Barriers to interdisciplinarity: Cultivating fluidity

As discussed in my previous differing values post, my goal was to draw attention to the fact that natural and social sciences may actually share quite a few common values and therefore are not as different as they seem on the surface and recognizing common values can be one way to facilitate interdisciplinary bridges. The second barrier, same phenomena, different theories and methodologies exists both within and between disciplines and while all researchers possess the ability to examine values, being comfortable working outside ones theoretical and methodological framework is a skill that must be cultivated before this barrier to interdisciplinarity can be overcome.

Just to recap…In their paper Practicing Interdisciplinarity, Sharachchandra Lele and Richard Norgaard (2005) discuss four common barriers to interdisciplinary research in the context of a regional- or local-scale project. They claim these barriers inhibit researchers from thinking collectively about complex problems. Understanding issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, food security, and sustainable development (just to name a few) require input and expertise from a wide range of disciplines that span both the natural and social sciences.

Four barriers to interdisciplinarity according to Lele and Norgaard (2005):

  • Differing values
  • Same phenomena, different theories and methodologies
  • Differences in epistemologies
  • The way society interacts with and organizes academia

As Lele and Norgaard explain, when scientists from two different natural sciences try to work together, differences in value judgments and epistemologies often result in researchers disagreeing over how best to categorize phenomena in an attempt to describe reality. Lele and Norgaard call this a conflict of “mismatched taxonomies.” This conflict can certainly hinder collective thinking if all the creative energy is expended arguing why one way of categorization is better than another rather than being open to different ways of representing reality.

To provide an example, Lele and Norgaard explain that soil scientists often categorize soils differently depending on context. Currently, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) soil classification system is the most widely used taxonomic index and seeks to classify soils based on a wide array of characteristics including moisture regime, chemical composition, and physical appearance. While the USDA soil index it heavily cited in the literature, its frequent use might not be a true representation of its applicability or appropriateness. For example, if the common research goal of an interdisciplinary team is to improve regional soil quality, information regarding a soil’s texture and its ability to retain moisture and nutrients would be useful and therefore the USDA system may indeed be most appropriate. If, however, the research goal is to relate soil characteristics to issues of sustainability or a soils cultural value, taxonomic methods developed at the community level by indigenous groups or others might be more useful. Therefore, interdisciplinary team members must be open to the possibility that seemingly foreign taxonomic systems may be more appropriate depending on the agreed upon research goals.

Failure to recognize and acknowledge foundational conflicts between researchers seeking to understand the same phenomena using different theories and methodologies can be overcome by the willingness of scientists to accept their (and other) disciplinary assumptions as generally valid, but perhaps not always the best explanatory framework in every situation (Lele and Norgaard, 2009).

To provide another example of foundational conflicts between disciplines, in Challenges and opportunities in soil organic matter research, R. Lal (2009) drew attention to the fact that while much research supports the claim that enhancing the soil organic matter (SOM) pool is essential to restoring degraded soils, advancing food security and improving the environment, little consideration is given to the competing uses of carbon sources in developing countries. Some direct benefits of the SOM pool include improved soil structure, retention of water and plant nutrients, increased soil biodiversity and decreased risk of soil erosion and the related degradation. However, focusing solely on the physical or chemical benefits of carbon amendments in the form of crop residues without considering the cultural needs of the very people who are being asked to adopt the amendment practices simply perpetuates the cycle of degradation.

If a family needs suitable soil to grow food, a soil scientist might investigate how and what type of carbon amendments might increase crop yield. Similarly, an anthropologist might seek to investigate how changing farming practices, such as adopting no-till methods, impacts the division of labor within the family. Both researchers seek to investigate the effects of alternative farming practices (same phenomena) but they base their investigation on very different theories and use very different methodologies to structure their research. For example, a soil scientist might develop a research plan based on reductionist principles assuming soil health is simply the sum of its parts, an anthropologist might choose to focus on the social outcomes of trying to improve soil health rather than on the physical state of the soil itself.

While both methodologies and the assumptions they are built upon are generally valid, neither method fully addresses how this family might best improve or maintain sufficient access to food because the best solution draws insight from both. Soil health and how it impacts people and their communities is an extremely complex issue and therefore cannot be fully understood without the input of both soil scientists and anthropologists. Although soil scientists and anthropologists might differ in their value judgments and epistemologies, this should not be a barrier to collective thinking between these scientists if the conflict of “mismatched taxonomies” is recognized and the researchers are open to alternative measures of soil health.

As for perpetuating the cycle of degradation, Lal (2009) further explains the numerous constraints to widespread adoption of soil carbon amendments in developing countries. Important among these constraints “are the competing uses of crop residues (e.g. fodder, fuel and construction materials)” (pg. 162). In terms of “mismatched taxonomies” reducing resources, such as crop residues, to their elemental building blocks (a source of carbon) rather than acknowledging their cultural value creates a situation where “science” tells people to use crop residues as a soil amendment (soil scientist view) without considering how open people are to adopting or maintaining use of this alternative farming practice (anthropologist view). If researchers remain flexible and open to other taxonomic methods, such as exploring the cultural as well as the physical value of carbon amendments, the same phenomena, different theories and methodologies barrier becomes easier to recognize and overcome but how can such fluidity be cultivated?

