Advancing considerations of affect in interdisciplinary collaborations

By Mareike Smolka, Erik Fisher and Alexandra Hausstein

authors_mareike-smolka_erik-fisher_alexandra-hausstein
1. Mareike Smolka (biography)
2. Erik Fisher (biography)
2. Alexandra Hausstein’s biography

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

smolka_interdisciplinary-collaborations_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

smolka_interdisciplinary-collaborations_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.

smolka_interdisciplinary-collaborations_analyzing-affects-with-heuristics

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.

smolka_interdisciplinary-collaborations_recognizing-affects-knowledge

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.

Conclusion

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.

References:

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.4sonline.org/drawing-spatial-and-bodily-sensitivities-a-training-kit/

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. .

11 thoughts on “Advancing considerations of affect in interdisciplinary collaborations”

  1. “Affects tend to escape our analytical concepts for they cannot be squeezed neatly into taxonomies, typologies, or conceptual frameworks.”
    “Which analytical tools do you use to interpret affects?”

    I wonder if affect is a necessary addition to or reinterpretation of such framework as the VALUE rubrics (e.g., teamwork) … I think this is perhaps a very timely conversation considering AAC&U (American Association of Colleges and Universities) has been running a systematic review of its Essential Learning Outcomes (ELOs) of late.

    Editor addition: For information about the VALUE rubrics see: https://www.aacu.org/initiatives/value-initiative/value-rubrics

    Reply
    • Thank you for making me aware of the value rubrics for student learning. I agree that “emotional competence” could be relevant addition to the rubric. However, this may evoke the impression that “emotional competence” is different from, for example, ethical reasoning, although I would argue that embodied ethics / ethical sensitivity is an important part of it. The same may hold true for “critical thinking” and “problem solving.” As the rubrics are behind a paywall, I cannot check in which rubric affects are or could be included. In general, I am convinced that we should attend more to building emotional competences in education.

      Reply
      • I believe downloading the rubrics is free of charge, although it requires setting up a free AAC&U account. Hope this information helps!

        Reply
  2. Thank you for this fascinating post. I love the idea of disconcertment, and it resonates with Edward Taylor’s idea of transformative learning that occurs as a sudden shift in the face of a ‘disorienting dilemma’. We have also just published a paper on the way this kind of affective experience and shift in perspective can be brought about by art and literature – shortly to be the subject of a post in this blog! I also agree with Matthew Campbell’s comment that it is just the beginning of the work that is needed to change ourselves and/or the world – as Margaret Wetherell has said, affect tells us that there is something we need to pay attention to.

    Reply
    • The transformative effects of aesthetic experiences are a very interesting area of research! I wonder to what extent concepts we use to describe experiences related to art and literature can also serve to analyze ethnographic moments and interdisciplinary collaborations. I recognize ‘the abject’ or ‘the sublime’ in art, but find it difficult to apply them in the context of my own work on interdisciplinarity. I am curious whether you think that a productive exchange between both domains is possible and to read your upcoming blog post!

      Reply
      • Hi Mareike
        Hope you find the blog post re our paper (‘Pause… How art and literature can transform transdisciplinary research’; https://i2insights.org/2022/08/23/art-and-literature-transform-transdisciplinarity/) of interest. I think it offers a response to your interest in pathways of transformation through art and literature. We were especially interested in the shift in subjectivity – indeed the suspension of subjectivity – that can occur in reading/viewing art. Such a shift can open us up to less self-centred relationships with others, and less anthropocentric relationships with the nonhuman. This in turn can enable more open transdisciplinary collaborations and more care for the nonhuman environment.

        Reply
  3. Thanks for this interesting blog post. I have just completed my PhD which explores disconcertment, how I was sensitised to it and how I used it in my work in northern Australia over a number of years. One thing I would like to say in relation to your list, which I think is great, is that we cannot know what it is that our disconcertment ‘tells’ us without the work that turns it into something, that we can then further work with. It seems to me that there are a range of steps in taking it seriously as an alternative starting point for knowledge production. The first is to become aware that we are disconcerted, the next is to think this is valuable, and the one after that is to begin to develop strategies to work with it, something which itself takes time and effort. Part of the challenge is, I think, that we must spend time working with it ‘after the fact’ to become more attuned to it, which hopefully in turn enables us to be more aware of it in the situations in which it occurs. Disconcertment (as an epistemic feeling) is a very interesting phenomenon to work with, arising, as it always does, unbidden!

