The challenges and chances of interdisciplinary collaborations on climate/environmental change 

Small village near a lake with snowy mountains in the background

Social scientists and humanities scholars increasingly become involved in interdisciplinary projects about climate and environmental change. Priorities of regional, national and transnational funding agencies will likely keep going in this direction. To collaborate closely with scholars from other disciplines as well as non-academic research partners is an important, timely and challenging endeavour, requiring time, patience, flexibility and creativity. 

Four researchers with a background in anthropology, collaboratively organised a workshop at the VANDA conference that took place in September 26-29, 2022 in Vienna to tackle the challenges and opportunities of such projects. All of us work in interdisciplinary projects on Arctic environmental change. Zdenka Sokolickova and Esteban Ramirez Hincapie, University of Groningen, are part of the research project “Svalur“  that explores resilience and long-term ecosystem change in the high Arctic. The project combines formal environmental monitoring with the knowledge and observations from various people who know the Arctic well. Alexandra Meyer, University of Vienna, works on the „Nunataryuk”  project, a Horizon 2020 EU-project with 26 partners from 12 countries joining forces to understand how thawing permafrost on land, along the coast and below the sea changes the global climate and life for people in the Arctic. Last but not least, I myself, Sophie Elixhauser, University of Vienna, am part of the “Snow2Rain” project. This project involves climatologists and anthropologists together with local partners, exploring how environmental changes, in particular the transition from snow to rain, are influencing the quality of life in East Greenland.

Interdisciplinary workshop setup

The workshop was entitled “Researching climate/environmental change from a more-than-anthropology perspective: The challenges and opportunities of interdisciplinary and multi-epistemic knowledge production”. The aim of the workshops was to share experiences where interdisciplinarity and different knowledge systems have relevance, to highlight pitfalls, give best practice examples, and to create a community. The presentations in this workshop covered various countries, from Madagaskar, Albania, Spain, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, to different places in the Arctic.  

One re-emerging topic was the challenge to bring different epistemologies together, particularly when positivist and interpretative traditions meet. Questions about what knowledge is and what are in fact “data” might be answered quite differently by collaborators from different disciplines, and misunderstandings about tasks, sources of data and responsibilities can easily emerge. Zofia Boni, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland, who is the PI of a transdisiplinary project on urban overheating in Warsaw and Madrid, presented the challenges and opportunities of combining methods used by social anthropologists, such as embodied and sensory experiences, and subjective forms of knowing, together with quantitative methods from climate or health sciences. Esteban Ramirez Hincapie, referring to his above mentioned project in Svalbard, recounted that his colleagues from the natural sciences would not directly include their (sometimes) long-term observations on environmental change on the archipelago in their academic work; these are not considered “data” for their disciplines. The anthropologists in the project, on the other hand, would draw from the experiential knowledge of people like those colleagues since in anthropology this is regarded as valuable data. Frank Muttenzer, University of Luzern, working in a project about resource access and mud crab fishery in Madagascar, described that his colleagues were surprised about his, the anthropologist’s, activities in the field, as they had expected him to not spend time with them but with the local population only. Marketa Zandlova, Charles University, who is the PI of an interdisciplinary project on droughts in Czech Republic also reported that “exact procedures” were expected from the social scientists in the project. This is an expectation which might not always fit in with a qualitative approach providing the backbone for many social scientists. 

Overcoming prejudice

Not surprisingly, long-known prejudices between quantitative and qualitative sciences once and again may become an issue. Some workshop participants with a social sciences and humanities background recounted experiences of constantly having to prove that “we are also scientists” to the colleagues from the natural sciences. Danai-Maria Kontou, Durham University, combines art and cartography in her work, for instance. She described attitudes among some scientists that she worked with that art and science should not be combined. On the other hand, as Mareike Pampus, Martin-Luther-University Halle Wittemberg, argued, it is also important for social scientists and humanities scholars not to lump together all natural scientists, not to “essentialize them”, as each discipline again may be very multifaceted and diverse. Mareike Pampus presented her research on land restoration in post-mining Eastern Germany employing a multi-species approach that became her entry port to interdisciplinarity.

A central point to emerge in the presentations and discussions was that openness and flexibility regarding some rather fundamental assumptions of one’s own discipline are needed to embark successfully into interdisciplinary and multi-epistemic research collaborations. University departments, nevertheless, reproduce disciplinarity, as Peter Schweitzer underlined, and interdisciplinary activities are often viewed as add-ons only. An exception to this was portrayed by the aforementioned Danai-Maria Kontou and her colleague Greta Ferloni. The two doctoral researchers recounted their positive experiences of working within an interdisciplinary graduate research and training centre at Durham University where interdisciplinarity is a founding pillar of the centre. 

Different methods and use of data

Indeed a joint epistemological framework before starting an interdisciplinary project would be ideal. Yet in many cases, discussions on how to bring together differing knowledge systems take place – on and off – within on-going projects and not before starting them. Various participants mentioned the additional time needed to understand the epistemologies and methods of the other disciplines. Natasa Gregoric Bon and Ursa Kanjir, University of Ljubljana, who work together in a project about riverine environments in Albania, combine anthropology and remote sensing. They pointed out the time they took for reading and discussing articles from each other’s disciplines in order to find common ground and to intersect the “big and thick data”. Though this time might be missing later on in the project cycle for fulfilling one’s own disciplinary requirements, for instance in terms of writing articles for preferably high ranked journals, and so forth, which rarely publish interdisciplinary material. Interdisciplinary projects might even call for (quantitatively) more output, which I have myself experienced whilst working in such a project on environment and development in the Philippines more than 20 years ago. Scientific output may be required not only to fulfill the requirements of one’s own discipline, but also the goals of the interdisciplinary collaboration as well as the (e.g. applied) interests of other actors involved.

Summary and outlook – epistemic humility

Working in an interdisciplinary team necessitates using a language with less technical terms for mutual understanding, as Greta Ferloni emphasized. Learning to speak clearly offers various advantages when it comes to communicating research to non-academic research partners as well as to the media, politicians or other relevant societal actors. Referring to this, Marketa Zandlova, for instance, recounted positive experiences of collaborating with local communities and of giving policy advice at the end of her interdisciplinary project. Here, interdisciplinarity can be an asset, and much could be added about the manifold advantages of these projects.

Various recommendations arose from this fruitful and lively workshop. These included, above all, openness and respect for other methods and epistemologies, to apply “epistemic humility” (Kontou), and to be open to step out of one’s own comfort zone, academically speaking.

Sophie Elixhauser is a Social Anthropologist holding a Ph.D.from the University of Aberdeen and a Master’s degree from the University of Munich. She has done extensive fieldwork with Inuit communities in East Greenland, and she was part of different interdisciplinary projects, in the Alps, the Philippines and Greenland (current project: In addition to her academic activities, she works in the field of intercultural counselling and outdoor pedagogy.

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