A transdisciplinary hat party

I recently attended a workshop organised by a group of ‘revolutionary’ weed scientists – although some admitted that ‘ostracised’ or ‘kooky’ might be more appropriate descriptors. The core of this group had realised at the conclusion of a weed science conference some years ago that it is in the human interactions between presentations and sessions at conferences that the real learning and progress is made. They devised a workshop that cut out the conference part altogether and made real space for those ‘between’ times – scrap presentations, instead discuss and debate (and walk in the mountains while we’re at it).

gladstone

Cheers to transdiciplinary research, weeds, and some pretty cool mountains

Two prior workshops had taken place in 2012 and 2014, the second of which made a call for weed research and management that emphasised greater engagement between natural and social sciences. Born from this, this workshop held in the Albertan Rockies took on the theme ‘applying transdiciplinary and systems approaches for sustainable weed management’, under the catchy title ‘Knowledge Nexus’.

At this nexus was a group of ‘weed specialists’ about as diverse as could be imagined: weed biologists and ecologists, agronomists, agriculture extension consultants, statistics and modelling experts, and a smattering of social scientists (in all our diversity, from geographers to political scientists). For the most part, we had little idea what we could expect.

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Visiting a field site with stakeholders (photo Zhao Ma)

We started the workshop by speaking about what transdisciplinary research (TDR) meant, in order to thrash out some conceptual framework within which we could anchor the week’s work – this yielded little. We tried collectively illustrating a ‘weed system’ upon which everyone drew their ‘part’ to emphasise the connectedness of weed problems and show why TDR for weeds was needed – this was a bit of a flop. We examined a local weed case study and spoke to stakeholders affected by weeds (farmers, ranchers, weed managers, conservationists), which also yielded little. We spoke about how TDR could be enacted in terms of the local case study – which didn’t provide much. Minor failure after minor failure led to some grumbling participants, one in particular stuck in my mind who wondered aloud if they were in the process of “wasting an entire week”.

BUT, together these minor failures – the ‘little bits’, ‘flops’ and ‘not muchs’ – came together to produce what turned out (for me at least) to be the most meaningful and valuable aspect of the workshop and TDR.

The lenient structure that did not dwell on these minor failures, combined with the lack of pressure to produce, produce, produce, allowed people to take the time to properly (or at least attempt to) cross disciplines, get to know each other, understand the other disciplines, and recognise their value. The workshop gave latitude for each participant ‘try on the hat’ of another discipline, even if only briefly and very amateurishly. This took place without any pressure to do so, or to have it jam out any sort of outcome. It encouraged people to actually put on these hats, rather than just observe them from across disciplinary lines.

Gill Andina (2)

Truly embracing TDR

What stood out for me from these interactions was the attractiveness and allure of the social science hat. Regardless of where most conversations started they commonly finished entrenched in the broader social context of weeds. In these moments, natural scientists seemed to get an enormous kick out of wearing the social science hat, despite knowing that come the end of the week they couldn’t keep it.

This was wonderfully validating for the ‘social people’ and enlightening for the ‘natural’ (but definitely not ‘antisocial’) people. By trying on these hats in the presence of those that usually wear them allowed natural scientists to see the value of social science in terms of weed issues, with many suggesting that they would definitely seek to work social sciences in the future.

This was the value of  a TDR approach. By actually trying on the hats of others you develop a unique and much greater understanding of its relevance and importance – and an awareness that it fits better on someone else.

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