ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Anthropology and interdisciplinarity (Roundtable)
Location Science Site/Chemistry CG83
Date and Start Time 06 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 4


  • Laura Rival (University of Oxford) email

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Short Abstract

The question ‘How does contemporary anthropological knowledge relate to other disciplines or branches of knowledge?’ needs to be addressed ethnographically. This panel invites contributions that start from the direct experience of researchers who have or are participating within multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary research teams, and propose to offer detailed and contextualised accounts of these experiences.

Long Abstract

Anthropologists, who have always worked at the interface of other disciplines, have contributed to wider intellectual and policy conversations in numerous ways. Having worried at times about a trend towards sub-disciplinary specialization or about identity loss, anthropologists on the whole feel that their discipline has succeeded in retaining a clear common core. However, there is a growing awareness today that new epistemological trends and recent developments in the institutionalization of scientific research call for a collective reflection on the place and role of anthropological knowledge within academia and beyond.

For reasons that have yet to be examined thoroughly, anthropologists are increasingly asked to carry out their research within teams that integrate other social scientists, and, increasingly, researchers from a range of biophysical sciences as well. Moreover, research is now expected to have ‘impact.’ Analytical reflections about the methodological and epistemological implications of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity have multiplied, but there is still a dearth of ethnographic work on the topic. The question ‘How does contemporary anthropological knowledge relate to other disciplines or branches of knowledge?’ needs to be addressed concretely, empirically, and ethnographically.

This panel invites contributions that start from the direct experience of researchers who have or are participating within multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary research teams. Papers will offer detailed and contextualised accounts of these experiences. What does it feel like to research in a team with other social scientists and/ or natural scientists? What agreements and disagreements are arising through collaboration? How are misunderstandings resolved, or successes and failures evaluated? In what specific ways did researchers alter their working practices or analytical frames in an attempt to produce collective or collaborative analyses? Did funding agencies and their demands constrain research collaboration, and if so, in what specific ways? Were there hierarchies of knowledge practice? How did they manifest themselves? What were the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of the collaborative experience? In what specific ways did the interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research experience alter your way of making anthropology?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Lost (and Found) in translation: the complexities of interdisciplinary communication in a synthetic biology research centre

Authors: Carmen McLeod (University of Oxford)  email
Brigitte Nerlich (University of Nottigham)  email

Short Abstract

Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field involving researchers from across the biophysical sciences. Social scientists are also joining research teams. We argue that anthropologists can play a key role in understanding the communication issues arising from these interdisciplinary interactions.

Long Abstract

Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field, incorporating researchers from across biology, engineering, computer science and other fields. With the development of the 'Responsible Innovation' agenda, an increasingly influential science government framework, researchers from social sciences and humanities are also progressively being incorporated into the field. This paper draws on the experiences of being an anthropologist based in a synthetic biology research centre mainly populated by biophysical scientists. Six months into a four year ethnographic project, one of the important areas of focus to emerge, is the issue of language and communication across different disciplines within the synthetic biology centre. Participant observation of meetings, day-to-day encounters, and other interactions provides a complex portrait of the challenges of communicating using different disciplinary 'languages'. Additionally, within a Responsible Innovation framework, synthetic biology scientists are urged to communicate outside the research centre with wider societal actors, with the aim of incorporating differing perspectives into their research.

Building on the direct experiences of working in an interdisciplinary team, we also look to the wider institutional research governance landscape to explore how these are impacting on working practices between different disciplines, with a particular interest in the role of communication in the context of synthetic biology. We argue that anthropologists can play a key role in identifying the complex and multiple reasons that are the impetus for communication within and outside the research centre, as well as helping to mediate interdisciplinary interactions.

Becoming and unbecoming an anthropologist in health research

Author: Mark Brough (Queensland University of Technology)  email

Short Abstract

This paper juxtaposes the cosmopolitan discourse of multi/inter/ trans with a street-level account of being an anthropologist within a health research centre.

