Integrating disciplines / Integrando disciplinas

Community member post by Marcel Bursztyn, Gabriela Litre and Stéphanie Nasuti

marcel-bursztyn
Marcel Bursztyn (biography)

An English version of this post is available

Como conseguir que um grupo multidisciplinar integrado por economistas, climatologistas, geógrafos, antropólogos, biólogos, sociólogos, jornalistas, engenheiros químicos, engenheiros ambientais e advogados trabalhe de maneira mais interdisciplinar?

gabriela-litre
Gabriela Litre (biography)

Esse foi o desafio encarado por um projeto de pesquisa sobre as percepções de agricultores familiares de quatro biomas brasileiros (a Amazônia, o Cerrado, o Pantanal e o Semiárido) sobre os impactos que as mudanças climáticas estão tendo nos seus modos de vida. Esse pequenos produtores, com baixa disponibilidade de capital, estão expostos a riscos naturais e socioeconômicos, e são extremadamente vulneráveis aos eventos climáticos extremos.

stephanie-nasuti
Stéphanie Nasuti (biography)

Um fator chave foi a demarcação do marco teórico do projeto, que incluiu a hipótese de que o sucesso das politicas de adaptação aumenta consideravelmente quando essas políticas se baseiam em um conhecimento de primeira mão das realidades cotidianas e das percepções das populações envolvidas.

O desenho da pesquisa foi guiado por três elementos básicos:

  1. A demanda urgente, por parte do governo brasileiro, que promoveu a criação da Rede CLIMA de pesquisas (http://redeclima.ccst.inpe.br/) e coordenou o projeto de conduzir uma pesquisa geradora de informações para uma tomada de decisão mais e melhor informada;
  2. A necessidade de criar ferramentas adequadas para a analise do fenômeno complexo das mudanças climáticas e dos sistemas socioecológicos; e
  3. A meta de obter resultados de pesquisa que fossem comparáveis, demodo a identificar as particularidades e as similaridades dos impactos climáticos em diferentes biomas do Brasil.

As diferenças disciplinares não demoraram em ficar evidentes. Era difícil pensar de maneira coletiva sobre algum problema quando as linguagens acadêmicas eram tão diferentes e até conflitantes. O desafio era estabelecer um dialogo real sobre termos como resiliência, vulnerabilidade, capacidade adaptativa e o próprio conceito de mudanças climáticas. As diferenças eram mais do que semânticas e levavam a compreensões diferenciadas dos conceitos. Como harmonizar essas definições para conseguir enxergar de maneira integral uma realidade totalmente nova?

Um exemplo foi o esforço para alcançar uma definição coletiva dos conceitos de vulnerabilidade e de resiliência face às mudanças climáticas. Para conseguir organizar a variedade de pontos de vista e das histórias sobre esses termos, a equipe decidiu abordar os conceitos de vulnerabilidade e de resiliência não como antagonistas, mas como complementares e visando responder a uma mesma pergunta: de que maneira os sistemas socioecológicos são afetados pelas alterações ambientais e como esses sistemas respondem a essas alterações? A Rede Clima decidiu se concentrar no marco teórico e conceitual da vulnerabilidade e seus atributos (sensibilidade, capacidade adaptativa e exposição), mas também levou em conta a noção de resiliência em algumas das suas analises e discussões.

Assim, e diferentemente da história do elefante e os homens cegos de nascimento, na qual cada cego tocava uma parte isolada do animal e chegava a visões incompatíveis da totalidade, a historia da Rede Clima tem um final feliz. Depois de definir de maneira coletiva um marco teórico inicial e provisório, a equipe se organizou em grupos de trabalho interdisciplinares focados em aspectos concretos da pesquisa, tais como 1) a evolução do marco teórico inicial, por meio da interação entre teoria e dados empíricos, 2) analises climatológicas, 3) ferramentas de pesquisa, 4) políticas públicas e 5) comunicação com stakeholders.

Todos os grupos de pesquisa eram interdisciplinares, mas a centralidade disciplinar variava. Por exemplo, os engenheiros climáticos lideraram as analises dos níveis de chuva e das oscilações da temperatura a partir dos dados fornecidos por estações meteorológicas em cada bioma, mas a equipe também incluiu biólogos e geógrafos. As percepções sobre as mudanças climáticas constituiriam o principal foco de atenção dos antropólogos, mas os jornalistas, comunicadores sociais, historiadores e economistas da equipe sempre tinham o direito a se manifestar.

Nenhuma pergunta foi considerada irrelevante ou fora de lugar. Nas oficinas organizadas nas diferentes regiões do Brasil, todos e todas eram encorajados a espiar acima da cerca e a participar das demais oficinas de trabalho.

