Conceptual Models as Tools for Communication Across Disciplines
Marieke Heemskerk, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Karen Wilson, Carleton University
Mitchell Pavao-Zuckerman, Institute of Ecology, University of Georgia
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To better understand and manage complex social-ecological systems, social scientists and ecologists must collaborate. However, issues related to language and research approaches can make it hard for researchers in different fields to work together. This paper suggests that researchers can improve interdisciplinary science through the use of conceptual models as a communication tool. The authors share lessons from a workshop in which interdisciplinary teams of young scientists developed conceptual models of social-ecological systems using data sets and metadata from Long-Term Ecological Research sites across the United States. Both the process of model building and the models that were created are discussed. The exercise revealed that the presence of social scientists in a group influenced the place and role of people in the models. This finding suggests that the participation of both ecologists and social scientists in the early stages of project development may produce better questions and more accurate models of interactions between humans and ecosystems. Although the participants agreed that a better understanding of human intentions and behavior would advance ecosystem science, they felt that interdisciplinary research might gain more by training strong disciplinarians than by merging ecology and social sciences into a new field. It is concluded that conceptual models can provide an inspiring point of departure and a guiding principle for interdisciplinary group discussions. Jointly developing a model not only helped the participants to formulate questions, clarify system boundaries, and identify gaps in existing data, but also revealed the thoughts and assumptions of fellow scientists. Although the use of conceptual models will not serve all purposes, the process of model building can help scientists, policy makers, and resource managers discuss applied problems and theory among themselves and with those in other areas.
Integrative Graduate Education Research and Training, Long-Term Ecological Research, conceptual model, interdisciplinary research, modeling, social-ecological systems, workshop