Challenge accepted: A year among social scientists

With summer hitting its peak and most people taking their well-deserved holiday, I’d like to offer an easy read, with less science content but hopefully still enriching in its own way. As a physical geographer, I admit being surprised when offered a chance to join the Human Dimensions of Global Change team. It sounded a bit too ‘social’ to me, but I remembered having a course on Social geography back in my Bachelor programme, which reassured me, and so I accepted. My experience of feeling like both an insider and an outsider can be summed up in several phases:

  • Coming in.

When I came in, I didn’t know what to expect. Unknown territory. It’s still research, dealing with similar topics – it can’t be that different, right?

  • Initial shock.

Wrong. I don’t understand a thing my colleagues are saying. Feeling really dense, I start to wonder whether my PhD studies happened just in my imagination.

  • Working hard to catch up.

Why does it take me half a day to read a paper, regardless of whether I get its main message or not? I had no idea one can use so many abstract words in a sentence – give me something I can touch, please! I start to write down results of all the searches I make when trying to understand this new society-centric field of knowledge. Transition management, leverage points, archetype analysis, visioning desirable futures, structure and agency, and what on earth is this ‘ladder’ everyone mentions? Ah-huh! Citizen participation, here I come!

  • In awe.

Although usually with a few weeks of delay, I begin to understand some of the concepts, and I get a glimpse of how vast and complex the realm of social sciences is. There is way more to it than questionnaires and census data; like there is more to physical sciences than numbers and dirt on outdoor shoes. It is fascinating to see the differences in the way we perceive the world around us, how we think about problems and come up with solutions.

  • Making sense out of it.

I understand now that only when forced out of your comfortable and well-known bubble can you truly see things from other perspectives, which is invaluable especially in the field of science. There are so many research topics that deserve to be addressed by a group of people, each of a different background, in order to find a fair and sustainable solution. But being able to work together, not just next to each other, requires an extra something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. My personal guess is: curiosity, ability to listen, and patience.

About half-way through writing this blogpost I realized I was not sure why I was writing it. What do I want to say? To whom? To show how talented and dedicated the people in this department are? No need to do that, their work speaks for them. To call for further attempts for interdisciplinarity? Yes, that already sounds like a reason. To encourage physical scientists to step out of their comfort zone and try to understand other disciplines’ point of view? Absolutely!

Yes, it will be tough. Yes, it will take a certain amount of time and demand perseverance and never-ending patience with yourself and others. Lots of reading, debating, and explaining. However, I believe this is the path leading to next phases of our search for even deeper understanding of the world we live in. These benefits are collective, but there are also individual benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration – you could express that using the old Czech saying that goes: “Kolik řečí znáš, …” (it loosely translates to: You live as many lives as the number of languages you can speak).

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