Interdisciplinarity: reflections from practice

In the frame of the SWAN project (2012-2016), a group of different young scientists working on water issues from different fields was created last semester. Starting from discussions of our respective theoretical backgrounds (hydrology, climate modeling, ecosystems services, societal metabolism, water footprint, institutional analysis and water conflicts), we tried to understand our respective languages and exchange concepts and ideas. From there we decided to move towards a case study together in order to build a possible integration of methodologies in a common conceptual framework to assess water management in socio-ecological systems.


What started as a mere discussion has turn into a very deep and interesting process, questioning ourselves as individuals, as researchers and as a group. I would like to share here some reflections I made after the first 6 months working together:

– The process and outputs of conceptual modeling in a multidisciplinary group certainly follows different pathways depending on who leads the discussion and which are the backgrounds sitting on the table.

– The group is more weighted towards quantitative approaches, thus we mostly find ourselves comfortable talking about integration of variables and models, which is a kind of “physically biased” language. Dealing with inconmensurability implies dealing with those dimensions that can not be quantified and thus need qualitative research approaches to balanced the potential pathways of our process.

– Even among quantitative approaches lovers, we found epistemological obstacles in our discussions and case-study shaping. Not only our different languages and backgrounds but also different subjectivities. The question of which is our role as researchers is not irrelevant, responses are case-specific.

– So far we were unable to develop a common conceptual framework, partially because we come from very strong ones. As we start to produce scientific results we will be able to move our discussion from the abstract to the empirical – potential opportunities and obstacles for integration – and we attempt to produce the synthesis Esteban Castro mentioned as necessary step for interdisciplinarity, then come back to the conceptual.

– Since our group is a changing one, new people coming in, others leaving and each of us changing along its personal PhD, I think we need a sort of dynamic conceptual framework, semantically open not only to different context but also to different backgrounds.

– Considering that each of us sees something different when looking to the same reality and that we want to be consistent with our individual perceptions at the time build something together and with stakeholders, my feeling is that we need to find the overlapping areas of the flower: those points in which we agree and want to work together. At the same time we should explicitly recognize and respect those areas in which we prefer to work in our individual manners. This means honesty and commitment with the group and with ourselves.

On the other hand, I felt that it was actually disagreement what made us going forward in our discussions. So, even if we do not agree in some things, let’s keep talking!

– Finally, a point arosed by Carolyn Remick from the Water Center in Berkley: working on a problem oriented basis might not lead you to a cutting edge scientific paper. It is a real challenge to work with and from stakeholders, producing scientific relevant results at the time not becoming a sort of consultancy.

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