—on integration and complementarity—where disciplines as organizational structures tend to fall short. Instead of being concerned with disciplinary labels and organizational territories, it is more productive to turn our efforts to collaborative problem framing and development of conceptual frameworks that help to leverage the value of complementary expertise and experiences needed for the understanding of complex problems.
In other words, whether practiced individually or collaboratively, interdisciplinarity is the process by which one critically considers how problems should be defined and conceptualized, what questions should be posed at what level of analysis, and the types and diversity of evidence to be produced as evaluative criteria to a problem. This process is intrinsically intersubjective, and can take place within and across disciplines, and beyond. It presumes the value of expertise, including nonacademic expertise, in ways that contribute to a better understanding of larger puzzles.
Disciplines are not monoliths
There is a plethora of invaluable reflections about the roots, definitions, merits, and evils of academic disciplines, their evolution and subdivision since the nineteenth century, their perpetuation through institutional structures and training, their technical sophistication, and also their limitations to address and engage with complex problems. These issues have become staples in the strategic plans developed by science foundations, research institutes, and universities during the last two decades. Not always, however, do these discussions reflect the actual practice of scholarship within “disciplines.” While we may be stuck in reproducing ideas of bounded disciplines rooted in the twentieth century, in general (and not disregarding some persisting pockets of disciplinary arrogance), disciplines remain dynamic and intertwined in many creative ways. Scholars rooted in disciplines often try to break old molds, although often trapped in institutional and organization contexts or disciplinary culture that can limit such dynamisms.
Yet, there is so much diversity within the umbrella of most institutionalized disciplines that assumptions (usually stereotypical) about what a given discipline “is” can hardly match what people in a discipline “do.” The problem starts with definitions and classifications, which may list disciplines in the dozens or hundreds, using various types of hierarchies. New “disciplines” are created all the time at the convergence or divergence of scholarship and institutional organization. Furthermore, what is interdisciplinary today can be disciplinary tomorrow. The more “traditional” disciplines have become so large and diverse that it has become challenging to talk about internal coherence. It is not uncommon for colleagues in the same disciplinary department to be completely ignorant of each other’s areas of expertise—including related theories, concepts, and methods—which can be nonetheless comfortably shared with colleagues outside of one’s “discipline” but working on similar problems. Even across groups working on similar issues within a discipline, such as social-environmental issues, one may find completely different vocabularies and conceptual framings depending on one’s theoretical orientation.“Reflections on interdisciplinarity offer an opportunity to reinvigorate social science from its own self-inflicted conflicts, incoherencies, and crises of confidence.”
Still, even if one considers the term “discipline” of limited utility, the same problem is true for concepts that have tried to “pre-fix” it, whether multi-, inter-, cross-, pluri-, or trans- (disciplinarity). Beyond their general reference to different types of combinations, have you ever come across definitions of one of these concepts that satisfy you? They often create more disagreement than productive engagement as some of them stereotype disciplines either as narrow and limited or as historical relics. Arguably, there is little hope for consistency across these terms, and perhaps not much need of it. But there is a point in these discussions: they bring attention to the impact of institutional organization on the fragmentation of knowledge, and attention to the distance within the academy and between it and society. Reflections on interdisciplinarity offer an opportunity to reinvigorate social science from its own self-inflicted conflicts, incoherencies, and crises of confidence.
From elusive synthesis to collaborative conceptual framing in environmental anthropology?
Many branches of the social sciences have engaged in deep reconsiderations about how science is practiced and knowledge is produced; how narratives of truth are asserted; how power operates within science; how solutions are developed and for what and for whom; and who benefits from different framings and narratives of reality. Whether these discussions are heard or not outside of academia, disciplines such as anthropology have confronted the impact of colonialism, capitalist expansion, and development experiments around the world for over 40 years. These reflections have been mostly turbulent, but certainly invaluable.
Consider the recent debates around the Anthropocene.1Eduardo S. Brondizio et al, “Re-conceptualizing the Anthropocene: A Call for Collaboration,” Global Environmental Change:Human and Policy Dimensions 39 (July 2016): 318–327. The concept of the Anthropocene has brought together attention to a state-change of the Earth system serving as a bridging concept in the natural sciences, while gaining importance in the social sciences and humanities. However, the generalized and ahistorical interpretation within the natural sciences of humanity’s contribution to global change, labeling “humans” as a unitary global force, downplayed the fundamental political economic dynamics behind a changing planet full of inequalities. Reactions from the social sciences and the humanities have moved this discussion forward in more inclusive and complex ways. To address these dynamics, collaborative engagements in complex systems research have grown through international research platforms and different funding programs.2In fact, we may be currently witnessing a major institutional turning point in disciplinary history as the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) and the International Social Sciences Council (ISSC) are considering merging.
