To be undisciplinary
Building on these explorations, this paper offers an early-career scholar perspective on sustainability research. In Robinson’s (2008) paper on ‘Being Undisciplined,’ different temperaments of interdisciplinarity are put forth, but what it means to be undisciplinary is never clearly defined. Based on our experiences and the results presented here, we provide a working definition of undisciplinary to describe the journey that early-career researchers navigate in order to achieve rigorous sustainability science. Undisciplinary science is therefore not a new type (or further evolution) of mixed-disciplinary research [i.e., it does not replace multi-, inter-, or trans-disciplinarity (MIT-disciplinarity) see Klein (2017)], rather it is a personal process as well as a mode of collaboration from which one can engage in various strategies of research. The types of research and the particular contexts that we face as early-career researchers create an undisciplinary space that is part of our unique MIT-disciplinary process, and the reflexive undisciplinary process and orientation provides us with an identity and a set of skills to engage in MIT-disciplinary research. We use this lens to unpack our core dilemma and what it means to be early-career researchers, with interdisciplinary training while engaging with others with similar backgrounds, in a world dominated by established disciplines.
In attempting to define undisciplinary, we asked ourselves these questions: Is an undisciplinary space something that early-career sustainability researchers find themselves in and have to deal with? Or is it something that we would like to embrace as a quality that improves our research and its impact? We find that it can be simultaneously understood as a space and a process, which together form the undisciplinary journey. In dealing with what it means to navigate an undisciplinary space, undisciplinary scholars go through a process, which is our primary focus in this paper. We build on four distinct phases or professional situations in which early-career scholars may find themselves, and describe three main stylized trajectories between them (Fig. 3, quadrants a–d), which we argue can help to guide an undisciplinary journey within sustainability science. Finally, we discuss the undisciplinary journey as something that can be developed as an asset by individuals or groups of sustainability scholars. In viewing and defining this journey as a space, a process and an orientation, we hope to convey that an undisciplinary orientation can ultimately become an asset that enables rigorous, solutions-oriented science within groups of scholars and institutions. The section concludes with suggestions for institutional support for undisciplinary research journeys and endeavors.
The dilemma articulated at the beginning of this paper was: How could we ‘perform high-quality research and build identity in the field of sustainability science, when starting as interdisciplinary individuals without profound roots in a discipline, and working within a world dominated by established disciplines?’ This undisciplinary space, created through the research questions we pose, is a space in which there are no clear rules or forms of engagement, no writing formulas, nor clear methodological pathways. Sword (Sword 2012, p. 12), in her book aimed at graduate students, on Stylish Writing, states that, conventionally, ‘to enter an academic discipline is to become disciplined: trained to habits of order through correction and chastisements that are ‘assumed to be salutary’ by one’s teachers’. The undisciplinary space is the arena in which the larger undisciplinary journey happens (Fig. 3), a space in which there are no boundaries to guide you, but also no boundaries to hold you back.
Central to this journey is the undisciplinary process. This process involves navigating through the undisciplinary space depicted in Fig. 3. We propose that a necessary characteristic to follow a fruitful undisciplinary process of scholarship is self-reflexivity, which involves examining both changes in oneself and the relationship between research process and outcomes (Hsiung 2010). The undisciplinary compass (Fig. 3) provides guidance for constantly re-evaluating where you are in the research process, and what skills you may need to seek in collaborators, or hone for yourself.
Viewing the different quadrants as states for individual researchers (or research groups) suggests that there are different ways to transition from one space to another, toward the goal of rigorous sustainability science (or even interdisciplinary science more broadly), which we argue can only be achieved once the individual researcher (or research group) finds themselves in the upper right quadrant. We emphasize that we see the progression and navigation between quadrants throughout a scientific career as iterative. Progressing along the horizontal axes of Fig. 3 follows a more traditional path toward rigorous interdisciplinary sustainability science. Starting from disciplinary immersion (b): Researchers are trained in a discipline, and once established in it, they decide to engage with researchers from other disciplines. Alternatively, progressing along the vertical axes of Fig. 3 represents a growing proportion of the cases in sustainability science, relative to the former trajectory, and hence we elaborate below based on insights from the panel discussion.
