In defense of disagreement

I recently attended an in-person, outside and socially distanced of course, meeting with project collaborators.  Although it was fairly clear that the pandemic and six months of living in our own little social bubbles had taken a toll on our social skills, it was really nice to see people escape from their little zoom boxes and enjoy a more natural conversation.  Like most discussions with academics, the conversation went in several directions ranging from work and planning for a specific project, the state of the field, the ever frustrating job market and life during the pandemic.  However at one point in the discussion a graduate researcher mentioned their limited role in larger group meetings for another project.  I followed this comment by suggesting, in a less than serious tone, that they can find a way into the conversation by simply saying “I disagree” following a comment or statement from another scholar.  Although I was half-joking at the time, I firmly believe that the lack of contrarian voices and opinions in the environmental social sciences is a key barrier for the advancement of knowledge.

In her book Governing the Commons, Elinor Ostrom, begins by thanking her husband, Vincent “for his love and contestation”.  The book has gone on to reshape our understanding of environmental policy and governance; and provided opportunities for many communities around the world to take back at least some control over the use and management of local resources.  And yet I wonder whether it would have achieved all of this without a voice contesting and challenging her ideas, evidence and interpretations.  Elinor Ostrom brought this philosophy to the Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, where students and early career scholars were encouraged to carefully engage with research, and critique the definitions, assumptions, methods and interpretations of advanced scholars, including herself.  However, equally important to the contestation of ideas at the Ostrom Workshop was a culture of respect for individuals and their ideas.  The aim of contestation was not to win an argument, but rather to refine and improve ideas, or develop a better understanding of the limitations of research.  This is not to say that there were times when contestation might have crossed a line, or that the culture of respect may have left some tenuous ideas unchallenged; but overall I feel the Workshop managed to find a productive balance between the two.

As a graduate researcher with a penchant for contrarian thinking, but also full of self-doubt, it provided the ideal environment to develop skills, knowledge and confidence to develop and undertake research in the environmental social sciences.  Contestation or contrarian thinking do not need to be a pathway to dissent or conflict (although respectful disagreement is certainly possible); but rather provide opportunities to critically examine the nuances and limitations of research.  Does this research finding apply generally, or perhaps should it be limited to a particular population of cases?  To what extent are the findings contingent upon contextual conditions?  How does or might a policy or institution perform against other objectives?  How have or might other types of policies perform in similar contexts or with respect to certain objectives?  Although asking these and other questions can be hard, they at least provide a window to critically reflect on the contributions and implications of our research.