Embracing tension for energy and creativity in interdisciplinary research

Community member post by Liz Clarke and Rebecca Freeth

Liz Clarke (biography)

Tensions inevitably arise in inter- and transdisciplinary research. Dealing with these tensions and resulting conflicts is one of the hardest things to do. We are meant to avoid or get rid of conflict and tension, right? Wrong!

Tension and conflict are not only inevitable; they can be a source of positivity, emergence, creativity and deep learning. By tension we mean the pull between the seemingly contradictory parts of a paradox, such as parts and wholes, stability and chaos, and rationality and creativity. These tensions can foster interpersonal conflict, particularly when team members treat the apparent contradictions as if only one was ‘right’.

Rebecca Freeth (biography)

The growth of collaborative interdisciplinary research (tackling increasingly complex challenges) requires that researchers are able to collaborate across greater levels of complexity and diversity in teams, including broader disciplinary, social, political, institutional and personal backgrounds.

This challenges the boundaries of traditional modes of research, where researchers are guided and bound by the socially constructed knowledge of a community of practice of like-minded scholars. In this more traditional mode, shared understanding and coherence are relatively easy to achieve. In contrast, in collaborative interdisciplinary research, researchers find themselves in highly heterogeneous teams, where coherence becomes more challenging. These two examples are the extremes in a continuum, shown on the x-axis in the figure below.

Figure 1: Navigating the tensions between individual scholarship and collaboration and collective coherence (Clarke, Freeth and Fam, forthcoming)

In tackling increasingly complex and intractable problems (the central arrow in the figure), there is increasing pressure for inter- and transdisciplinary approaches, and for coproduction across broader skill sets and hence more diverse teams (represented on the x-axis). At the same time, individuals are challenged to operate as independent, creative thinkers, rather than conforming to the rules of scholarship for a single discipline. These two points, also on a continuum, are illustrated on the y-axis of the figure.

The combination of heterogeneous teams plus independent and creative scholarship sets up and increases the tension between the individual “I” and the team “we”. For example, there may be very different expectations about how much of the research should be done alone and how much together, and tension around the adoption of methodologies and analytical frameworks.

We have two choices for dealing with this tension:

  1. We can avoid or dissipate tension through a siloed or “additive” multidisciplinary approach, where individuals continue with their scholarship and connect with their disciplinary community, creating a fragmented approach. This potentially limits our ability to solve problems or create change and can (paradoxically) create even more tension (as we outline below).
  2. Team members can exercise individual agency through independent creative thinking (“I”), as well as engaging with the interdisciplinary team through collective thinking (“we”), which requires a greater engagement with difference. Here, the emphasis is on integrating, linking, focusing, blending, transcending, transgressing and transforming.

In the first option, the consequences of not embracing tension are paradoxically more tension and potentially more conflict (as flagged above). If we retreat back to the safety of what we know (individual scholarship) with those who share our approaches (in homogeneous teams), the pressure to simplify and decrease heterogeneity reduces our ability to tackle complexity (see the figure below). But the complexity does not go away and the most likely outcome is more tension creating negative energy generally through an adversarial approach to resolving differences, which is represented by the red arrow in the figure below.

Figure 2 Trying to dissipate tension paradoxically produces more tension (Clarke, Freeth and Fam, forthcoming)

In the second option, where team members exercise individual agency and engage with interdisciplinary teams, framing tension as a positive source of energy, creativity and learning, challenges us to stay committed to the collective whole. At the same time it challenges us to reflect on our own deeply held approaches, assumptions, beliefs and onto-epistemological framings, which Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge (2016) refer to, collectively, as the “blind spot”. Ignoring these can slow our learning and blind us to possible emergent futures. Alternatively, reflecting on the source of our thoughts, perceptions, communication and actions can be truly transformational and hence drive and enable system change.

How can we reflect on the “blind spot”? The figure below outlines a series of indicative questions that we can ask as we progress from the practical and instrumental questions towards the “blind spot” of onto-epistemological assumptions, beliefs, experience, etc.

Figure 3: Questions to encourage reflection and reflexivity in inter- and trans- disciplinary research (Clarke 2016)

In our previous blog post on skilful conversations for integration, we outlined that embracing tension through reflective and generative dialogue is a constructive way to stay engaged and to learn, as well as opening up the possibilities of deep change and novel futures.

So how are you engaging with tension? And how can you make it a source of positive energy, and strength and creativity?

To find out more:
Freeth, R., Clarke, E. A. and Fam, D. (In press). Engaging creatively with tension in collaborative research: Harnessing the ‘I’ and ‘we’ through dialogue. In: V. Brown, J. Harris and D. Waltner-Toews. (eds.), Independent thinking in an uncertain world. Routledge: London, United Kingdom.

Clarke, E. A. (2016). The synergies of difference: Strengthening transdisciplinary research practice through a relational methodology. PhD thesis, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Online: http://hdl.handle.net/1885/109821

Scharmer, C. O. and Senge, P. (2016). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. Berrett-Koehler Publishers: Oakland, California, United States of America.

Biography: Liz Clarke PhD is a systems thinker and transdisciplinary researcher, educator and practitioner, specialising in design thinking, social innovation and change, and participatory action approaches to coproduction of knowledge and learning. Her interests span natural resource management, disaster risk management, sustainable food systems, climate adaptation, rural development and livelihoods, and environmental management. She is a research fellow in the Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation project at Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany.

Biography: Rebecca Freeth is completing her PhD at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany where she is studying the interdisciplinary team of which she is also a member. Rebecca researches, writes about and facilitates collaboration. She does this with an eye on sustainability; supporting communities that will sustain even though they are wildly diverse, supporting collective decisions that will sustain because they take seriously the concerns of the outnumbered, and supporting social ecological systems that will sustain because everyone’s knowledge counts. Always a nomad, Rebecca moves between the worlds of practice, teaching and academia, and between Germany and South Africa.

Skilful conversations for integration

Community member post by Rebecca Freeth and Liz Clarke

Rebecca Freeth (biography)

Interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle complex problems is challenging! In particular, interdisciplinary communication can be very difficult – how do we bridge the gulf of mutual incomprehension when we are working with people who think and talk so very differently from us? What skills are required when mutual incomprehension escalates into conflict, or thwarts decision making on important issues?

It is often at this point that collaborations lose momentum. In the absence of constructive or productive exchange, working relationships stagnate and people retreat to the places where they feel safest: Continue reading