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Key Insights for Thinking and Doing Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Work: Contributions from Latin America

Aerial image of crossroads whereby people cross the street using three zebra crossings.Two are crossed between each other, the third zebra crossing is horizontal, located under the crossed two zebra crossings.

Ryoji Iwata/ Unsplash

In April 2021, the First ESOCITE-LALICS Conference took place, albeit virtually. This was the first virtual Conference organized with the collaboration of the Asociación Latinoamericana de Estudios Sociales de la Ciencia y Tecnología (ESOCITE) and Red Latinoamericana para el Estudio de los Sistemas de Aprendizaje, Innovación y Construcción de Competencias (LALICS). Importantly, the two organizations have different profiles: if LALICS aims to deepen the links between innovation processes, national/regional development, innovation systems, learning processes, and capacity building in the region, ESOCITE’s goal is to strengthen linkages across members of the community of social studies of science and technology in Latin America.

The objective of the Conference was to promote debate between researchers associated with both organizations, establish meeting points, and bring together diverse perspectives across their different fields of study. In line with this objective, we proposed the panel session titled “Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Practices in Latin America: Present and Future Challenges and Transformations,” whereby participants were invited to reflect on how interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research is practiced in the universities of the Latin American region. These are collaborative approaches that make it possible to tackle the complex problems that the continent currently faces.

Interdisciplinarity can be defined as a synthesis of ideas, data, methods, tools, concepts, or theories of two or more disciplines that seek to solve a problem or produce new knowledge outside the scope of a single discipline or research area (NAS, 2005). In turn, transdisciplinarity stands for research that, in addressing complex problems, integrates the perspective of different social actors in order to generate joint solutions (Pohl & Hirsch Hadorn, 2007). Transdisciplinary research is oriented towards the implementation and transformation of the problem being addressed.

With these definitions in mind, ten presenters shared their interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary experiences in teaching, outreach, and research activities. Some of the highlights included the following:

  • One of the studies presented addressed the intricacies of the production of yerba mate. Specifically, the presenters showed that, on the one hand, yerba mate production constitutes a source of income for local populations, yet on the other, it is driven by an extractivist logic that does not take into account the most urgent environmental needs of said population. In this case, the interdisciplinary approach allows understanding the multiple dimensions that yerba mate production has in the region. More broadly, it generates a fuller understanding of the tight connection between the environment and the production relations to which local populations have been subjected.
  • The Colectivo TÁ discussed the environmental, ecosystemic, and socioeconomic impacts of the production and commercialization of transgenic crops in Uruguay as they sought to move towards the construction of agroecological alternatives. This research and teaching project draws on collaborations with various social actors while it also integrates insights from such disciplines as agronomy, biology (basic, molecular, and micro), biochemistry, medicine, nutrition, law, anthropology.
  • Another researcher presented a study focused on cassava in intercultural rural contexts in Argentina. This project analyzes a sociotechnical network for the communication of transdisciplinary knowledge on cassava. The phenomenon itself, as well as the theoretical-epistemological assumptions that underlie the rendition of the problem, are profoundly heterogeneous. Thus, to answer the question about how the communication of knowledge occurs, a methodological strategy is adopted that draws insight from Actor-Network Theory regarding the assembly of sociotechnical networks.

These research projects exemplify and contribute to the emerging field of studies of Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity (ESIT for its acronym in Spanish) in Latin America (Vienni Baptista, 2016). The ESIT reveals the renewed difficulties and persistent challenges that these processes continue to face both inside and outside academic structures. Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research practices develop with the aspiration towards a non-fragmented, non-reductionist knowledge, on the one hand, and the recognition of the incompleteness of all knowledge, on the other.

The presented papers revealed some resonances in the application of interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary approaches. Among them are the following:

  • The interdisciplinary approach aims to integrate different perspectives, contributing to the production of new knowledge. Many of the research projects include the participation of various actors of public policy, social organizations, among others. Forms of participation and degrees of involvement vary dramatically throughout the research process: the more involved these actors are, the greater their significance for the identification, definition, and application of the results is.
  • Some of the presented studies focused on the link with the institutional structures to which they are attached (public universities in Latin America), thus making evident some tensions in the recognition of these practices and/or modifying existing structures of knowledge production.
  • The integration of different disciplines and actors leads to the implementation of new methodologies and/or their adaptation. For example, one of the presented papers put into practice Stratified Causal Analysis or Layered Causal Analysis. This methodology utilizes a vertical analysis of four causal layers, aimed at enriching the understanding of the problem, and a horizontal analysis of each layer to explore possible courses of action (and actors involved) to solve the problem in the short, medium, and long term. This methodology is not new, but it was adapted to the problem, the participating actors, and the study’s objectives.

Importantly, in all presented materials research, teaching, and outreach activities are considered to be interrelated. This critical perspective helps to challenge the conventional ways of how teaching is organized and designed, how the relationships between various actors are mobilized in the framework of outreach activities, and what problems enter research agendas. In short, such an integral perspective reinforces the premises of the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches, aiming to improve the quality of produced knowledge and, more importantly, bring the university and society closer together.

Without a doubt, the heterogeneity of the presented problems, adopted modalities, and participants helps us to further reflect on the relevance of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches in Latin America and beyond. These practices have a strong contextual component. Therein lies the interest of the ESIT – in recognizing how the particular characteristics that Latin American contexts and scholarship contribute to the general study of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. The presentations captured how integral practices, characteristic of Latin American universities, can shed light on particular dimensions in the development of inter- and transdisciplinarity from Latin America. Carrying out this type of conferences is part of the reconstruction and analysis work proposed by the ESIT.


References

National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2005. Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/11153.

Pohl, Christian & Hirsch Hadorn, Gertrude. 2007. Principles for Designing Transdisciplinary Research. 10.14512/9783962388638.

Vienni Baptista, Bianca. 2016. Entre instituciones, espacios y redes: ámbitos interdisciplinarios y transdisciplinarios en América. INTERdisciplina. 4. 10.22201/ceiich.24485705e.2016.10.57718.

 

 

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