To illustrate the way in which we have experienced this process ourselves, imagine an early-career sustainability scholar starting her/his career with low epistemological agility and low methodological groundedness (Fig. 3a): ‘The biggest risk I see in people that go very interdisciplinary in their PhDs is that they end up being conceptually very broad, but get stuck in what has sometimes been called “conceptual la–la-land”, they know a little bit about everything but they are not actually good at anything, and that is a real problem’ (JF, quote, Table 3). Alternatively, an early-career sustainability scholar might be trained in a few core methods, but get sucked into the strong attractor of a discipline, making it hard to engage in deep interdisciplinary production (Fig. 3b). One suggested strategy to avoid the attractor of a discipline was reflected by a respondent during the panel discussion: ‘My main recommendation would be not to think so much about disciplines, but think about two or three things that you are good at, and make those your profile, make those your strengths. These could be an analytical technique or writing brilliant conceptual papers, whatever it is, but you have got to have something that is unique to you. (…) have a couple of strengths that you recognize and build on those (JF, quote, Table 3).’
A third situation would be if the early-career scholar is confident in navigating different epistemologies, but may find herself/himself in an uncomfortable space (Fig. 3c) of negotiating between different ways of producing scientific knowledge without having the methodological skills and confidence to move forward in any particular direction (especially when a direction is largely unexplored, which is quite characteristic of a new scientific field). Although we would expect that all scholars feel uncomfortable at different times in their careers, we think that the lack of disciplinary anchoring makes this feeling more poignant. Scientific progress depends on the continuous creation of uncomfortable spaces (Rayner 2012) and innovation exists at the boundary of this discomfort while at the same time finding the confidence to move forward in a robust and rigorous way.
We acknowledge and value the pioneering work done by previous generations in creating an interdisciplinary environment for sustainability research. It is in this environment that interdisciplinary graduate programs have been established around the world, in response to the demands of the evolving field of sustainability science. Our survey results suggest that now, more than ever before, PhD students are starting their careers with an interdisciplinary background. We argue that this is an important difference between the path taken by previous generations of sustainability scientists, who typically started their careers by practicing disciplinary science, then moving on to multi-, then inter- or even transdisciplinary science. Achieving undisciplinary orientation is by no means a homogenous identity. Some researchers may find themselves with strong epistemological agility and may have opted for methodological pluralism (Norgaard 1989) as opposed to others with more methodological depth.
Navigating this balance between depth and breadth demands an array of more specific skills, which will vary across fields of inquiry. An early-career scholar, sustainability science group, or program, makes trade-offs at different points in time between learning in-depth methods, reading broadly on different ways of knowing, and developing other competencies to do rigorous interdisciplinary science. Core competencies in sustainability science have been proposed by Wiek et al. (2011: systems thinking, anticipatory, normative, strategic and interpersonal competencies). In addition to these competencies we find it helpful to think of specific skills along the continuum of our broader guiding competencies of epistemological agility and methodological groundedness. On the one hand, they are specific technical skills, such as geographical information systems (GIS) analysis, network analysis, statistical or mathematical modeling, qualitative data analysis, interviewing skills. Other skills include collaborative interpersonal skills across cultures, between ideologies and working in different contexts. Skills in facilitation, participatory approaches and synthesis (i.e., to see and make sense of ‘the big picture’) are also valuable skills in sustainability science. Some skills and methods align better with certain epistemologies (West et al. 2014). High epistemological agility would allow a researcher to effectively select appropriate and relevant methodologies according to the specific research needs. In line with our proposed undisciplinary process, epistemological agility means the ability to discern different disciplinary traditions and navigate between them with confidence in order to match ontologies with appropriate epistemologies and methodologies (Table 3; McWilliam 2012; Khagram et al. 2010). Agility should help scholars avoid getting stuck in certain theoretical approaches or scientific paradigms, but equally important is the awareness and openness to different ways of knowing and learning, which is critical for addressing issues of social-ecological complexity (personal communication Joan David Tàbara). Through this undisciplinary journey, early-career scholars may come to acquire a foundation for doing rigorous sustainability science, balancing methodological groundedness and epistemological agility.
Navigating the undisciplinary process, we can develop an undisciplinary orientation: the ability and desire to embrace the undisciplinary journey. It goes beyond accepting discomfort at the boundaries of disciplines, and science, more broadly. An undisciplinary orientation is to embrace complexity and uncertainty in the pursuit of problem-oriented research.
In addition to the core competencies and specific skills of engaging in rigorous sustainability science, the successful navigation of the process is a quality of its own right, which should be nurtured and acknowledged within the growing institutional structures around sustainability science, at various different phases of a researcher’s career. Embracing this orientation may be particularly helpful for early-career scholars dealing with an undisciplinary space, and processing their own dilemmas. Indeed, as a group of authors and cohort of PhD students, our reflexive engagement with this journey has contributed to clarifying our individual research identities and contributions to sustainability science.
