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Making transdisciplinarity work

Trans-disciplinarity is all the rage. And it needs to be. Society faces issues and concerns that do not fall neatly into specific disciplines as defined in academia or elsewhere. Bringing multiple perspectives and multiple skills to bear is therefore essential. The action is to be found not within individual disciplines but at their points of intersection.

Much though there is a will to move to trans-disciplinarity, the road to getting there can be surprisingly hard – and sometimes frustrating. In a recent paper by Kent Redford (Misreading the Conservation Landscape, Oryx, 45(3), 324–330) and subsequent responses Redford says: “Although said to be an aphorism, I have seen it myself: blue crabs are unable to escape from a basket because each time one gets a claw over the edge and is ready to climb out, another crab grabs it and pulls it down. I worry that social scientists, with the causes they find important, and conservationists, with the causes they find important, are holding each other down.”

This frustration with attempts at trans-disciplinarity is not a new phenomenon. Many have struggled to make trans-disciplinarity work in many settings including industry where getting individuals from research, engineering, production and marketing to work effectively together has been a decades long endeavour. In spite of the interest and goodwill, why can it be so difficult and what does it take to make it work?

People trained in individual disciplines are trained to think in a particular way, have particular world-views and become embedded in, and committed to, those world-views. Their specialist perspective can become deeply embedded as part of their core values. Current educational systems encourage this silo mentality from an early age and accentuate it in settings where career success depends on ever more detailed exploration of ever-narrower questions. Except for some individuals with a particular aptitude, it is impossible, and indeed unreasonable, to expect people suddenly to develop the ability to break out of the world-view they have spent their careers developing.

As many in industry have found out, the key to success – difficult though that success will remain to achieve – is to supplement the specialists whom we consistently train with specially trained generalists. Generalists are people who gain a broad understanding of many of the disciplines relevant to their work and are then specifically trained in higher-level integration at an overall system level. In the model of the industrial ‘General Manager’, generalists have the ability to synthesize multiple viewpoints and work with people trained in different specialties to make trade-offs and find ‘best-fit’ solutions. The conservation community has not yet started to create the infrastructure to attract, train and develop such people. We are still training conservation biologists, ecologists, economists, psychologists, anthropologists, etc, etc, – each of them now focused on a sub-sub-sub-specialty of their narrow specialty. In such an environment it can be difficult to make inter-disciplinarity work.

There is also little space available for trans-disciplinary work. For the last few years I have tried hard to work with skilled and experienced conservationists to address some of the broader, higher level issues that we all face. The responses have been consistent. Yes, these are important issues; and they should be addressed; and they span many disciplines; and we have no future without them; and I have many ideas and thoughts to contribute – but I’m really too busy with my field or research projects in my specialty to spend any time on them.

We can only successfully address issues related to our environment by bringing together many perspectives from many disciplines. To do this successfully requires two things. First we need to start a process for training generalists – individuals with the skills necessary to bring together multiple conservation disciplines as well as an ability to incorporate perspectives from outside the conservation community. Secondly we need to create the space, the culture and the conditions that encourage people to address higher level issues rather than tying people’s careers and success to an ever-deeper focus on ever-narrower project work. Without needing to re-invent the wheel, we can learn from the experience of others and get there more quickly.

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