Competing interdisciplinarities: report from Cerisy

Every once in a while, it is worth reflecting on concepts that have become so central to discourse that they are repeated ad nauseum but without any novelty. So it goes with ‘interdisciplinarity’, a pet term of any university or research administrator. It is widely desired or required, without much thinking about what it means. For there can be multiple interdisciplinarities, or competing interdisciplinary approaches (as I show for political ecology and resilience, see below). Interdisciplinarity can be a practice, a goal, a tool, or an outcome; it can be individual or team-based; it can be ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’; it can be a spirit of enquiry or a formal requirement.

These were some of the inspirations I gained from attending, this first week of October, an intimate conference on Interdisciplinarités entre natures et sociétés, in Cerisy-la-Salle, France. The event celebrated the 20th anniversary of the journal Natures, Sciences, Sociétés (NSS), which has made a point of promoting interdisciplinary research in a relatively hostile environment: from an anglophone point of view, it is striking how disciplinary research is in France. University training strictly follows disciplinary boundaries, as does professional advancement in research careers. The list of editorial board members of NSS specifically attaches a discipline to each member’s name. Jaws dropped when I mentioned the existence of undergraduate majors called ‘environmental studies’, ‘development studies’, or ‘international studies’, or when I described the undergraduate program at Monash’s Faculty of Arts where all subjects (courses) carry the same code letters and where majors are created from lists of subjects from different disciplines (and different administrative departments). Hence the context for talking about interdisciplinarity is rather different in France than Australia. It was often pointed out that interdisciplinarity only really makes sense if one can refer back to disciplines.

It was a talkfest à la française – highlighting the French capacity to intellectualise, conceptualise, and play with language. The plenary speeches varied from the prosaic (the challenges of evaluating interdisciplinary research programs; teaching interdisciplinary masters) to the philosophic or literary (Sartre, existentialism, and interdisciplinary; reading Gulliver’s Travels or as a work of scale crossing). The concurrent session workshops addressed topics like the resilience approach or the ‘anthropocene’ as an interdisciplinary idea. One regret was that there was no presentation of historical perspectives on the journal NSS or the reflections of its editors on the challenges it faced over its 20 years.

I was invited to the conference to give a plenary presentation, as part of a series of ‘views from outside’. I compared two popular research traditions in the field of society-environment studies that self-consciously describe themselves as ‘inter-‘ or ‘pluri-disciplinary’, ‘post-paradigmatic’, or similar. One is ‘political ecology’, the other is the ‘resilience/socioecological systems’ approach’. Both, one could argue, have erected disciplinary boundaries around themselves – become silos (albeit leaky) or borders (albeit porous). I use the two approaches to show that there can be multiple, competing interdisciplinarities and explored the ideological, epistemological, social, and practical differences between the two. The talk (audio and slides, separately) are available online [note: as of May 2014 link appears broken]; the written paper should come in an edited volume from the conference.*

The event was hosted in the Chateau of Cerisy-la-Salle in the Cotentin, at the lower end of the Cherbourg peninsula in Normandy – a hilly countryside of hedges, dairy cows, and apples. Cérisy has a long tradition of hosting intimate conferences; pictures on the castle walls document the passage of a who’s who of French intellectuals. Everybody is housed in the castle or its outbuildings; all meals are taken together – when the bells rings – on long tables in what used to be the main kitchen. Hearty meals consisting of standard French family fare are lubricated by bottles of wine and cider. In short, a beautiful spot for sharing ideas and reflections, just a pity there wasn’t more time to stroll through the estate….

*for now, the citation is:

Kull, CA (2013).  Political ecology and resilience: emblems for post-disciplinarity, or competing dogmas?  Invited plenary speech at Colloque Interdisciplinarités entre Natures et Sociétés  (Dirs : B. Hubert et N. Mathieu).  Centre Culturel International de Cerisy, Cerisy-la-Salle, France, 30 Sept. – 5 Oct. 2013.

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One Response to Competing interdisciplinarities: report from Cerisy

  1. […] In a recently publish book chapter, Priya Rangan and I explore these differences. We reflect on the extent to which the ‘interdisciplines’ of political ecology and resilience, both operating at the interface of science-nature-society, can thrive without creating new boundaries and disciplinary dogmas. The paper builds on a presentation I gave in 2013 at a workshop in Cerisy, France held for the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking journal Natures, Sciences, Sociétés (see my 2013 blog post about that event). […]

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