The tension and obstacles inherent in combining very different methods, potentially even based on different epistemologies, characterizes the journey toward building a foundation for rigorous sustainability science. Arts and performative methods have played a key role in challenging existing epistemologies and identities (Heras and Tàbara 2014) and provide an arena to ‘open up’ knowledge systems (Cornell et al. 2013). The process of combining diverse methods, including performative methods, in this paper was in itself a valuable and constructive learning experience and is representative of the types of challenges faced by early-career interdisciplinary scholars in their collaborations with colleagues from either other disciplines and/or others with similarly interdisciplinary backgrounds. Indeed, the challenge of such a methodological approach was evident in discussions between the authors in developing and presenting the methodologies used and the results in this paper.
The forum theater, the thematic analysis of a panel discussion from a conference session, and the survey complement each other and are indicative of the methodological pluralism and innovative combination of methods that is characteristic of interdisciplinary sustainability science (Norgaard 1989; Folke et al. 2016). Each method served a specific purpose and built on each other in the following way:
The survey provided support that there has been a ‘generational shift’ with respect to the backgrounds and starting points of those pursuing interdisciplinary sustainability science.
The forum theater provided a structure that encouraged openness, and reflexivity for, and insights into, interdisciplinary scholarship from early-career scholars, while also incorporating experiences and reflections from the (more experienced) audience.
The panel built on these experiential insights through expert elicitation.
The opportunity for engagement by the authors over a period of three years in articulating a joint dilemma, designing the methodologies to explore it, and lengthy discussions throughout the writing process of this paper, created an arena for personal and collective reflexivity through which we came to understand and think strategically about the undisciplinary journey. The phenomenon of an undisciplinary journey, as first and foremost a process, but also a space and an orientation, which we describe in this paper in relation to sustainability science, is not a new ‘discovery’ and is indeed part of the cycle of science (Kuhn 1962), where real-life challenges arise that single disciplines are not able to address and thus new disciplines or collaborative fields are born. Yet, as part of this cycle, Bettencourt and Kaur (2011) and Kates (2011) contend that sustainability science is a new, and different kind of science. In viewing sustainability science as a dynamic, post-normal science that should not be reduced to traditional disciplinary boundaries, our reflection on the undisciplinary journey can help make sense of this space through engaging in self-reflexive processes and collaborations. As more and more interdisciplinary scholars enter graduate programs with interdisciplinary backgrounds, institutional structures may choose to reflect on and embrace undisciplinary orientations to help reduce the inherent risks and challenges involved in pursuing highly interdisciplinary PhDs.
Academic institutions—navigation aids for undisciplinary processes
Becoming an accomplished sustainability researcher, or even more broadly an interdisciplinary scholar, involves an inevitable process of iteration, through combining and matching different methodologies with different epistemologies in order to best address any given problem. There is an important role for institutions to play in this process, both in training and educating early-career scholars in order to minimize the time spent in an ‘uncomfortable space’ or in ‘conceptual la–la-land,’ as well as creating more promising and substantive career trajectories.
Interdisciplinary research centers and departments are increasingly offering interdisciplinary PhD programs (see Supplementary Material 1), and it is critically important to ask how these programs can pedagogically support PhD students in their navigation of an undisciplinary journey. What are the opportunities and challenges, for example, in being supervised by researchers who themselves were trained in disciplinary schools? What are the risks involved in being examined by scholars established in disciplinary traditions? Ideas about what an interdisciplinary skill-set in sustainability science looks like remain nascent as the field itself is still emerging. Inevitably there will be different perspectives on how best to do this; the panelists providing expert advice in this paper also had somewhat contradictory ideas on the pedagogical strategy of educating PhD students, with one advocating learning-by-doing, and another emphasizing the importance of formal training in epistemological agility (Table 3).
In either case, a pedagogical strategy should align with an awareness of the outlets that exist for publication as well as future career opportunities. There is an increasing recognition of the continuing development of high-quality interdisciplinary research in the publishing sphere, the creation of the sustainability science section in PNAS (Clark 2007), the creation of the journal Sustainability Science (Komiyama and Takeuchi 2006), the soon to be launched Nature Sustainability journal, and the early recognition of sustainability science as a science of its own (Kates et al. 2001). Despite these positive steps toward publications in sustainability science, a recent paper in Nature suggests there is a growing gap between the increasing number of possibilities to conduct interdisciplinary research and the level of career advancement, since most academic institutions still place more value on high profile research outputs like articles in high-impact journals than other outcomes like cooperative learning or policy engagement (Gewin 2014).