Long Abstract

My disciplinary background rests in anthropology. Yet more than two decades after gaining my PhD in medical anthropology I am in an organisational sense yet to work 'in anthropology'. Instead I have been employed in health faculties predominantly populated by 'other' disciplines with whom I collaborate on a daily basis. I have often been the only anthropologist on staff or one of a handful. As I negotiate my disciplinary presence in this space, I experience both difference and sameness. Is my difference evidence of maintaining the integrity of my discipline in the face of the mostly positivist, essentialist disciplines of discovery which surround me, or perhaps I have failed in my accidental quasi-ethnographic journey among 'other' disciplines. Is my sameness a sign of becoming tainted by my associations with disciplinary 'others' or perhaps I occupy a cosmopolitan scholarship beyond the discipline silos? In what sense have I become or unbecome an anthropologist? In this paper I reflect on the role of anthropology among the health disciplines and critique the pluralist discourse of multi/inter/trans within the contemporary neo-liberal academy. In particular, I reflect on my street-level experience of membership of a health research centre based on 'interdisciplinary partnerships between health and biomedical scientists' and ponder the challenges and opportunities of these partnerships.

Eco-anthropology: towards an increasingly holistic approach to human-environment relations

Author: Pablo Dominguez (Autonomous University of Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

I will address the historical depth of the implicit dichotomy that separates even those who endeavour to stand at the interface of the two main paradigms composing the sub-discipline of Environmental Anthropology, one sociologically-humanist centred and other biologically-naturalist centred.

Long Abstract

The issue of the dialogue between disciplines has a long history, and yet it continues to present intense scientific discussions today. This is particularly striking in the case of the humanities and the natural sciences, where scholars often locate the "great divide". In particular, I dedicate this text to shedding some light on the question of "How can we carry out a more holistic analysis of human-environment relations based on an epistemological and methodological context specific to anthropology?". In an effort to synthesize the great diversity of anthropological reflections analysing human-environment relations, the different currents of thought can be placed mainly within a Humanist or within a Naturalist paradigm. Greater awareness and consciousness of the details of this 'great divide', the problems each paradigm poses, how to face the divide and how the division is being perpetuated through time must be hence, urgently and critically addressed to truly transcend the ontologically implicit borders, even in those who endeavour to practice inter-disciplinarity. In this context, my hypothesis is that the different perspectives within Environmental Anthropology have placed themselves historically along three main gradients, 1.- Materialist-Idealist, 2.- Individual-Social, 3.- Quantitative-Qualitative, which have forced the different perspectives to cluster into the two different great perspectives of Naturalism and Humanism and which must be undone through the reconnection of these three axes. I use the term "eco-anthropology" to refer to this new approach that I consider being a prelude to a possible global analysis progressively holistic and capable of proposing an increasingly overarching view.

"Do we need to talk to farmers?": an inter- and multi- disciplinary collaboration about agricultural biotechnologies in the Global South

Author: Susana Carro-Ripalda (Deusto University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper presents an ethnographic exploration of GMFuturos, a multi- and inter-disciplinary project run from Durham University to study agricultural biotechnologies in the Global South (Macnaghten and Carro-Ripalda 2015).

Long Abstract

This paper will present an ethnographic exploration of GMFuturos, a multi- and inter-disciplinary project run from Durham University and funded by the John Templeton Foundation to study debates and governance surrounding agricultural biotechnologies in the Global South (Macnaghten and Carro-Ripalda 2015). This inter- and multi-disciplinary project involved anthropologists, human and physical geographers, sociologists, philosophers, plant biologists, theologians, and agro-ecologists, distributed among four teams in four countries (UK, Mexico, Brazil and India). As co-leader, coordinator of the research teams, and project manager, I was not only an active player in the day-to-day enactments of inter-disciplinary diplomacy, but was also a privileged observer of fruitful collaborations, blurred boundaries, respected distances and unresolved disagreements between the particular disciplinary theories, practices and ethics. In addition, I will explore the disciplinary politics and knowledge hierarchies that made certain forms of practice, analytical frames, and modes of writing prevail over others, but I will also look at the inter-personal and rhetorical experiences of day-to-day interdisciplinary work and micro-collaboration with other researchers, and how these may have opened up new forms of inquiring and understanding for many of us involved in the project.