That said, while we have moved away from monolithic social theories since the 1960s, we haven’t been able to coalesce around conceptual framings capable of bringing our diversity together around the complexity of societal problems. While disciplines such as anthropology seem to be living in a period of peace and reconciliation after the turbulent debates of the past, the emergence of new syntheses continues to be elusive.
My own field of environmental anthropology evolved in strokes since the 1960s as attention to ecological, political, historical, cognitive, and symbolic dimensions of human-environment relationships have been progressively developed as a reaction to previous approaches. Whole productive communities, interdisciplinary in their own terms, are formed around each of these dimensions today. Yet, while we have been able to recognize and value the importance of each piece of the social-environmental puzzle, we still lack conceptual syntheses that help us bring the pieces together in a way that reflects the complexity and multi-scale nature of social-environmental problems.3Eduardo S. Brondizio, Stefano Fiorini, and Ryan Adams, “History and Scope of Environmental Anthropology,” in Routledge Handbook of Environmental Anthropology, ed. Helen Kopnina and Eleanor Shoreman-Ouimet (New York: Routledge, 2016), 10-30. Since the 1980s, environmental anthropologists have been calling attention to problem-based collaborative research and the integration of levels of analysis while criticizing dualisms and determinisms in social-environmental analysis.4For instance, among many: Emilio F. Moran, ed., The Ecosystem Approach in Anthropology: From Concept to Practice (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1991), 476. Whether recognized or not, these reflections have been instrumental to current social-environmental research, but the field has yet to offer a more integrated picture of human-environment interaction. Beyond a call for theoretical synthesis, the collaborative development of conceptual frameworks could help bring together and leverage the contribution of these diverse environmental anthropology communities to a multitude of social-environmental problems around us.“A collection of interdisciplinary expertise around a social-environmental issue devoid of such historical reflexivity will likely be as narrow as the alternative it may try to overcome.”
More broadly, although interdisciplinary endeavors are often taken as the antidote to disciplinary fragmentation, they can have pernicious effects if not enough attention is paid to the history and lessons (including the history of theories, concepts, and methods) that have marked the development of disciplines. A collection of interdisciplinary expertise around a social-environmental issue devoid of such historical reflexivity will likely be as narrow as the alternative it may try to overcome. As the Anthropocene debate illustrates, the shared history and reflexivity of the social sciences represents a major strength and source of intellectual capital in a time of complex intersections between local, national, and global connections; accelerated environmental and climate change; wicked political crises; and persisting social inequality and injustices. Arguably, the greatest challenge for social science represents its greatest opportunity: to build upon such historical capital and diversity to leverage its rich and complementary range of expertise. Yet asserting the broader relevance of the social sciences today will require more proactive engagement with academic and nonacademic communities working on crosscutting issues.
To address this issue, I will reflect on my own practice in working within and across disciplines and “knowledge systems,” in the classroom, in the field, and in international and inter-governmental collaboration arenas.
Interdisciplinarity as a critical thinking and reflexive process
Having worked on diverse types of social-environmental problems and with diverse groups of people, I have come to appreciate that fruitful collaboration starts with a joint effort on how to “problematize”—i.e., to achieve common ground on what problems we confront and how we define them—what questions to elicit the understanding of each other’s terminology, the conceptual and analytical framing, and consideration of diverse forms of evidence.
In my own thinking, collaborative work, and in teaching research design, I use (implicitly or explicitly) a four-quadrant matrix, as shown in Figure 1, to get students and colleagues to consider different perspectives on problem framing and conceptualization, question elicitation, evaluative criteria, data collection, and analytical options. At the center of the figure, one considers an issue or problem, which could be within a disciplinary domain or broader—for instance, as related to climate change, governance of common pool resources, poverty and food security, environment and well-being, land use change, and so forth. It is important to start with the problem in order to consider how to confront it through the lenses of particular theories and epistemological orientations, and to frame questions at different levels of detail. The different dimensions of a problem and the questions one may pose about it, however, hinge on considering evidence of different types.
