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Interdisciplinary weaving

based on a talk presented at the University of Stirling Interdisciplinary Seminar 16 Jan 2020

There are many different flavours of (inter-trans)disciplinarity, or even undisciplinarity. My particular context is doing interdisciplinary research solo, within a PhD project. What I want to discuss is some of the ways that I’ve been thinking about interdisciplinarity in this research. I’m aiming for the right balance of concrete details and generality that will make it useful for other scholars.

My PhD is, very broadly, about water. I am basing my research on case studies in three rural villages (in India and Scotland) all with recently installed constructed wetlands; a wastewater treatment infrastructure. Water is a topic or lens where many attempts have been made at interdisciplinary research, some with more success than others. The argument for interdisciplinary water studies is particularly strong considering that struggles and challenges around water raise many questions of social, environmental and ecological justice.

I’d like to present three different reflections on my interdisciplinary practice — and I’ve tied them together with one metaphor. I’d like to suggest that interdisciplinary research is somewhat like weaving. In making this case, I’ll think through research frames, weaving methods and how I situate myself as a weaver/researcher. This metaphor has helped me make sense of my research — hopefully by the end it will make sense to you too. If not, see earlier comments about different flavours of interdisciplinarity.

Before interdisciplinary weaving can begin we want a nice solid frame. The concept of a frame is a combination of the research question, research design, theoretical and conceptual framework. The framing of my research, what it’s all about, in one phrase, is:

benefits produced through material-semiotic processes within a waterscape

These nine words are the distillation of a huge amount of theory. I’d like to introduce key points of this frame (from back-to-front).

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A nice solid (research) frame

Waterscape is a perspective that arises from urban political ecology thinking on humans and nature — the aim is to collapse that dichotomy, and instead investigate layers of biogeochemical, and sociopolitical processes.. Ot’s useful because right from the start, human and non-human action is included. In general, I’m drawing a lot from political ecology and human geographical theory. Certain ideas such as waterscape do a lot of theoretical heavy lifting. While waterscapes is not an interdisciplinary frame per se I believe it is open to the possibility of interdisciplinary methods and data.

The concept of material-semiotic processes also has a background in social science disciplines. The basic idea is that first of all, it makes more sense to see ecosystems and infrastructures as a constant work-in-progress, and hence to ask what processes keep everything from falling apart (or, equally, push things towards falling apart). The idea of production, ie. how things are made, rather than in what quantity they exist, also speaks to this process-based philosophical outlook. The term material-semiotic suggests two kinds of processes that are in play (and which overlap). Material processes are those of metabolism, the movement of matter and biogeochemical transformations. These are obviously key to understanding what is going on inside a constructed wetland infrastructure (as found in my research sites). However, there are also processes of meaning making and representation (semiosis — broadly — is the study of signs and meaning). For example, in order to determine if water quality is improved in the wetland, we draw on a historic and ongoing process of meaning making around the very idea of water quality and how our scientific methods can represent the quality of a particular water. In another example from my research, understanding the processes that might lead to fisheries production using treated wastewater requires understanding the legal-administrative processes relevant to the study sites, but also how likely it is that algae will remove all of the oxygen from the water, killing the fish, however well regulated they are.

Finally, benefits is quite a useful way of guiding through the research that connects to a broad range of disciplines. It means I’m not centrally focused on something more traditionally human geography — like ‘power’ or ‘knowledges’. What’s going on here is perhaps taking a common/open term and twisting it a little differently, or relying on some ambiguity to start with.

An example of this clever adoption of terminology that I came across serendipitously was the work of Peter Kraftl et al. (2019). In this research, the idea of the Water-Energy-Food nexus, beloved of particular research communities, was adopted for social research with young people in Brazilian favelas, a mashup that I find unreasonably exciting. The authors engage with this tactical choice of concept explicitly in the paper:

While one could argue that other approaches–perhaps predicated on assemblages, Actor‐Networks, affects or materialisms–allow deeper, more nuanced ways of connection‐thinking, recent turns to nexus thinking are important in two senses. First, the nexus is already a widely used term among diverse, multidisciplinary scholars, scientists, engineers and practitioners, and therefore provides a ready‐made point of articulation for transdisciplinary conversations on inter‐sectoral connectivities. Second, the concept currently has far greater international traction–especially in policy arenas–than many concepts that animate much geographical scholarship.

Once the frame is in place, I can start weaving research methods. Interdisciplinary research leads very naturally to mixed method approaches, and my methods are very well mixed.

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My mixed methods approach. version — about 17.

Weaving together different methods means also weaving together research that illuminates both semiotic and material processes. I wanted to have a research question and framing that required both of these methods to answer, so that they are woven into one piece. What are the implications of weaving material-semiotic or natural and social science methods together.

First of all, both sides need to be strong, that is, methods require competence, in order to produce good results. This is really difficult, particularly in the confines of a PhD. I’m lucky in my research that some of the data I draw upon for water quality results has been carried out by research partners. But on a typical research day I still find myself working through how to do a proper hydraulic tracer study as well as a well-constructed focus group.