O protocolo de pesquisa foi desenhado de maneira coletiva e com a finalidade de funcionar como um mapa para a equipe. Antes da realização dos campos, as perguntas dos questionários foram pré-testadas com agricultores. Pesquisadores de distintos backgrounds acadêmicos foram treinados para formular as perguntas de maneira neutra e para tabular as respostas de maneira padronizada (o esforço levou à aplicação de 1.708 questionários junto a agricultores familiares, tomadores de decisão e stakeholders em 10 estudos de campo em 4 biomas diferentes).

A interação interdisciplinar também veio à tona na analise e à interpretação dos resultados da pesquisa de campo. Por exemplo, as percepções de alguns dos agricultores nem sempre coincidiram com a analise dos dados climatológicos. Alguns agricultores descreveram una redução dos níveis médios de chuva em regiões onde essa diminuição pluviométrica não estava acontecendo. Isso levou a frequentes discussões e debates entre pesquisadores com distintos backgrounds nas ciências sociais sobre as causas dessas percepções sobre alterações climáticas inexistentes e sobre as implicações éticas da pesquisa em comunidades rurais, devido ao risco eventual de desrespeitar a sua cultura e o seu conhecimento tradicional. A equipe finalmente recorreu ao arcabouço teórico da antropologia do clima para analisar esse tipo de percepções. A antropologia do clima enxerga as chamadas falsas percepções sobre mudanças climáticas como diferentes traduções das ricas experiências socioculturais das comunidades tradicionais envolvidas. Essas experiências socioculturais podem, ou não, coincidir com os resultados de estudos científicos.

São muitos os fatores que precisam ser levados em conta para atingir uma efetiva integração interdisciplinar. Apresentamos aqui alguns dos pontos críticos extraídos de nossa pesquisa. Temos grande interesse em ouvir agora sobre suas próprias experiências e sobre as estratégias que vocês empregaram para passar da multi à interdisciplinaridade!

 


 

Integrating Disciplines / Integrando Disciplinas

A Portugese version of this post is available

How can you move a multi-disciplinary team of economists, climatologists, geographers, anthropologists, biologists, sociologists, journalists, chemical engineers, environmental engineers and lawyers to work in a more interdisciplinary way?

This is the challenge that faced a project concerning the perceptions of family farmers from four Brazilian biomes (Amazonia, Cerrado, Pantanal and Semiarid) about the impacts of climate change on their livelihoods. These low capital smallholders are exposed to both natural and socioeconomic risks and are greatly vulnerable to extreme climatic events.

A key step was a theoretical situating of the project, namely that the success of adaptation policies radically increases when these policies are grounded in first-hand knowledge of everyday realities and perceptions of the population concerned.

Three basic elements guided the research design:

  1. the urgent demand, by the Brazilian administration, who fostered the creation of the Brazilian Research Network on Climate Change (Rede CLIMA) which led the project, to conduct policy oriented research;
  2. the need to create tools suitable for the analysis of the complex phenomena of climate change and socio-ecological systems;
  3. the aim of obtaining comparable research results to identify particularities and similarities of climatic impacts on different Brazilian biomes.

It did not take long for disciplinary differences to come to the fore. It was difficult to think collectively about the problem when academic languages were so different, even clashing. The challenge was to establish a real dialogue about terms such as resilience, vulnerability, adaptive capacity and even climate change. Differences went well beyond semantics and reached the core of concepts. How could we harmonize them in order to see a full new picture?

An example was reaching a collective definition of the concepts of vulnerability and resilience regarding climate change. In order to accommodate the range of viewpoints and histories of these terms, the team considered the approaches of vulnerability and resilience not as antagonistic, but as complementary and aimed at answering the same question: How are socio-ecological systems affected by, and how do they respond to, environmental disturbances? The Rede Clima team decided to concentrate on the theoretical and conceptual framework of vulnerability and its attributes (sensitivity, adaptive capacity and exposure), but added the notion of resilience in some of the analyses and discussions.

Unlike the story of the blind men and the elephant, where each feels a different part of the elephant, resulting in incompatible visions of the whole, the story in Rede Clima ends well. After collectively defining its initial provisional theoretical framework, the team organized itself into interdisciplinary workgroups which focused on concrete research aspects, such as 1) evolving the initial theoretical framework through the interplay between theory and empirical data, 2) climatological analysis, 3) research tools, 4) public policy and 5) communication with stakeholders.

All research groups were interdisciplinary, but the central disciplines varied. For instance, climate engineers led the analysis of rain levels and temperature oscillations from meteorological stations across the biomes, but the team also included biologists and geographers. Climate change perceptions were the main interest of anthropologists, but the journalists, social communicators, historians and economists on that team always had a say.

No questions were considered irrelevant or out of place. In the workshops organized across regions, everybody was encouraged to ‘stick their nose over the fence’ and participate in other workgroups.