Anthropology, biology, conservation and artisanal fishery: from the limits of collaboration to new forms of knowledge

Author: Francesca Marin (University of Aberdeen)  email

Short Abstract

The paper traces the stages of my collaboration with a group of biologists involved in conservation and resource management programs, in Argentina. It affirms the need to go beyond disciplinary boundaries and shows the limits of the distinction between basic and applied research.

Long Abstract

The paper is grounded in the research I have been conducting during the last 18 months, in the natural protected area Valdés Peninsula (Argentina). There, a group of biologists, committed to the management of a small multi-species artisanal fishery, turned their attention to the theory of Commons in 2000. Since then, they have adopted multidisciplinary methodologies of research.

First, I present a brief analysis of how they conducted this effort, without perceiving the need of a more reflexive analysis of the heuristic categories of their work.

Second, I describe the chance I had to join the researchers. This was possible due to their generous sharing of data,the habit of collaborating with researchers as well as non-academic experts and their engagement for a sustainable future of the local fishery. The definition of the overall research question was the first disagreement likely to arise in view of our collaboration: was it a matter of resource management to "improve the reality" or a larger matter of human-environment relations? This disagreement was already present between the biologists and some social scientists of the same research centre.

A cause of this divergence is the conflict between applied and non-applied research. The biologists' need of application encouraged me to change my analytical frame. However, I continue to feel that criticizing it might be my most challenging but important contribution.

Finally, I contextualize my experience and reflect about the main success of collaborations: the ability to reduce disciplinary boundaries and differences between basic and applied research.

Anthropologist to and from the field: possible alliances.

Author: Livia Cahn (Université Saint-Louis)  email

Short Abstract

Five researchers came together to interrogate struggles around the cultivation of land in Brussels. Our varied backgrounds challenge us to reflect on our approach, to acknowledge our alliances & to find ways to conduct our work with a wider audience, beyond the usual academic context.

Long Abstract

For the first time in 15 years, a regional fund on urban matters was open to a group application. Through the on-going experience of group research, as the anthropologist on this team I would like to explore this role through the particular relationship to fieldwork to ask: how does anthropology relate? In what ways is an anthropologists equipped to engage in this quest while, tracing these different possible relations with in the research team and to the field. Since the inception of our research, our collective and diverse disciplinary practices galvanised around the desire to work in close resonance with actors that secure spaces for agriculture in the city. This interest was soon translated into a real preoccupation for how the modalities of a research team could express a form of engagement. Solicited to commit to a garden plot, write letters of support and assist at mobilisations we also turned to actors on the field to attempt to harness a collective written form and force that could resonate with those involved in the struggles. In the effort to multiply modes of action, we wonder: how to breach disciplinary differences and dissolve the segmentation between those conducting research and those engaging in the struggles? How best to relate their struggles and our research? What concerns do we share?

Livia Cahn with Benedikte Zitouni (U-SL), Chloe Deligne, Noémie Pons-Rotbardt, Nicolas Prignot & Alexis Zimmer (ULB).

Reflecting on multi-disciplinarity in EU-funded research

Author: Heidi Armbruster (Southampton University)  email

Short Abstract

Using an ethnographic lens I will reflect on the challenges and opportunities of participating in multi-disciplinary research teams in EU-funded research.

Long Abstract

This paper reflects on my own participation as an anthropologist in two EU-funded projects on European identities. In both cases the teams were not only multi-disciplinary (linguists, geographers, social psychologists, anthropologists) but also combined multi-national academic cultures. Whilst inter- or multi-disciplinarity has become as much as a convention in the context of European funding, it would be limiting to consider such co-operations merely as cross-fertilisations between different branches of knowledge.

In my own experience, multi-disciplinarity meant negotiating boundaries of knowledge, just as much as those of different academic traditions, languages and ontologies. Using a retrospective ethnographic lens I will reflect on the challenges and opportunities of these collaborations, and particularly relate to methods issues which raised questions for shared working modes and the successful integration of an anthropological sensitivity. These revolve around three issues in particular: the emphasis on the interview as a research tool, the perception of research material as 'data' and the question of knowledge as co-production between researcher and researched.

If all relations change participants, how much should we worry? Some notes and queries from the field of a multidisciplinary dialogue among anthropologists and psycho-social workers

Author: Rossana DiSilvio (University of Milano-Bicocca)  email

Short Abstract

As an anthropologist investigating ‘post-familial’ families in Italy, I have been called to translate my analytical knowledge into operative practices within an integrated group of public psycho-social workers. I discuss a case-study of this ‘dialogue’ as ethnographically recorded in my experience.