Social-environmental issues are particularly useful for making a case for the potential complementarity of multiple forms of knowledge and evidence, including knowledge systems held by local and indigenous populations and stakeholders more broadly.5Maria Tengö, Eduardo S. Brondizio, Pernilla Malmer, Thomas Elmqvist, and Marja Spierenburg, “Connecting Diverse Knowledge Systems for Enhanced Ecosystem Governance: The Multiple Evidence Base Approach,” AMBIO 43, no. 5 (September 2014): 579-591. Social-environmental issues vary according to spatial and temporal scale, specific dimensions (natural and social, material and symbolic, behavioral and cognitive, physical and emotional, economic and political). Most people would agree there are multiple dimensions to any such phenomena that are complementary and interdependent. The challenge is to articulate ways to leverage this complementarity as part of a larger puzzle, including the contradictions that emerge from diverse theoretical orientations, knowledge systems, and types of questions and evidence.6Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010More Info →
This requires critically considering the implications of problem framing and question elicitation for the choices of evidence, and vice versa, including their trade-offs. Recognizing the diverse nature of evidence is an important part of the process when it comes to working with diverse teams and stakeholders. Social-environmental issues are always multidimensional, cross-scale, and value-laden, ranging from objective to subjective in the type of question and related forms of evidence. Across this objective-subjective gradient, evidence also ranges from more “observable” to “inferred.” Considering trade-offs between combinations of evidence is relevant to any area of inquiry because it calls attention to the types of values being promoted in the analysis and the types of evidence used as evaluative criteria. Most social-environmental problems demand questions about what evaluative criteria are being considered, representing whose values, how benefits and costs are distributed, to whom, in what timeframe, who benefits from different types of solutions, how trade-offs are analyzed, and who and what defines measures of success.“As we have moved away from an era dominated by debates around overarching human-environment theories to a moment of a multitude of conceptual frameworks, the current diversity creates other problems.”
An essential component of the aforementioned research process involves the collaborative conceptualization of the problem. Based on previous experiences, I use the term “conceptual framework” to refer to this process with some caution. The term is polysemic and evokes different images in people’s minds, and as such it can easily derail the conversation into unproductive domains. As used here, a conceptual framework refers to articulating the “big picture” in a way that brings together the multiple parts of a puzzle and their interrelationships. It is a type of system thinking that can be expressed in narrative (e.g., think of different political ecological conceptual framings) or schematic ways (e.g., think about the Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework). As we have moved away from an era dominated by debates around overarching human-environment theories to a moment of a multitude of conceptual frameworks, the current diversity creates other problems. At the same time, much of the recent advances in social-environmental research have happened through the use of “conceptual frameworks” as (inter-subjective) tools that facilitate collaborations within and across disciplines and domains of expertise. Elinor Ostrom referred to conceptual frameworks as meta-theoretical conceptual maps that explicitly outline the main elements/variables of the problem, their interrelationships, and feedback loops; and, as “maps,” they can provide a common direction to the research process. Different theories and models can thus be assessed in their strengths and limitations to diagnose and explain a given problem.7Elinor Ostrom, “A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-ecological Systems,” Science 325, no. 5939 (July 2009): 419–422.
Disciplines, as domains of knowledge production, will continue to serve as platforms for advancing our understanding of specific questions, levels and dimensions of complex problems. The problem remains as to the extent to which disciplines, as institutional structures, can foster and encourage creative collaborations that contribute to pressing societal problems. While many universities acclaim the value of interdisciplinary work, it is still challenging to do interdisciplinary scholarship within academic institutional settings. As the social sciences search for new modi operandi, we should turn to our own narratives of valuing strength in diversity and respect for differences into opportunities for complementarity. Humility and reflexivity, and openness to listen to diverse perspectives, will help us move beyond pseudo-competitions and territorial disputes towards more productive and creative tensions around ever more complex problems.
I am thankful for the comments and editing suggestions given by Daniel Cole, Stacie M. King, Andrea D. Siqueira, Hien Ngo, Richard Wilk, Emilio Moran, Ron Kassimir, Rodrigo Ugarte, and numerous colleagues and students who provided comments during a seminar at the Center for the Analysis of Social-Ecological Landscapes (CASEL) at Indiana University-Bloomington.