Advancing “-arities” in a landscape of path dependencies

The “-arities” are everywhere — multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity. When I was three years old, in a review of Klein’s (1990)  book Interdisciplinary: History, Theory & Practice, Janz (1990) notes the promise of interdisciplinarity to both “organize our past and chart our future,” (p. 138) but also its shortcomings as “surprisingly difficult to define, and even more difficult to apply in concrete situations,” (p. 138). Now 30 years later as a self-proclaimed “-arity” encouraging scientist, I am not sure if things have become more clear in practice. Although I advocate for collaborative science and a move away from a disciplinary oriented science system towards a problem and solution oriented one, the tangibility of what it means to engage with “-arity” based knowledge production is still a mystery in many ways.

The foundation I keep coming back to is plurality (multiple ways of knowing and doing), reflexivity (reflecting on our complacencies) and willingness (to make change happen or invest, perhaps at a cost).  We are exploring how to combine things and seem to be recognizing the value of doing it. But how do we combine disciplines (ways of thinking and analyzing) that were not necessarily intended to be combined? When it comes to inter-faculty sparing and joint projects, it often seems that ‘separate but equal’ is the all too common finish line. While there is surely something more to achieve, acknowledgement of mutual respect is a huge first step forward, particularly for the qualitative social sciences. But, is passing the baton the best we can do? This, I believe, requires reflexivity and willingness at the individual level. This in part originates from my view that knowledge production is a collective action problem, and as individuals we have to be willing to invest (often at an initially ‘perceived’ personal loss) in the group interest. We also have to admit we might be wrong or that people with other ways of knowing and doing can actually teach us something about the subjects we are already ‘experts’ on. Imagine!

A recent commentary on Nature Index noted the prevalence of fake interdisciplinary collaborations with a rather critical tone (https://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/what-are-fake-interdisciplinary-collaborations-and-why-do-they-occur). Although such cases certainly exist to simply get joint funding with no intention to work together, perhaps a result of the industrialization of academia, I would not be so critical. Collaboration is hard. We are all doing what we can to frame our proposals and papers in a way which best enhances their ability to get funded or published. We all at times have egos, but in others, need each other and can be reflexive and caring. This is the game we play, and the landscape we navigate. We need to keep trying and encouraging failure and innovation. We need to be reflexive and see the people behind the science and ideas, the struggles they have and how they are similar to the ones we face. As I outline below, I believe path dependencies are a more common impediment than personal malevolence.

I often imagine that academics are navigating through a landscape with many peaks and valleys hindering and enabling the knowledge creation we need and want to do, and that path dependencies are the slow moving glaciers of our past carving that landscape. Mahoney (2000) defines path dependencies as the historical events that set in motion, limit, structure or place deterministic properties on current and future events. Importantly, the costs of maintaining the path are always lower than changing it.

Why do you do research in the locations and topics you focus on? For nearly all my projects it’s because I or my institute has done research there before. Funding, partners, personal comfort, visas, friends and language all contribute. Path dependencies are both our best friends and worst enemies. Rules and people can change, but the historical continuity of events shaping the current moment can’t. My thoughts and ideas are also path dependent, certainly shaped by more things than I am capable of being reflexive of.

We recently published a paper reflecting on the structural impediments of the science system (Partelow et al. 2020). We explore a hypothesis that knowledge production in the field of tropical marine sciences is predominantly an emergent phenomena of historical ‘webs of dependencies’, perhaps largely current geopolitical and prior colonialistic relationships with tropical countries. This makes meeting at eye level between national science systems, such as between European systems and Indonesia, a difficult political process (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05001-7). Showing how knowledge production via academia can become a governable and political object, one which is also navigating the peaks and valleys of the landscape.

So all these questions are about collaborative science, and my question is, how do we advance “-arity” based knowledge production in a landscape of path dependencies? In short, it seems that doing the following things are at least not making it worse: we can be more self-aware of our path dependencies as both enabling and hindering, we can be more willing to invest in solving the collective action problem (investing in the group), and be open-minded to the value in plurality.

Janz, B. 1990. INTERDISCIPLINARITY: HISTORY, THEORY, AND PRACTICE. Dianoia:138–140.

Klein, J. T. 1990. Interdisciplinarity: History, theory, and practice. Wayne State University Press.

Mahoney, J. 2000. Path dependence in historical sociology. Theory and Society 29(4):507–548.

Partelow, S., A. Hornidge, P. Senff, M. Stäbler, and A. Schlüter. 2020. Tropical marine sciences: Knowledge production in a web of path dependencies. PLoS ONE 15(2). https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0228613