By Mareike Smolka, Erik Fisher and Alexandra Hausstein
Have you ever had a fleeting impression of seeing certainty disrupted, the impulse to laugh when your expectations were broken, or a startling sense of something being both familiar and foreign at the same time?
As social scientists engaged in collaborative studies with natural scientists and engineers, we have had these experiences repeatedly while doing research. Whenever we recognized that our social science paradigm was confronted with a different approach to knowing the world, unsettling experiences of difference emerged, which we later analyzed as moments of disconcertment.
In a comparative analysis of the affective substrates of interdisciplinary collaboration (Smolka et al., 2020), we found that attending to disconcertment facilitated collaborative knowledge production. By affective substrates we mean emotional and other bodily feelings that occur during interdisciplinary collaborations.
Our research on disconcertment echoes other scholarly work on uneasy affects published in Integration and Implementation Insights (i2Insights):
- Freeth and Clarke argue that interdisciplinary dialogue depends on “the capacity (and stomach) to maintain engagement even when the dialogue becomes confusing and frustrating.”
- For Bennett and Marchand, this capacity is closely tied to self-awareness and the ability to control emotional reactions.
- Rather than disciplining the body and downplaying unruly feelings, Freeth and Caniglia consider a specific degree of discomfort – leaving one’s comfort zone without becoming overwhelmed – as supportive of inquiry and learning.
- Similarly, Clarke and Freeth point out that unpleasant tensions “can be a source of positivity, emergence, creativity and deep learning.”
Here we discuss four issues that deserve greater attention:
- cultivating affective sensitivities,
- describing affects in narratives,
- analyzing affects with heuristics, and
- recognizing affects as one source of knowledge among others.
Cultivating affective sensitivities
The literature is relatively silent on how we can detect affects. Fleeting experiences like disconcertment tend to be ignored or go unnoticed, especially in light of growing “busyness,” which Bammer in an i2Insights contribution identifies as an obstacle to collaborative processes.
To cultivate affective sensitivities, researchers could draw on approaches to contemplative pedagogy as well as practices developed in joint projects by movement practitioners, anthropologists, and artists (eg., Andersen et al., 2019; Vermeulen and Scholtes 2020). We suggest that practices like moving one’s attention through the body and drawing maps of body-space entanglements could be included in methodological toolkits for affect-oriented interdisciplinary collaboration.
Describing affects in narratives
Even if we manage to detect them, it is often difficult to put bodily sensations into words and to describe their entanglements with the socio-material contexts in which they emerge. Trying to grasp affects in social science language runs the risk of reducing what is sensed and felt to empty shells because this language sits uncomfortably with lived experiences.
To communicate about affects with our collaborators and colleagues, we suggest that narratives are likely to be an effective method. Although affects are notoriously difficult to record and classify, “stories have a special ability to clarify … psychological and emotional states, their aesthetics and their entrenchedness as well as their searching for the new and the different” (Christie and Verran 2013, p. 2). When we read Christie and Verran’s special edition including nine stories on disconcertment, we recognized our own experiences in these narratives.
Analyzing affects with heuristics
Not only the description but also the analysis of affects poses challenges. Affects tend to escape our analytical concepts for they cannot be squeezed neatly into taxonomies, typologies, or conceptual frameworks. Yet, tracing the ways in which affects change over time and how they shape collaborative processes is relevant to better understand and improve interdisciplinary teamwork.
We propose that heuristics are suitable means to capture affects analytically. For our research, we developed a heuristic to analyze how bodies served as sensors, sources and processors of disconcertment. Our heuristic neither aims to represent reality, nor does it prescribe which choices researchers should make to cope with or manage affective experiences. In fact, we consider situated engagement with affective experiences as a skill to be practiced rather than a systematic choice to be made. When practicing this skill in real-time, heuristics can serve as provisional lenses through which situated engagement with affects can be interpreted.
Recognizing affects as one source of knowledge among others
We need to be careful not to fetishize affects. Whereas ideals of objectivity and disembodiment have long expelled affects from academia, we now observe a countermovement which threatens to posit bodily knowledge on a pedestal. This elevation disregards that affects can cloud judgment if they are treated as the one and only source of knowledge. Therefore, we call for multiplicity.
In agreeing with Schneider et al., who in their i2Insights contribution argue that “knowledge co-production is not only a cognitive endeavour but also social learning that includes relational, normative and emotional dimensions,” we emphasize that affects are one source of knowledge among others. Future research could unravel which source of knowledge becomes relevant in which context, how different sources of knowledge relate to one another, and whether their interaction can have synergistic effects.
Whenever we present our research on disconcertment to our colleagues and collaborators, we receive a number of recurring questions, including but not limited to: How do you distinguish disconcertment from other bodily experiences like insecurity, confusion, or nervousness? Which strategies do you use to deal with disconcertment in productive ways? Aren’t you concerned about emotional biases? The four issues we discuss above start to tease out answers to such questions. We also invite you to contribute your own insights. How do you attend to affective experiences in interdisciplinary projects? How do you describe them in memos, reports, and articles? Which analytical tools do you use to interpret affects? Which sources of knowledge inform your work and how do you integrate them?
To find out more:
Smolka, M., Fisher, E. and Hausstein, A. (2020). From Affect to Action: Choices in Attending to Disconcertment in Interdisciplinary Collaborations. Science, Technology and Human Values, 46, 5: 1076–1103. (Online – open access): https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0162243920974088
The illustrations in this i2Insights contribution are by Mareike Smolka.
Andersen, M. H. and Høbye, M. T. (2019). Working with Head and Blood. An Exploration of How Movement Tasks Can Uncover Bodily Experiences of Ethnographic Research. Somatics Toolkit. (Online – open access): http://somaticstoolkit.coventry.ac.uk/working-with-head-and-blood/
Christie, M, and Verran, H. (eds). (2013). Special Edition on Ethnographic Stories of Disconcertment. Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts, 12. (Online – open access): https://www.cdu.edu.au/sites/default/files/the-northern-institute/lc_journal_spec_ed_no.12_april_2013.pdf (PDF 866KB)
Vermeulen, M. and Scholtes, U. (2020). Drawing Spatial and Bodily Sensitivities – A Training Kit. Presentation, Annual Meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science EASST/4S: Prague, Czech Republic. (Online abstract): https://www.ulrikescholtes.de/online-tools/drawing-spatial-and-bodily-sensitivities/
Biography: Mareike Smolka is a postdoctoral researcher at the Human Technology Center of RWTH Aachen University (also known as Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen) in Germany, where she collaborates with scientists, engineers, and industrial actors to facilitate the responsible governance of neuromorphic computing research and development. She is interested in socio-technical integration, inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration, and the sociology of emotions.
Biography: Erik Fisher PhD is Associate Professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and directs the Center for Responsible Innovation in the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation at Arizona State University in Tempe, USA. He developed the approach of socio-technical integration research to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration across socio-technical divides.
Biography: Alexandra Hausstein PhD is sociologist, managing director, and researcher at the Institute of Technology Futures at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany. As a sociologist, she explores practices of futurizing in technology development and innovation processes, and analyzes functions of visions and imaginaries of futures in modern societies. In addition, she initiates cooperative projects to integrate disciplines, with the aim of making humanities and social science knowledge a constitutive part of innovation. .