Increasingly, scholars across the life and social sciences recognize the necessity of multi-method, interdisciplinary research for its ability to adequately understand the world’s complex problems. However, the process of designing and executing these projects can be challenging. Interdisciplinary endeavors often risk privileging one discipline/methodological paradigm with others incorporated in a more consultative manner (i.e. quantitative versus qualitative), or, they run in-parallel without integrating epistemologies and methodologies (Lewis 2021). Examples of symmetric and integrative projects which unsettle disciplinary boundaries to afford new kinds of knowledge remain few and far between.
In the following piece, we (ZB and CB), as members and ethnographers of interdisciplinary teams, reflect on several “Mexican Exposures” (MEXPOS) projects which bring together researchers in anthropology, epidemiology, biostatistics, engineering, and health economics to make better knowledge and “better numbers” about health and inequality in Mexico (Roberts 2021). MEXPOS projects collaborate with long-standing epidemiological birth-cohort studies (ELEMENT and PROGRESS) which are based within Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health (INSP). Through performing and observing the laborious process of integrating the often-disparate methodologies, epistemologies, and analytical aims that each expert brings to the team, we have identified that some team members act as mediators, performing a critical role in making these interdisciplinary collaborations work. Our contribution to understanding how interdisciplinary knowledge is made (Lin et al. 2007) is a focus on the interpersonal aspects of knowledge production through exploring how these teams make better data by destabilizing disciplinary boundaries. By doing so, we hope to elucidate the challenges and opportunities of this kind of collaboration by exploring what is made possible when doing this work together.
ZB has a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and has spent a year managing MEXPOS projects as she prepares to begin a joint MD-PhD Anthropology training program; as an undergraduate, she also spent three semesters working in the MEXPOS ethnographic coding lab. CB has a background in physiotherapy and medical anthropology, and works with MEXPOS as part of her doctoral research and the Biosocial Birth Cohort Network, which included shadowing the MEXPOS team for ten days in April 2023 and meeting field workers in Mexico City. We developed this essay from our shared experience and observations of interdisciplinary knowledge practices within MEXPOS team meetings.
MEXPOS projects perform bioethnographic work. Bioethnography is a research method which combines methodologies from the social and biological sciences to understand environment-body interactions as relational and situated processes (Roberts and Sanz 2018). The premise of bioethnographic teams is to generate new knowledge by transcending disciplinary boundaries to tackle the complexity of the topics of study. Bioethnographic methods differ from other examples of collaboration between the life and social sciences that break down because of the lack of a shared intent or question (Lewis 2021) and encourages critical implosions between “nature/culture” (Roberts 2021). This methodology calls for the unsettling of traditional epistemological boundaries between the disciplines involved to critically engage with the questions and objects of research at hand in new and innovative ways.
This interdisciplinary research model hopes to create knowledge that truly apprehends pressing problems and questions. In practice, however, we have found that this process can feel awkward, clunky, and falter as members navigate the integration and destabilization it requires, working through the tensions of epistemic purity and interdisciplinary compromise while creating new modes and subject positions towards these blended methods. In our experience, the element which often relieves these tensions and moves teams toward achieving their collaborative aims has been the presence of mediators and the labor they perform.
Mediators are key for facilitating conversations between disciplines that bring underlying “taken-for-granted” assumptions to the surface, enabling these teams to progress past disciplinary limits. Most MEXPOS teams consist of a core of senior academics that are anchored within respective disciplines and act as knowledge-keepers alongside a variety of research assistants and management staff. Within MEXPOS, we have found that mediation is typically performed by the project manager and several graduate research assistants, including ZB. These are junior scholars with varying degrees of training in ethnographic methods as well as survey methodology, epidemiology, biology/life sciences, statistics, and other quantitative analyses. Through their training and background, mediators are well positioned to steer, generate, and develop bioethnographic questions while fostering a group dynamic that advances the team’s goals. The two examples we present here demonstrate mediation-in-action which allowed these teams to move forward amid, and possibly because of, disciplinary friction (Tsing 2011), which was harnessed by the mediators and transformed into something generative.
In the Spring of 2023, a team within MEXPOS worked on a collaborative paper based on the insights of the Household Chemical Assessment Project, a pilot study of two working-class households in Mexico City. This project, involving anthropologists, epidemiologists, exposure scientists, and metabolomics researchers, documented household and personal care products along with their use/meaning and generated a master list of chemical ingredients and insights about household exposure. During these meetings, the team debated how to situate this project and its outputs within an existing paradigm of exposure research, “the exposome” (Wild 2005). The team was stuck; the epidemiologists were aiming for epistemological clarity and a fixed structure to proceed, while the anthropologists were looping back and questioning the paradigm itself by posing alternative questions. The mediator registered that the two camps were talking past one another due to differences in their underlying notions of what “exposure” entailed on an ontological level, and pulled together readings that spanned both sets of disciplines to be discussed as a group at the next meeting. This effectively moved the team forward by 1) developing a new starting point with a shared knowledge base and vocabulary, and 2) opening a window into each discipline’s mode of inquiry in a way which allowed for more nuanced discussion about their respective stakes and assumptions. In this way, mediators can act as disciplinary polyglots thanks to their ability to understand the languages of the different disciplines, recognize and iron out misunderstandings, and summarize the conversations held by senior academics from different camps. This practice of mediation enabled the team to theorize beyond disciplinary limits and pioneer a new orientation towards exposure inquiry and intervention that enmeshes social and life scientists within a framework of shared understanding.
