A space for interdisciplinarity

Recently, several geography programs I am familiar with – notably my own at Monash – have been in the throes of administrative reshuffling and identity crises.  In written submissions, hallway chats, and meeting room polemics we have all declared, at one point or another, that the strength of Geography is its interdisciplinarity, its crossing of bridges between the natural and the social, between science and arts.  We have also declared that the integrity of the discipline depends on it staying together as one, even though a climate modeller will have different needs than an analyst of urban indigenous social movements.

But we have all probably had our doubts. Perhaps the climate modeller should indeed sit next to – and share students with – a mathematical meteorologist or earth scientist, and the social geographer should sit next to – and share students with – anthropologists, sociologists, or planners. Deans, Provosts, and other administrators probably look at geography that way.

I’ve also wondered whether it is justified to defend a traditional ‘discipline’ in the face of modern academia. Disciplines like geography emerged in a particular social and scientific context in the last 100-150 years (despite our frequent attempts to trace our roots back to Greek antecedents). Geography as a discipline has quite a bit of now-forgotten history that associates it with colonial empires, with the military, with nation-state development.  Why be loyal to Geography, why not found some thing new? Same goes for my other ‘discipline’, environmental studies.  This is a 1970s creation out of that decade’s environmental awakening, which brought together people from across the academy (from engineers to poets) united by a particular political agenda or concern.

In reflecting on these doubts that (1) I have to admit an affinity for the disciplines of geography and environmental studies – just as one has affinities for one’s family – based on history and tradition and a commitment to what they do. But more importantly, I have come to the conclusion that (2) what is most important to me is that universities create space for truly interdisciplinary interaction about the Earth as humanity’s home, specifically across science and arts and across the social and the natural. This means sitting near each other, sharing a tea room and other social activities, sharing students, co-teaching certain introductory or capstone classes, sharing administrative committees, …but not necessarily working on the same research projects or even understanding the advanced details of what each other teaches.

Creating such space can be administratively frustrating (as we know at Monash with our recurrent tensions about whether the School of Geography and Environmental Science should be located within the Faculty of Arts or in the Faculty of Science).  It implicitly creates extra work, in designing and maintaining curricula across Faculties.  But the challenge for universities is not only to create great social thinkers and fantastic scientists, but also a group of people who are creative, innovative and conversant at the boundaries between the two – to address the ever-mounting challenges of charting a sustainable future for all of humanity, poor and rich, on this small and heavily used planet.

There are a number of relatively coherent traditions and bodies of thought that already create such spaces for truly interdisciplinary interaction about the Earth as humanity’s home.  Geography is obviously one, and it will always be an important one particularly for grounding discussions into real physical and social contexts, and its contribution of particular ways of analysing and thinking about spatial relationships and the ideas of place, region, and landscape. Environmental studies is another, with arguably a strength in philosophizing about humanity’s role on the planet and another strength in seeking pragmatic solutions.  Then there are more traditions: the recent growth of the Resilience Alliance and its analysis of “socio-ecological systems” has captured a generation of researchers, particularly in Europe, with a soft-systemic metaphor of needing to comprehend the social and the natural. The environmental humanities, while by name on the ‘artsy’ side of the spectrum, has successfully engaged a number of scientists to put on their more reflexive hats.  Sustainability science, conversely, lays claim to the ‘sciency’ side of the spectrum, but calls for serious dialogue at the interface.  Each of the social sciences has its environmental branch (environmental sociology, environmental anthropology, environmental politics…), and many natural sciences have their applied branches (conservation biology, soil and land management) that necessarily engage across the boundaries, with different levels of success.  And in the agricultural, forestry, and other natural resource sciences there has always been an in-built recognition that the natural is social.

From my perspective, geography and environmental studies should continue to play a leading role in creating a space for truly interdisciplinary interaction about the Earth as humanity’s home, because of their established history, experience, and ‘nous’ (to use a fashionable word) in doing so.  Yet this space should not be limited to geography and environmental studies, it should be open to other contributors from diverse approaches, to new ‘disciplines’ or approaches.

So I think that my calls for a defence of the integrity and unity of ‘geography’ and ‘environmental studies’ are two things, reflecting my two conclusions earlier.  They are (1) of course a loyalty and affinity to the disciplines that trained me. But more importantly, my calls for a defence of ‘geography’ or ‘environmental studies’ – while crucial and strategic in terms of current administrative discussions in my university – are implicitly (2) a shorthand for a call for a broader truly interdisciplinary space for interaction, teaching, and research on Earth as humanity’s home. Perhaps this should be more explicit.

2 Responses to A space for interdisciplinarity

  1. 1234 says:

    The problem, as we have actually argued elsewhere, is that geography did not rise to the ‘environmental challenge’ in earlier decades. Geographers were working on other things and have not always caught up, now that environmental concerns are much more central in everyday life than they were in the 1970s.
    Put the environment front and centre, and it would be possible to ‘save’ many departments, that are currently under threat from cost-saving measures. The students are there, the environmental research funding and topics are there, and most of that research is important. But this needs to be ‘geography plus’, and without an inward looking disciplinary focus where you do research and write for your disciplinary peers, and for academic rewards.

  2. […] of being interdisciplinary in disciplinary institutions (see my previous blog entitled “a space for interdisciplinarity”).  Where do groups of scholars working on environment-society themes fit in the […]

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