As mentioned in my previous post about interdisciplinary thinking becoming almost second nature to any motivated undergraduate, I feel as if this result provides an excellent opportunity for educational institutions to capitalize on this mindset as students transition from undergrads to graduate researchers. Unfortunately, I feel as if most universities often ignore or simply do not recognize this opportunity. However, the framework for cultivating this mindset exists.

In their paper A Masterclass in Interdisciplinarity: Research into Practice in Training the Next Generation of Interdisciplinary Researchers, Catharine Lyall and Laura Meagher explain how publicly funded research initiatives in the United Kingdom are geared toward developing and encouraging interdisciplinary skills by providing structured “Masterclasses” that focus not only on the research aspect of interdisciplinarity but also on the underlying framework (i.e. professional support, publication strategies, network building, etc…). Formal training in (or purposeful exposure to) interdisciplinarity might help researchers working within specific disciplines be more flexible in their assumptions and methodologies and therefore have the ability to develop more effective solutions to complex problems.

While I acknowledge it is somewhat easy to sit here at my computer and reason that, in order for interdisciplinarity to be an effective problem-solving tool, researchers must simply get along! I realize this is much easier said than done and drawing attention to interdisciplinary barriers is only the first, but crucial, step towards more integrated research. Although my exploration into the world of interdisciplinarity is only just beginning and I openly admit to not having a full understanding of anything I have said in this or previous posts, one thing has become clear. In order to be effective, interdisciplinary thinking should not be something researchers can switch on and off. The ability to recognize and overcome barriers must be cultivated and the seeming lack of this type of training for new researchers is a barrier on its own that most definitely deserves more attention.

Lal, R. 2009. Challenges and opportunities in soil organic matter research. European Journal of Soil Science. 60:158 – 169.

Lele, S. and R.B. Norgaard. 2005. Practicing interdisciplinarity. BioScience. 55(11):967 – 975.

Lyall, C. and L.R. Meagher. 2012. A Masterclass in Interdisciplinarity: Research into Practice in Training the Next Generation of Interdisciplinary Researchers. Futures. 44:608 – 617.

This entry was posted in Center for Social and Environmental Justice, Education and Pedagogy, Inter- cross- and trans-disciplinarity, Lab Members/Authors, Melissa Knudson, Philosophy of Science, Science and Technology Studies (STS), Socioecological systems. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Barriers to interdisciplinarity: Cultivating fluidity

  1. Joern says:

    Reblogged this on Ideas for Sustainability and commented:
    Reblogged from AgroEcoPeople — part 2 of a 4 part series of blogs coming out by Melissa Knudson

  2. h says:

    This is an outstanding run through of interdisciplinarity in action. In fact, it is the emphasis on action and active reframing so that you don’t have two (or mutliple) sets of vision working from different angles that I like the most. I am a librarian whose focus is on interdisciplinary studies and group communications across disciplines, and I have found that it is the librarians and information scientists that have a great chance to foster this cross disciplinary frame when those within disciplines cannot at first see how not to be “within their own frame.” It is also more than worth noting that it is by bringing in multiple disciplines and their respective topics into the public sphere that we can get scientists to be justice advocates and activists to critically appraise the effectiveness of the passions they bring to public discourse on the environment. Thanks for this!

  3. Ryan says:

    I agree with your assessment and what I sense as a frustration. I am currently wrapping up my service with the Peace Corps and my focus has been on sustainable agriculture and agroforestry projects and I have found that te easiest part of my job is finding specific techniques to enhance crop yields, soil quality, improve nutrition etc but the hardest part is what would fall in to the realm of the social sciences. Trying to understand and tackle the qualitative constraints has taken two years while it only took a few days to figure out which trees to plant to improve soil quality over time.

    I am waiting to hear back from graduate schools where I hope to pursue a career as a researcher/extensionist in these areas but finding a lab or adviser has been difficult. It seems that most of the interdisciplinary program are heavily weighted toward the social sciences, which is fine however, for people like me who have their undergraduate degrees rooted in the interdisciplinary social sciences it seems we miss out on being rounded out by the life sciences. And while life science labs that say they are interdisciplinary the reality of someone with an undergraduate degree in social sciences getting in to their lab isn’t easy given deparment requirements for essentially a bachelors or at least a minor in a given life science.

    On a positive note, it seems that the old guard of disciplinary specificity is beginning to retire and/or see the value in labs that are focused on both the social science and life science approaches.

  4. Ryan says:

    My apologies for any typos in my previous post as I am writing from and out-of-date iPhone in the African bush!

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