The second example involves another MEXPOS team, comprised of anthropologists, health economists, biostatisticians, and epidemiologists, that leveraged insights from a previous project (NESTSMX) about household water infrastructure. The team created a module of survey questions for the Mexican National Health and Nutrition Survey (ENSANUT) in order to investigate the impact of an intermittent water supply on health, gender, and household finances. One meeting about question revisions for the following year’s survey got stalled when differences in disciplinary aims and timelines surfaced. The anthropologists, who predominated, wanted to ameliorate their own apprehensions around survey methodology by tinkering with existing questions and discussing potential new ones to keep fidelity to the complex ethnographic insights. The biostaticians seemed frustrated by this, as they pointed out the looming due date and advocated for straightforward and generalizable questions to produce data that could be meaningfully compared to the previous year. The mediators suggested narrowing the discussion only to the ethnographic data that could be directly operationalized into the specific module questions that the biostaticians agreed would be worth modifying because they describe experience instead of measuring prevalence. As such, the mediators helped to reconcile qualitative richness and quantitative concreteness in translating ethnographic insights into questions that produce 0s and 1s, modulating between the sometimes-disparate aims and scales of ethnographic and statistical research processes that make integrating them so difficult.
Generative Friction and Directions Forward
Contemporary academic training calls for more interdisciplinary models, which could produce more mediators for multidisciplinary teams. These mediators do not always squash or quell conflict, but rather harness the productive role of the disciplinary unsettling that bioethnography facilitates among established academics, including the resulting misunderstandings and moments of uncertainty. These moments of generative friction offer critical points of reflection and surprise, and can reveal disciplinary assumptions and blind spots – which might be what is most valuable in bioethnography. This generative friction is a function of the unexpected: to borrow from studies of cognition, it is when a habit, in this case a disciplinary way of thinking, is contradicted and calls for a new way of understanding (Clark 2018), as well as epistemic humility. Here, these new ways of understanding are the interdisciplinary insights that are made possible through practices of bioethnographic integration. The mediators make friction productive by “paying attention to the diverse concerns of different disciplines and incorporating responsive negotiation of their collaborative possibilities and the tensions between them” (Mol and Hardon 2020). Here, mediators provide the crucial vector required to propel the group forward.
The making of truly interdisciplinary knowledge often requires overcoming epistemological paradigms through disciplinary destabilization. Mediators both manage interdisciplinary tensions and foster the generative friction that emerges, allowing for new kinds of knowledge to be produced together. Mediators can recognize, hold, and harness the discomfort of competing objectives and respond accordingly with the symmetry of the meta research process continually in mind. While disciplines will transform as opportunities for interdisciplinary training continue to increase, our experience with these bioethnographic collaborations underscores the importance of maintaining spaces for generative frictions that mediators can render into positive momentum.
 See https://www.ucl.ac.uk/soc-b-biosocial-doctoral-training/soc-b-centre-doctoral-training-biosocial-research; https://new.nsf.gov/funding/learn/research-types/learn-about-interdisciplinary-research
Clark, Andy. 2018. “A Nice Surprise? Predictive Processing and the Active Pursuit of Novelty.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 17 (3): 521–34. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-017-9525-z.
Lewis, Ashley. 2021. “Questioning the Promise of Interdisciplinarity: An Ethnography of an Interdisciplinary Research Project.” University of Nottingham.
Lin, Wei, Rob Procter, Peter Halfpenny, Alex Voss, and Kenny Baird. 2007. “An Action-Oriented Ethnography of Interdisciplinary Social Scientific Work.”
Mol, Annemarie, and Anita Hardon. 2020. “What COVID-19 May Teach Us about Interdisciplinarity.” BMJ Global Health 5 (12): e004375. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjgh-2020-004375.
Roberts, Elizabeth F. S., and Camilo Sanz. 2018. “Bioethnography: A How-To Guide for the Twenty-First Century.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Biology and Society, edited by Maurizio Meloni, John Cromby, Des Fitzgerald, and Stephanie Lloyd, 749–75. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-52879-7_32.
Roberts, Elizabeth F.S. 2021. “Making Better Numbers through Bioethnographic Collaboration.” American Anthropologist 123 (2): 355–69. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13560.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2011. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt7s1xk.
Wild, Christopher Paul. 2005. “Complementing the Genome with an ‘Exposome’: The Outstanding Challenge of Environmental Exposure Measurement in Molecular Epidemiology.” Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention 14 (8): 1847–50. https://doi.org/10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-05-0456.