Long Abstract

Italy has a powerful tradition of public governance of daily life of families, even if family is no longer only in its traditional model. Many public services are dedicated to the'wellbeing' of family: they represent the operative tool of the state, authorized to supervise compliance with family rules and obligations as well as their putting into practice. The disciplines recognized to govern family matters are psychology, educational science and welfare work,and sometimes sociology. However, the slippery nature of the contemporary 'post-familial' families seems to challenge the psycho-social workers' operational skill of giving meanings, and therefore in managing, these ambivalent family connections.On this matter, anthropologists can provide a very useful point of view, but they lack an operational perspective to make their analyses translatable andgenerativein the psycho-social work reality.Furthermore, encounters between theoretic and practical sciences are always pervaded by skepticism, misunderstanding and identity worries, reciprocally justified by different hierarchies of knowledges, historically and culturally determined. So, what does dialogue among disciplinesreally entails? Translation and ethical issues? A loss of epistemological certainty or the intrinsic uncertainties of knowledge? I describe ethnographically a case-study involving anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, educationalists and welfare workers.I discuss how the fabric of a multidisciplinary dialogue have been processedon the line of liminality between what is epistemologically given and what is reworked. This allow to finally achieve a 'rhizomatic' opportunity to share knowledge both across disciplines and between researchers and pratictioners, rather than each staying, 'vertically', within their own domain.

Using anthropological theories of ritual in the analysis of strategy away days: a collaborative project with management research

Author: Nicole Bourque (Glasgow University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at a collaborative project with researchers in Management Science. We used theories of rites of passage and ritualisation to analyse corporate strategy away days. We developed a useful model, but had to learn how anthropologists think and work differently from management scientists.

Long Abstract

This paper looks at collaborative work I have done with researchers in Management Science. Every year, millions of pounds are spent on corporate away days where new strategies for the company are proposed and discussed. Action plans are agreed, but very few of these strategies are put in place once every one returns to work. I was approached by a team of management scientists who specialise in strategy work shops and away days. They thought that the stages of rites of passage might be a useful model to explore the liminality and communitas that occurs while people are away. I noted that theories of ritualisation would also be helpful. I was invited to joint the project. We did participant observation at strategy away days, content analysis of strategy documents and interviews and focus groups with CEO, senior management and away day participants with 10 large corporations. Using both management and anthropological theories, we developed a model which explains why strategy away days work or don't work. Working with Management Scientists was an interesting experience for me (and for them). I had to get used to people who were very positivist in their research. They had to get used to someone who took an interpretive, subjective and reflective point of view. I also trained them in how to do ethnographic fieldwork. Working with them was like doing fieldwork as I had to learn 'the native's point of view'.

Collaborative research: other anthropologies, other knowledges and other knowledge forms

Author: Penny Harvey (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

The paper compares two collaborative research projects (one on decentralization in Peru, the other on big data and the waste management in the UK) focusing on modes of collaboration, challenges of translation between disciplines and negotiations around the possibilities of registering ‘impact’.

Long Abstract

The paper will draw on two collaborative research projects, comparing the modes of collaboration, the challenges of translation between disciplines and the negotiations around the possibilities of registering 'impact'. One project was conducted in Peru in a team of anthropological researchers with divergent training and experience. Our topic was decentralization and political experimentation. A key focus was the role of technical knowledge in contemporary government practice, specifically the role of engineering expertise and professional consultancy in public infrastructural development projects. The other research project looked specifically at the social composition and the social effects of 'big data'. Again this was a team project in which anthropologists, sociologists and STS scholars worked to engage three different fields in which 'big data' plays a role: genomic science, offices of national statistics, and municipal waste management. As with the Peruvian case, the anthropological input was primarily engaged with regional government policy initiatives. In this project we staged 'collaboratories', conversations that aimed to go beyond established social science methods (such as focus groups and/or interviews). The paper will consider the possibilities and limitations of these collaborations for the generation and deployment of anthropological knowledge, and the 'otherings' that disciplinary knowledge produces.

