Working the In-Between: The Thrill of Interdisciplinarity

We are educated in a society that mainly understands scientific knowledge as highly detailed and specialized. Academic structures have been traditionally built upon the differentiation and separation of reality into different fields of knowledge. Apparently, this separation is necessary for understanding the world: only by dividing nature and societies into different pieces is it possible to achieve real, deep knowledge. However, with little attention given to the links that interconnect the pieces we have created, problems arise when trying to reconnect that puzzle. At these moments, we venture into the murky realm of interdisciplinary research.

The experience of interdisciplinarity is one of the things I appreciated most in the PhD process. My research focused on the biophysical transformation of the agroecosystem of a small village named Les Oluges, located in the inner part of Catalonia in Spain, from the mid-nineteenth century until the end to the twentieth century. I consider myself a social scientist, so the biophysical approach (as in, understanding how energy and matter flows in the agroecosystem) required a kind of knowledge with which I was not necessarily familiar: How many eggs does a quail lay per year? How much does a poplar grow per year? What is the energy content of an almond? What is the cycle of nutrients absorption of olive trees?

I needed to know some basics of the biophysical dynamics and functioning of the agroecosystem in order to understand whether, in the reconstruction of the flows of energy and matter, animals were getting enough feed; whether woodland was being exploited at a sustainable rate or it was being deforested; whether soil nutrients were being replenished or not; and if people living in the village had enough resources to survive more or less comfortably.

Sometimes, searching for an answer to these questions meant not only struggling with words and concepts I barely understood, but also trying to find an appropriate source of information I could rely on. The first steps were difficult, but the initial feeling of disorientation was easier to overcome thanks to a group of colleagues from different backgrounds who were willing to give their advice and share their time checking my results. Little by little, I gained some confidence and got used to those expeditions into the unknown. Eventually, I even began to enjoy it. I let myself wander through biogeochemical cycles, species interactions, soil biota, and thermodynamic laws—expanding my knowledge into new fields in the process.

Yet I needed to take a step back before delving into all of that. First of all, I needed to determine the size and composition of the different elements of the agroecosystem (population, barnyard, farmland). I also had to find answers to questions about cultural adaptations involved in the functioning of the agroecosystem: Can donkeys be used for ploughing or only stronger animals can do it? What traditional uses were given to cropland by-products such as vine pruning and vine pomace? How many hours are needed to sow one hectare of cereals? When are wheat, barley and rye harvested?

Finding answers to this set of questions required immersing myself in another new-old-world: historical archives. For a twenty-first century economist like me, who usually used online material from international organizations and national governments webpages, archival research was something new. The smell of books, the itch in my arms because of the dust, the light and silence in the archive room… and the feeling of having pieces of history in my hands. Poring over century-old notebooks with leather covers in which landlords recorded the produce and costs from their cropland. Reading and figuring out old calligraphies. Wondering about the people who wrote some of these documents. What would they think if they knew that I was using their notes, more than one hundred years later? Through this work, history took on a new meaning for me.

After the process of modelling and reconstructing the agroecosystem, the time came to share my first results with the world. It was a moment of realization, for me, of the importance of being able to communicate your research to different audiences. The language you use, the information you provide, and the structure of your presentation need to be adapted to your specific audience. That adaptation is necessary might be more or less obvious, but it takes time to learn it in practice. Yet the chance to present my work to a wide array of people has been a helpful and enriching experience. It is always good to have somebody else’s point of view to see what you might not have seen. But communication with people with other backgrounds does not come easily. It is like learning and speaking multiple languages – slow, sometimes painful, wrought with misunderstanding, but ultimately rewarding and necessary.  

In our highly globalized and ecologically-stressed situation, the need for systemic perspectives that acknowledge and understand the links among academic disciplines has been gaining importance. Inter- and multidisciplinary approaches are rising. Yet working in the in-between is not easy. Building and reinforcing the links between disciplines requires leaving your comfort zone and, somehow, getting used to the imposter syndrome. Interdisciplinarity is risky, sometimes scary, but it is also beautiful and stimulating—and somehow rebellious.