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment and great that you just finished a PhD on disconcertment. As I was curious to find out more about your work, I read about your two moments of disconcertment in “Fire, lamb chops and engagement” (but please send me more of your writing if you like!). I can emphasize with the feeling of blankness you describe, which tends to emerge when something disrupts our taken-for-granted categories – including those connected to our identities. In conversations with researchers from other disciplines, I am often struck by wonder and unease about what I should know or must not know about the other’s field of expertise: Is it okay not to know because my expertise as a social scholar lies somewhere else? Have I entered the conversation underprepared? Was my blind spot an obstacle to the conversation or an opening for questioning basic disciplinary terms and concepts? Answering such questions and relating to them affectively in different ways (working through the unease of not knowing and developing curiosity from a place of insecurity) is the necessary cognitive-affective labor to make disconcertment productive, which you describe in your comment. Engaging in such labor made me think of ‘bodies as processors’ (please excuse the computer language, maybe we will find a better word). Processing moments of disconcertment is indeed something that can take a very long time. In my PhD research, a collaborative ethnography on the science of mindfulness, one moment of disconcertment took me more than a year and many conversations with scientific collaborators as well as colleagues from ethnography to process. While these conversations as well as writing about disconcertment in a narrative form helped me process my experiences ‘after the fact’, I am still searching for ways to expand my knowledge and skills of body practices that help me get more sensitive and attuned to disconcertment in the first place. Body scans and other mindfulness techniques are obvious resources, but I am curious how you have learned to feel into and work with disconcertment over the years.

      Reply
      • Hi Mareike (and everyone else!), there is a lot in your comment so apologies in advance if this doesn’t do it justice. I think one of the things I learned in the PhD is that disconcertment, as an alert that something that I expected to happen didn’t happen (even though I wouldn’t have been able to say what it was I expected), is never able to be fully processed, in the sense that one could work out what it ‘really means’. All that I could do is use it to explore those things that seemed present in the ‘situation’, understood to be something that came to be what it was through the reconstructive work I did (which is also creative). So for me it was a real backwards and forwards (or is it sideways and sideways?) process through which I interpreted the situation (a process of writing, reading, thinking and not thinking), seeking to keep it available for more thinking and learning. Given the contexts I was working in entail regular disconcertment (of various hues) I think I had already developed a capacity for being able to dwell in the not knowing that it signalled, and through that work met a lot of people who could not do this, and thus moved on to other things.

        For me the articulation of the role that disconcertment could play in the work I was doing finally helped me to start arranging myself in relation to their productive capacity, rather than just as something one had to accept as part of the territory. I feel that this is the ‘great unseen’ in a sense: I know that my experiences of this sort could not possibly be unique, and that they are important, but that there were no institutional processes to recognise their importance or to use them productively. This is something I think it would be great to address… I was lucky enough to be part of a small movement in which disconcertment was seen as gift that might be able to be used, should one develop a strategy to work with it, and feel very privileged that I got to work through it in my PhD (I don’t think it would have been possible otherwise, the work that it entailed would have meant taking attention away from what, in project terms, were more pressing matters, so would always have been put off).

        The last thing I guess that I learnt through the PhD is the work it takes to attend to disconcertment and how through attending to it one becomes more aware of how one is configured within situations. I am now more sensitive to this aspect of my work, recognising the effort it takes to develop productive interpretations in situations where (many) people are seeking to make ‘strong’ knowledge claims about the world…

        Reply
        • I appreciate that you share these insights from your PhD research. I would like to emphasize that I completely agree with the creative aspect of reconstructing experiences of disconcertment. There is not ‘one true meaning’ of disconcertment that we seek to uncover, but instead our interpretative work and affective labor help us discover multiple ways in which we could make sense of it. One can then decide to keep this multiplicity open or to go for one interpretation and feed it back into one’s ethnographic research or collaborative engagement. One could ask how to decide for an interpretation. I consider this as an epistemic-ethical question, for which no answering procedure or criteria for making a decision can be formalized since it is a matter of situated judgement. It is a pity that, as you mention in your last comment, this process is often not recognized as part of our job – even if it is scholarly in nature – because attending to the self tends to be seen as self-indulging navel-gazing. For this reason and because of reluctance to expose vulnerabilities or insecurities, it is often difficult to talk about, let alone present and openly discuss, work on disconcertment. Luckily, I was part of a supportive ethnography group (https://umethnography.carrd.co/#) where I felt comfortable to discuss my experiences of disconcertment and received invaluable advice as well as care. I warmly invite everyone interested in exploring different ways of doing ethnography and sharing work-in-progress to join the group!

          Reply

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