Common origins, distinction and the taste of interdisciplinarity

Author: Veronica Strang (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper suggests that, rather than threatening disciplinary distinction, interdisciplinarity supports specialist areas, both by enabling exchanges of knowledge between them, and by creating collaborative networks which support the academy and its intellectual independence.

Long Abstract

Academics with shared disciplinary interests construct distinctive identities and perform and represent these in relation to others. They do so via epistemes composed of particular theories, concepts, terminologies, methods and outputs (Strathern 2008). These provide both the sense of belonging that is central to identity, and specific forms of social capital, which provide access to funding, academic status, and security.

In a HE sector dominated by free-market ideology and extreme governmentality in all funding, managerial and assessment processes, disciplinary categories provide competitive forms of distinction which seek to arbitrate ‘taste’ in intellectual matters (Bourdieu 1994). Interdisciplinarity is often perceived as a potential breach of boundaries, compromising disciplinary epistemes through incursion, appropriation and even pollution, not only by other disciplines, but by attempts to commoditize research for a ‘knowledge economy’. There is certainly cause for concern when specialist knowledges cease to be valorised and supported. But interdisciplinarity is not the problem: in the past, the academy has flourished with free-flowing exchanges of knowledge between specialist areas. A recognition that such exchanges are enabled by what Strathern calls ‘common origins’, and that they are foundational to academic well-being, suggests that, rather than threatening disciplinary distinction, interdisciplinarity may be the key to maintaining the academy’s collective identity and social capital. Anthropology is particularly well placed, not only to engage with interdisciplinary research, but also to understand the potential of collaborative networks and values which – by promoting robust exchanges of knowledge and cooperative endeavour – serve to uphold the intellectual independence of the academy.

'It's not what you think': placeholding and translating for anthropology in collaborative health research

Author: Helen Lambert (Bristol University)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I draw on recent research collaborations to reveal implicit assumptions about anthropology’s remit, explore interdisciplinary working as anthropological practice and argue for the need to re-articulate the nature of anthropological evidence-making.

Long Abstract

This paper reflects upon multi- and inter-disciplinary engagements and encounters with a variety of disciplines, based on three decades of experience as an academic anthropologist researching global and public health-related issues. Working at the interface of anthropology and other disciplinary fields enables identification and examination of embedded assumptions about anthropology's remit and scope held by anthropologists and other disciplinary specialists alike. I draw on recent experiences of collaborations for research on drug-resistant infections to explore disciplinary hierarchies that shape variable legitimation of knowledge production practices. I examine some characteristic dilemmas that emerge when seeking to align and retain a space for the ethnographic imperatives of flexible, context-specific and inductive data-gathering alongside outcome-focused, tightly specified enumerative approaches. Cross- and inter-disciplinary working can readily be analysed by reference to such matters of methodological or conceptual conflict and compromise, but I wish instead to consider it as a fundamentally anthropological practice, entailing development of contributory expertise, identification of implicit classificatory categories through participant observation, and diligent attention to translational processes. Yet working at the margins of anthropology also brings into focus limitations in how evidence-making in anthropology is envisaged, rendering anthropologists inarticulate beyond our own discipline.

Anthropology and interdisciplinarity: exploring the new challenges

Author: Laura Rival (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

This paper argues that although anthropology is ‘interdisciplinary,’ emerging epistemological trends and recent developments in the institutionalization of scientific research call for a renewed collective reflection on the place and role of anthropological knowledge within academia and beyond.

Long Abstract

This paper will argue that although anthropology is - and has in many ways always been - 'interdisciplinary,' emerging epistemological trends and recent developments in the institutionalization of scientific research call for a renewed collective reflection on the place and role of anthropological knowledge within academia and beyond. I start with a number of reflections on my own training and research experience. These help me raise a number of questions regarding the disciplinary interfaces that have constituted anthropology as an academic discipline in the U.K. I then critically examine the works of a number of authors who argue that anthropological engagement with interdisciplinarity went onto a qualitatively different trajectory with the development of STS (Science and Technology Studies). I outline recent developments linked to the emergence of 'sustainability science' and of the 'science of complexity,' before concluding with a number of questions for future research.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.