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 (to name just a few) require input and expertise from a wide range of disciplines that span both the natural and social sciences. Here I will outline and analyze these barriers and their implications based on my own thoughts inspired from other readings, personal experiences, and my vision for the future of scientific research. I realize this third discussion point sounds somewhat ostentatious but I believe interdisciplinary research is a powerful tool that, if utilized effectively, has the potential to successfully address even the most complex issues.

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

In this post, I will focus on the first barrier Differing values and will address the other three in future posts.

Differing values

Lele and Norgaard explain, “…values are embedded in all types of inquiry and at all stages.” From a researchers style, questions asked and how they are framed, theoretical justification and definition of variables, all aspects of research are inevitably biased in some way. However, scientists (particularly natural scientists due to the quantitative nature of the research) seem to cling to the notion that their work is objective while social science is fraught with partiality. While impartiality is certainly a commendable goal in that truly unbiased studies are certainly useful and often widely applicable, I do not believe it is as attainable as many natural scientists claim. That being said, if we can agree there is some level of bias present in almost every aspect of scientific inquiry then we must ask the question, how different are natural and social sciences?

In their book Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins discuss this question explicitly. More specifically they ask, “Is the uniqueness of the social different than the uniqueness of other domains?” If the social is not as unique as it appears on the surface and there exists a deeper connection between the social and natural then interdisciplinary collaboration may not be as difficult as it seems.

Lewontin and Levins explain, those who argue that the social is indeed unique claim so because they believe observing social processes is, itself, a social process and therefore involves subjectivity squared. In other words, it is assumed that natural science can design experiments that cancel out many sources of error whereas social science must contend with the “human factor” (a term I define as the emergent properties of human interactions and relationships) making uncertainty inevitable.

It is true that social science does indeed involve the “human factor” but I would argue that natural science does as well. As mentioned by Lele and Norgaard and by Lewontin and Levins, formulating a problem, defining variables, interpreting results, deciding which results are relevant, and linking conclusions to theoretical frameworks are necessarily influenced by the elusive “human factor.” A deeper analysis of the underlying factors behind scientific inquiry suggests that natural and social science share a common characteristic in their inevitable subjectivity, which if recognized, can form the foundation for a bridge between disciplines. If the framework of natural science were reconstructed in such a way so as to make acknowledging biases more acceptable then perhaps common ground between the social and natural would emerge and interdisciplinary thinking could become the norm rather than the exception.  Furthermore, acknowledging biases exposes underlying values and if values were clear perhaps researchers would discover similarities and differing values is no longer a barrier to interdisciplinarity.

How can acknowledging biases become more acceptable? Lele and Norgaard suggest one possibility requires decisionmakers to stop asking scientists to provide “objective” advice. If scientists and decisionmakers accept that biases are inevitable they can be addressed rather than ignored. If biases across the disciplines are addressed then values emerge and collective thinking becomes more honest and effective in addressing societies most complex issues.

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

Lewontin, R and R. Levins. 2007. Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health. New York:Monthly Review Press.

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