The research protocol was collectively designed to act as roadmap. Questions were subject to several pre-tests with farmers, and researchers from different backgrounds were trained to ask questions and tabulate data (the effort led to completion of 1,708 survey questionnaires by family farmers, policy makers and stakeholders, in 10 field studies from the 4 different biomes.)

Interdisciplinary interaction also came into play in the analysis and interpretation of the results. For example, the perceptions of some farmers did not always coincide with the climatological data analysis. These farmers described a reduction in mean rain levels in regions where such a decrease had not occurred. This led to considerable discussion and debate among researchers with different social science backgrounds, about why such perceptions had occurred and the ethics of investigating them and of potentially disrespecting traditional knowledge. The team finally used a climate anthropology theoretical framework which saw the climate change misperceptions as different translations of rich sociocultural experiences of traditional peoples, which may, or may not, coincide with existing scientific studies.

Many factors go into successful interdisciplinary integration. We have presented some of the critical ones from our study. We would be most interested to hear about your experiences and the strategies you used to move from multi- to inter-disciplinarity!

Biography: Marcel Bursztyn is a Professor in the Centre for Sustainable Development at the Universidade de Brasília. He is coordinator of the Regional Development team of the Brazilian Climate Change Research Network. His research focus is climate change governance, public policies integration and sustainable development.

Biography: Gabriela Litre is an Associate Researcher (postdoc level) at the Center for Sustainable Development of the University of Brasilia, Brazil. Her research focus is climate change adaptation and vulnerability in family farming, agribusiness and urban areas.

Biography: Stéphanie Nasuti is an Associate Researcher (postdoc level) at the Center for Sustainable Development of the University of Brasília, Brazil. Her research focus is climate change adaptation and vulnerability, territorial dynamics and migratory strategies of rural, traditional and peri-urban populations in Latin America.

5 thoughts on “Integrating disciplines / Integrando disciplinas

  1. Me sinto privilegiado por participar deste projeto, onde dos quatros campos do semiárido eu participei de três, sem falar na construção da cartilha “no clima de prosa” (titulo de minha autoria). Parabéns pelo belíssimo trabalho. Estou aqui no meu sertão esperando uma nova oportunidade de contribuir com a pesquisa da rede clima. Que venha uma nova versão desta magnifica pesquisa que enriqueceu meus conhecimentos. Com os melhores cumprimentos. Gledson Rocha

    Google translate renders this as:
    I feel privileged to participate in this project, where the four fields of semi-arid I attended three, not to mention the construction of the booklet “in prose climate” (title of my own) . Congratulations on the wonderful work. I am here in my backwoods waiting for a new opportunity to contribute to the research of climate network. Bring on a new version of this magnificent research that has enriched my knowledge. Best regards. Gledson Rocha

  2. ‘It was difficult to think collectively about the problem when academic languages were so different, even clashing.’ This aspect seems to crop up again and again when I read about multi-disciplinary collaborations. I explore the importance of creating a jointly understood language (or where this is not possible at least gaining a real empathy for a partner’s expertise and perceptions) a little bit within this post: http://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/the-collaborating-trade.html (References are available at the end of the full article.)

    • We agree on the importance of at least gaining a real empathy for a partner’s expertise and perceptions, especially when creating a jointly understood language shows to be almost impossible. Thanks for the information about your book too!

  3. Interesting article, but I do not understand the result when you say
    “…The team finally used a climate anthropology theoretical framework which saw the climate change
    (especially this part)
    …misperceptions as different translations of rich sociocultural experiences of traditional peoples, which may, or may not, coincide with existing scientific studies.”

    • Dear Bill,

      Thank you for your question regarding climate change misperceptions. The interpretation and theoretical framing of climate change misperceptions, as we called them, created a special challenge for us as a strongly interdisciplinary research team.

      To offer some background, around three years ago one of our research teams, which included climatologists, geographers, geologists, environmental engineers, biologists and ecologists, focused on annual and monthly rainfall reduction trends in different biomes and regions. They did so by following the data generated by hundreds of meteorological stations.

      In a second stage, regions with and without rainfall decreases during a 30-year span were selected to carry out case studies and surveys. By an impressive majority, farmers recognized important climate change signs, including temperature rises (proven by meteorological data nationwide) and rainfall level decreases, which happened only in some regions. This raised questions about how and why the perceptions of some farmers did not consistently coincide with local climatological data.

