Monday, July 17, 2017

Interdisciplinary Research - A Practice in Finding More Doors to Bring People to the Table

As a student studying both Environmental Biology and Anthropology, I have spent my undergraduate years literally navigating between the natural and social sciences. I know the fastest route between the buildings is through Trombley Square and takes 4.5 minutes. I know that taking the back route around the library is a tad longer, but a safer bet for avoiding running into people I know who might make me more late to class than I already am.  I’ve walked door to door more times than I can count. However, this summer, I have learned to navigate interdisciplinary life in a less literal and more applied fashion, which thankfully doesn’t have me running across campus all day. It’s left me knowing that in research having a multidisciplinary lens leaves you with many doors to open and charges you with the task of finding out which path between them all is the approach you want to take to discover something new and invite people in.

As I’ve dived deeper and deeper into the study of Anthropology, I’ve realized that I’ve developed a bit of a fear of numbers. It often makes me nervous to see things summed up in one number, chart or graph. It makes me cringe to think about the complexities and nuances that are lost in such a moment. The stories that don’t get told. The isolation you feel when you don’t fit into the number, like numerical representations of health, or the confusion and alienation you might experience when you can’t quite make sense of the information being presented, like federal budgets perhaps. I want to know what’s behind the numbers and become frustrated when that is not presented to me.

So, in an effort to reach outside my comfort zone and try to tackle and better understand this slight aversion to numbers, I joined one of the Economics teams on their research for a day. Ryleigh and Madison are working on surveying tourists and locals in Chetek, a town farther up in the watershed, to better understand the economic impacts of tourism in the town. They are asking questions like how much do you spend on food and lodging during your visit and receiving, of course, a lot of numerical responses. Once data collection is done they will run some fancy economic analysis, using software that hurts my head to think about, to see what kind of impact increases in tourism might have on Chetek’s economy. They can then speculate how improvements or further deterioration of water quality in the area might be reflected in the economy.

Now, as a disclaimer, I have to admit that I am someone who likes to take a situation and try to understand all aspects of the issue. I am often that friend that everyone gets annoyed with because I tend to be the one who chimes in as devil’s advocate and says, “Well, have you thought about it this way…?” I have a classic love/hate relationship with this personal trait of mine. I believe it makes me a good interdisciplinary coworker, a more empathetic person and an interesting conversationalist. I think it also causes me to struggle from decision paralysis, the phenomenon of overthinking too much to the point where I get bogged down with considering all the angles that I am unable to make a decision, or at least unable to do so quickly, and unable to narrow down a focus on something. Upon thinking about their economic study I immediately want to poise questions like how do you know it will go this way? Or how do you know it’s not other factors that are not making more of an impact on the economy? Did you ask why people spend or don’t spend this much? Then, I realized that I am getting myself into decision paralysis. I am overthinking and not letting any conclusions be drawn from the project at hand.

I stopped myself and tried to see what this information could do that my research could not. Sometimes you need numbers. We can sit and share stories or evoke emotions all day, but that doesn’t necessarily connect with everyone. And, sometimes you do just need a clean, accurate chart or graph that sums up a point clearly. Who does this information reach that social science research does not? How does this analysis invite more people into the conversation who aren’t yet at the table talking about this issue?

That is the beauty of interdisciplinary work that I am learning to embrace. Their project is but one lens through which to approach the issue. In collaboration, we can inform each other’s approaches and gain insight from each other. My work can help understand what barriers might be involved for people taking action on the issue and their information might be able to serve as incentive for more people to become involved. My brain still wants to shy away from numbers a little bit, but I am learning to challenge myself to learn and know what options are out there for tackling such a big issue.

You might think this just fuels my decision paralysis by giving me new things to think about. However, surprisingly, it has given me a bit of peace. No one project holds the solution. That is precisely why interdisciplinary research is a must. Being involved in this approach has allowed me to open some new doors and explore paths to progress through avenues I might not have considered before, but it also allows me to lean on and trust the researchers around me. We all bring something to the table and through collaboration we inform and enhance each other’s work while not being tasked with knowing all the answers ourselves. In turn, we each invite others to join us at the table on this issue too. At the end of the day, whether it is a chart on economic impact or a quote from a local community member that got you involved, the goal is bringing more people to the table no matter what door they came through. So let’s continue to find those doors.

Peace on the waterways.

One "doorway" I paddled through this weekend in the Apostle Islands

1 comment:

  1. Thanks you very much for sharing these links. Will definitely check this out..
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