By Benedict Singleton, IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program 2015, School of Humanities, Education and Social Science, Örebro University, Sweden
The first two weeks of the IIASA’s three-month long Young Scientist Summer Program (YSSP) are an exhilarating, if at times stressful experience. A quick-flowing series of events are scheduled including lectures, supervisor meetings, and drinks at a local vineyard.
Prominent are the initial presentations, where all 50 students give four minute talks describing their work to their peers. The YSSP program is multidisciplinary, with representatives of many natural and social sciences. This made it challenging for me, because one is seldom sure of one’s reception outside of the comforts of one’s own disciplinary box: familiar terms become strange and theoretical givens can quickly become hotly contested points of debate. IIASA is interdisciplinary and international in scope and part of the idea behind YSSP is to promote collaborations across academic boundaries. This is a daunting task; many disciplines jealously guard their specific view on reality and the absence of a shared theoretical vocabulary can transform well-intended discussions into general bafflement. Thus, despite interdisciplinarity being of considerable importance to science (no discipline can grasp all of reality all the time), it remains a considerable challenge in practice.
My own YSSP research centers around cultural theory, which asserts that the diverse ways humans view the world can be classified within a fourfold typology: individualism, egalitarianism, hierarchical, and fatalistic. Without going into too much detail, cultural theorists argue different combinations of these four cultural types are at play in any given social situation (Thompson et al. 2006). It has been interesting for me to reflect upon IIASA strategies for promoting interdisciplinary work among YSSP participants even as I am subject to and cooperate with them.
Academics often struggle to cooperate effectively as the profession is structured to allow both considerable individualism and a clear hierarchy. In this it has been said to resemble a drug gang. Researchers have considerable freedom to guide their own work while at the same time there is considerable competition for funds and the few permanent positions available. There is also distinct ranking and differentiation, with each discipline largely defining the researchers’ identities and concerns. Within disciplines there are often hierarchies of positions and institutions, which exert authority over and gain the attention of researchers. In sum, pressure to meet expectations within one’s own field and gain credibility amongst one’s peers in one’s own subject actively works against building the kinds of productive relationships required for genuine interdisciplinary work.
The YSSP seeks to deal with this by trying to foster social bonds between participants through what anthropologists would recognise as a rite of passage. According to anthropological theory, such rites encompass three stages: rites of separation (from society), the liminal phase, and rites of (re)integration. Rites of separation take participants outside of their normal social structure. In IIASA’s case, this consists of mandatory group attendance of welcoming lectures and seminars (where the specialness of the YSSP group is emphasised) and the initial presentations, which are taken very seriously. The ending of the YSSP rite of separation is then marked with a post-presentation social event. Participants then enter the second, liminal phase; group bonds form amongst participants, who are equal in their “betwixt and between” state – whatever their statuses and identities before or after the rite of passage (Turner 1995). Communication between equals then becomes possible within the group. For YSSP this is the most important phase; having forged egalitarian bonds between participants, cooperation and cross-pollination of ideas becomes more likely. YSSP then concludes with a rite of integration, a final presentation symbolically marking the end of the summer and the return of the participants to ordinary social structures.
Does the ritual work? It’s hard to say and depends rather on the level of one’s ambition for interdisciplinary dialogue. Speaking personally, I have had several productive conversations and have been pleased to receive interesting suggestions from fellow YSSP participants and scholars from well beyond my disciplinary horizon. However this is balanced by several factors inhibiting wholehearted participation during the liminal phase. Firstly, for most YSSP participants the summer project is but one small part of a greater PhD program, concern for which trumps any desire to learn outside of one’s own discipline. Secondly, it is clear that within IIASA itself there are different interpretations of what ‘interdisciplinary’ means and indeed clear differences regarding the relative values of particular subjects and philosophies. This undermines efforts to break down hierarchical boundaries between scholars and encourages individualistic behaviour among YSSP participants. By the end of the summer it’ll be clear how much egalitarian interdisciplinary work was possible and how powerful a rite the YSSP actually was.
THOMPSON, M., VERWEIJ, M. and ELLIS, R.J., 2006. Why and how culture matters. In: R.E. GOODIN and C. TILLY, eds, The Oxford handbook of contextual political analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 319-340.
TURNER, V., 1995. The ritual Process. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.