      To start with, and since the term misperception does not exist in the Portuguese language (our main working language in Brazil) the very choice of a word describing the mismatch between perceptions and climate data was a challenge. We ended up by translating the neutral term misperceptions as falsas percepções, or false perceptions, even if the expression carried a risk of unintentionally (and wrongly) suggesting that family farmers are unable to accurately decipher any climatological signs. In fact they were right when pointing out that their cultivations and crops were receiving less water… they were only misunderstanding the origin of water scarcity. But we will come back to that later…

      Naturally, hypotheses about the origins of climate change misperceptions came from our different backgrounds and expertise. For instance, social communicators and sociologists suspected that our surveys might have been asking the wrong questions, unintentionally leading the answers towards the confirmation of rainfall level decreases, or just to please the interviewers, who farmers knew were climate researchers. But none of these really seemed to fit. Or respondents might be blindly echoing apocalyptic messages received in their remote regions through the omnipresent and far reaching mass media. The last of these was not the case: even if mass media, mainly radio and TV, was a real influence in their humble homes, they were not blind at all, as the richness of their answers proved.

      The discovery of climate change misperceptions (which have also been raising interesting research questions in other countries, such as Kenya- see for example Rao et al. 2011) also originated interesting interactions between disciplines within Rede Clima. For example, a team of three researchers with different academic backgrounds set as their objective to collectively reflect on the theoretical and practical implications of the apparent clashes between subjective perceptions on climate change and objective (science based) climatological information. Integrated by two scholars who had frequently interacted with social movements and minorities (a lawyer/anthropologist with experience in the fields of indigenous peoples’ rights, and an anthropologist/sociologist who had performed research on indigenous peoples and slave labour), the research team also included a journalist with a background in economics, rural sociology and geography.

      The journalist/geographer used cognitive psychology and sociology theoretical tools to explore how perceptions evolved depending on farmers’ previous life experiences, needs and personal motivations. She also wished to describe the impact of perceptual defense and cultural barriers. In other words, she wanted to understand how and why people tend to unconsciously ignore or disregard things that they may interpret as negative or threatening to their livelihoods, while paying special attention to what they perceive as rewarding.

      But while the journalist/geographer saw her own proposal as a mere analysis of objective fieldwork results on climate change perceptions, the anthropologists showed ethical concerns, especially about the political impact of the eventual results. In other words, they worried about the risk of an implicit underestimation, or even devaluing, of the rich local knowledge and perceptions of traditional communities, which could have a negative impact in affirmative policies for those already neglected groups and their environments.

      The team finally agreed to analyse climate change misperceptions through a more politically appropriate Climate Anthropology theoretical framework, which allowed the involved researchers to describe the clashes between reality and subjectivity as simply different translations of rich sociocultural experiences of traditional peoples with their environment, which may, or may not, coincide with existing scientific studies.

      To make a long story short, the same interdisciplinary team discovered that, when farmers declared that they perceived steady rainfall level reductions in their regions, they were trying to make sense of the dryness leading to important agricultural losses.

      A careful statistical analysis of meteorological data covering three decades showed that what had changed were not total rainfall levels, but the occurrence, duration and frequency of dry spells (veranicos, in Portuguese) during the rainy season. Veranicos are one of the main climatic adversities limiting agricultural production in Brazil. Another relevant factor was evapotranspiration, which is, apart from precipitation, the most significant component of the hydrologic balance. Evapotranspiration varies regionally and seasonally; during a drought it varies according to weather and wind conditions. These variabilities have clear policy implications for Brazilian decision makers: water managers who are responsible for planning and adjudicating the distribution of water resources need to have a thorough understanding of the evapotranspiration process and knowledge about the spatial and temporal rates of evapotranspiration. Farmers had indeed perceived the indirect impact of the alterations of veranicos, even though they could not find the scientific words to describe it: many of the oldest interviewees declared that flowers were blossoming earlier or later in the year and that certain species of birds had changed their migration routines.

      Going back to the role of Climate Anthropology in the interpretation of our results, this discipline reminds us that every perception is, by definition, subjective, and that human subjectivity is largely influenced by cultural, traditional, social, educational, and economic factors.

      In that regard, the study of misperceptions through a Climate Anthropology perspective may provide interesting ethnographic information about how target communities interpret climate change and variability, as well as the practical consequences that those perceptions have on their livelihoods. By opening the door to a better understanding of what may become maladaptive production practices stemming from climate change misperceptions, such information may contribute to the creation of more realistic, down to earth adaptation and mitigation polices at regional scales.

      We hope this reply has answered your questions. We are looking forward to receiving more reactions and insights from you and other colleagues!

      Reference: Rao, K. P. C., Ndegws, W. G., Kizito, K, Oyoo, A., 2011. Climate Variability and Change: Farmer Perceptions and Understanding of Intra-Seasonal Variability in Rainfall and Associated Risk in Semi-Arid Kenya. Experimental Agriculture. Volume 47. Special Issue 02. April 2011, pp 267-291
      DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0014479710000918 (About DOI), Published online: 25 March 2011

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