Secondly, different methods need to be in communication, to be interwoven, entangled. Key here is the way that very different methods can be triangulating on the same issues.

Thirdly, in order to do this methodological weaving, method need to be stretched. This happens in a few different ways.

Natural science methods are contextualised. For instance, the history of specific water quality measures, or the importance of certain assumptions in a hydrological model will be examined as part of the research story. In general these methods are treated more reflexively than usual. STS scholars are helpful guides in thinking through this task.

Meanwhile, my social research is brought to an expanded social realm, that includes other living beings. In this, I can take some guidance from scholars who are developing the idea of more-than-human ethnography. It seems these kinds of methodological stretchings are reasonably well supported by other researchers, once you have the freedom to check outside of disciplinary boundaries to see what others (anthropologists, sociologists, critical physical geographers) are doing.

One necessary conclusion following from this approach that methodology and method are different things. In this research approach methods (as a set of steps) are outside of their methodologies (philosophical frame, and set of assumptions about ‘science’) — which is uncomfortable but generative.

Reading the literature, it does sometimes seem like there are more calls for this kind of mixing of social and natural science methods than there are successful examples of it. However, a few examples show that it’s not an impossible dream. Andrea Nightingale (2004) combined oral histories with aerial photo analysis. By not assuming the aerial photos were ‘right’, and looking at the different narratives of forest change coming from both data types,”interpretations of both data sets were far richer”. In another example, Maria Rusca et al. (2017) combined urban political ecology analyses and water quality — bringing these together allowed for “articulating inequalities from multiple perspectives and provide greater breadth to examinations of urban water as a socio-natural question”.

Finally, with a research frame in place, and the right approach to weaving methods, we can turn this metaphor to the weaver. How do I situate myself as a research. Now, this final part applies to any research — not just interdisciplinary. The basic situation is this, you’ve got your threads, and frame — but there are still choices to be made: Which patterns do we want to produce? In choosing some, what are we replicating? and what are we trying to recover? Weaving is a nice metaphor here because so often when people weave they do it as a cultural practice, as a continuation of cultures. And I think it is true that in conducting academic research there are choice to be made about which (research) cultures and ways of approaching the world do I want to be weaving.

Part of this process of being situated is knowing the context of my sites, and as well as my own positionality. Considering your positionality as a researcher is pretty well established in critical social sciences, and feminist science — but quite strange to natural science.

I believe research taking place in India needs to be thinking about undoing colonial relations, as well as the political currents in contemporary India. The anthropocene and climate emergency also come into this — which means thinking differently about how we act in our common home, how we relate to the living world. There’s an overlap with ethics here.

Situating myself involves thinking about where I’ve come from — what my perspectives are, and how these fit within myriad other ways of thinking about these water infrastructures that I’m studying. It means being comfortable with that. I don’t intend to try to remove this situated perspective from the research. If we accept that we are generating partial knowledges from situated positions (taking a lead from Donna Haraway here) then we have the fortitude to proceed. Interdisciplinary work done in this way allows for unique perspectives to emerge!

As Banu Subramaniam (2014) emphasises, both the research locations and I have contexts:

“Knowledge generation is an active engagement. Knowledge comes “to be” through complex processes including the scientists and their objects of studies, both located in their material, historical, geopolitical, economic, and naturecultural contexts.”

Doing interdisciplinary research brings me into contact with how different disciplines approach the ethical/normative aims of research, and the concept of objectivity. From my perspective weaving is not something that I should be aiming to do objectively.

Another crucial part of being well situated is having a clear sense of the aims of the PhD. I feel this is an ongoing process. Again, interdisciplinary tensions emerge to complicate the picture. My sense of the terrain is that natural science generally aims for some kind of objectivity. As a result, normative aims are often couched in appeals to authority (eg, linking to SDGs, or other international agreements rather than the often conflicting priorities of the local context). I’m uncomfortable with this approach, as it leaves us in a position from which local engagement and critique is foreclosed. I think the basic idea is well explained by Donna Haraway (1999):

“The point is to make a difference in the world, to cast our lot for some ways of life and not others. To do that, one must be in the action, be finite and dirty, not transcendent and clean.”

For me a key aim of this mixture of methods is to highlight that we live in a world that we share with many other living beings, that building this shared world is full of tensions, but that blocking out the rest of the living world from political concern isn’t an ethical option — however much it can be justified as ‘business as usual’ or the way of the world.

Eric Swyngedouw (1996) affirms:

“knowledge and practice are always ‘situated’ in the weave of (power) relations that defines and produces socio-nature”.

Knowledge is productive of particular worlds, and these power relations need to be tackled, not tacitly accepted. This brings me to my final point, and the important twist in this weaving metaphor. As a situated researcher, what I’m weaving isn’t just my own PhD. I’m part of a bigger weave, with many crafty human and non-human beings, all producing and reshaping these waterscapes.

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A caveat — this is how my PhD is making sense to me at the moment. Perhaps, by the time I collect all my data, and do all the various analyses required, the final picture will look quite different. Maybe it will be a quilt rather than a single fabric! I’d be very happy to hear any thoughts or ideas that this metaphor provoked.