Trouble at the disciplinary divide: a knowledge ecologies analysis of a co-design project with native Alaskan communities

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Transdisciplinary research and practice for sustainability outcomes, 2017
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This case of transdisciplinary collaboration raises a range of issues relevant to scientific research on complex twenty-first-century problems associated with water security, energy consumption and climate change impacts. These problems are widely acknowledged to require more than technocentric and resource-centred solutions, and they demand increased engagement with the people impacted by the problem, and with those who will live with the proposed solutions. This suggests a greater role for researchers from humanities and social science (HASS) disciplines in fields conventionally dominated by STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) knowledges. But bringing together positivist (quantitatively oriented) and interpretive (qualitative) paradigms of knowledge has its own difficulties, not least the effort to establish ‘a basis of mutual intellectual and professional respect’ that could ground a ‘genuine’ knowledge partnership (Nowotny et al. 2013). These two paradigms have very different ideas about the nature, generalizability and the purpose of knowledge. One theorist of water governance summarizes these differences: [P]ositivism sees the researcher and reality as separate, there is only one identifiable reality and the purpose of research is to control and predict. Interpretivism, on the other hand, notes that the researcher and reality are inseparable realities, are mental constructs in that they are social and experienced-based and there are multiple realities, which are dependent on the interpretation of individuals. (Meissner 2015, 3, citing Lincoln et al. 2011) The very contrast between these paradigms, Meissner points out, that positivism is not the only legitimate way of doing research; nor is it the only basis for theories of reality (2015). Positivists' beliefs that their reality is the reality, and that scientific method is the only valid method, are themselves obstacles to overcome in order to achieve successful transdisciplinary collaborations with researchers from different paradigms.
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