Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
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Clarifying what it means to be “interdisciplinary”

Building models, frameworks, and skills to more effectively solve environmental problems.
“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.”
~Albert Einstein~

The recent UN IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) report predicts that climate change will pose a serious risk to the world’s food supply in the coming decades. Species diversity is being extinguished at an unprecedented rate. The ice caps are melting. Yet, in the face of this urgent need for change, environmental and political leaders are increasingly polarized across disciplinary and party boundaries.
In the face of this division, environmental education programs need to be cultivating a new generation of, not just scientists, but mediators- innovators equipped with the tools to reach across cultural, political, and disciplinary boundaries in order to craft lasting solutions.
Interdisciplinary models and frameworks may provide just such tools. In their 2011 article Clark et. al. states, “There is an urgent need to build capacity in the environmental community and the interdisciplinary approach is one of the most promising avenues to accomplish this.”(99)
Far from being just another nebulous academic term, the authors define interdisciplinarity as the use of, “ an explicit approach, method, and framework in order to mobilize the disciplines and other forms of knowledge into a common endeavor that is focused on problem solving, fully attentive to the context of problems, and invites the use of multiple methods.”(109)
Decades of work by social and policy scientists like Howard Lasswell, Susan Clark, and others describe the benefits of interdisciplinarity. Clark et al argues that “interdisciplinarity in its truest sense is a meta-concept, an explicit and systematic approach in concept, framework, and method that rests on a higher order means of organizing knowledge and action.” (109) In other words, interdisciplinarity is a way to organize diverse information and interests to solve ever more complex problems while minimizing unintended consequences.
Such work has produced various frameworks from which to approach situations that transcend individual perspectives and promote communication by clarifying viewpoints for all involved. Language is such an important component of any attempt to collaborate that these kinds of frameworks are vital to getting participants on the same page linguistically as well as conceptually. These “…conceptual models can function as a tool to foster communication across disciplines.” (108) Models are often a series of steps and or exercises designed to draw out more aspects of a situation that might otherwise be ignored or missed entirely. 

The authors point out that doing this “requires a comprehensive and stable frame of reference.” Interdisciplinarity, as a field of study, seeks to provide just such a framework.  The article lays out five explicit design criteria that these frameworks should meet aimed at helping professionals contextualize problems. 
Unfortunately, the development of interdisciplinarity faces barriers at many of the over one thousand college level environmental programs in North America. (100) Universities are traditionally organized around departments and disciplines. While this approach has some obvious advantages, it can leave interdisciplinarians out in the cold. This article makes many suggestions for how scholars can deal with this and cites the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) as an emerging organization that can provide them a community.  
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Original Paper:
Professional development of interdisciplinary environmental scholars.’ Susan G. Clark, Michelle M. Steen-Adams, Stephanie Pfirman, Richard Wallace. Journal of Environmental Study Science (2011) 1:99-113.
DOI 10.1007/s13412-011-0018-z


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