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Pausing at the Brink of Interdisciplinarity: Power and Knowledge at the Meeting of Social and Biophysical Science

Dena P MacMynowski, Stanford University


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Interdisciplinary environmental research has been deemed essential to addressing the dynamics of coupled social-biophysical systems. Although decades of scholarship in science and technology studies (STS) take the analysis of interdisciplinarity out of the realm of anecdote, there is almost no overlap between this literature and discussions of interdisciplinarity in ecology-oriented journals. The goals of researchers in these areas are quite different, and thus far, their analyses of interdisciplinarity have been incommensurate with each other's purposes. To introduce an STS perspective into how environmental scientists think about interdisciplinarity, I argue that biophysical and social scientists are not just bringing information and different understandings of biophysical and social systems to the intellectual table. Those knowledge claims have differential power associated with them: within the sciences, between social and biophysical science, and between science and society. Power can manifest in many ways, e.g., individual scientific status, the most accepted account of an environmental problem, inclusion or exclusion of researchers, or perceived relevance of research to policy decisions. I propose four possible scenarios: conflict, tolerant ambivalence, mutual identification, cooperation, and fundamental transformation for how an interdisciplinary undertaking might unfold. Then, to constructively confront the relationship between power and knowledge, I outline a three stage process to enhance the transparent development of interdisciplinary research. First, there is differentiation of the analytical elements of the research, then clarification of purposes, and finally, the steps toward intellectual synthesis. As core differences are encountered, e.g., "subjectivity" vs. "objectivity," active engagement with these issues will be essential to successful communication, collaboration, and innovation.

Key words

interdisciplinarity; philosophy of science; power; power/knowledge; social-biophysical systems; research methods; transdisciplinarity.

Copyright © 2007 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087