The Need for Interdisciplinary Thinking
On Wednesday, May 11th, CFI hosted the Inaugural OSU Food Safety Collaborative meeting. The goal of this meeting was to bring together the OSU food safety community to share ideas and build partnerships. To kick off our meeting, David J. Staley, who is an Associate Professor with the OSU Department of History, gave a wonderful talk titled "The Need for Interdisciplinary Thinking". The talk emphasized the importance of inter-departmental collaboration to solve food safety challenges and was the perfect talk to set the tone for what the OSU Food Safety Collaborative is hoping to accomplish.
The Need for Interdisciplinary Thinking
By: David J. Staley
I’m not an ecologist, but I understand that in ecology there is the concept of an “ecotone”: a region of transition between two biological habitats/ecologies. It turns out that this point of intersection between ecologies often produces “edge effects,” and is particularly noted as an attractive site for a rich, complex diversity of life.
Thinkers such as diverse as Stewart Brand and Yo-Yo Ma have borrowed this concept to describe how creativity and innovation works. And I wish to borrow the analogy as well: we are often admonished to “break down silos” with little or no guidance about what we are supposed to do after we have broken the silos.
I would like to propose the creation of an “epistemological ecotone”—a point of intersection between disciplines—that induces edge effects: a rich, complex diversity of ideas.
To continue the analogy: disciplines are habitats in this analogy. Richard Ogle thinks of disciplines as “idea spaces” “Idea spaces can take many different forms,” he writes.
Established scientific disciplines and paradigms, for example, represent idea-spaces that embed collective intelligence about the most effective way to carry out research, typically providing an overarching framework of established theory, principles, practices, heuristics, methodological assumptions, lab techniques, and so forth.
A discipline—an idea-space—is an intellectual habitat. The point of intersection between these intellectual habitats becomes the site and generator of edge effects.
This ecological analogy gives us a new way to think about interdisciplinarity/about collaboratives (like the Food Safety Collaborative).
Frans Johansson describes this condition as “The Intersection”
The key difference between a field (a discipline) and an intersection of fields lies in how concepts within them are combined. If you operate within a field (within a discipline) you primarily are able to combine concepts within that particular field, generating ideas that evolve along a particular direction—what (he) calls directional ideas. When you step into the Intersection (what I’ve been calling the “epistemological ecotone”) you can combine concepts between multiple fields, generating ideas that leap in new directions—what (he) calls intersectional ideas.
The Intersection is a liminal space—a threshold—an environment that is in-between disciplines; and it can be difficult and disorienting and unsettling to reside here because:
1) it is difficult to manage, in part because outcomes are difficult to foresee or to plan for or to control. Surprise and fortuity, serendipity and epiphany are edge effects of life in the epistemological ecotone.
2) this liminal environment often has no recognizable academic infrastructure: journals, conferences, professional societies, degree programs, TIUs. Faculty are often rewarded for their contributions to disciplines, not for the edge effects they might create when in The Intersection. Perhaps this is why universities are often hesitant to create and maintain (and fund) these liminal, in-between spaces.
The threshold space I am describing is a kind of “Third Place.” In urban design, a third place is a convivial space that is neither home (First Place) nor work (Second Space). What you are building here with your Collaborative is an “epistemological third place,” neither one discipline or another, but the liminal edge between them.
In design, we often talk about “wicked problems.” These are challenges of such size, complexity and uncertainty that they appear seemingly unsolvable. The maintenance of food safety certainly qualifies as a wicked problem, one best addressed by breaking down silos between stakeholders and collaborating together…at the edge.
Associate Professor with the OSU Department of History