Exploring a Model of Inter-disciplinarity based on Collective Action Theories

Cristina Miranda de Almeida
Department of Art and Technology, Facultad de Bellas Artes UPV/EHU; Visiting Scholar at the Research Group Digital Culture, Internet Interdisciplinary Institute, University Oberta de Catalunya UOC
Benjamin Tejerina
Department of Sociology 2 UPV/EHU; Director of the Center of Studies of Collective Identity, President of the Research Committee #48, International Sociological Association ISA

Interdisciplinary action lacks a theoretical framework that serves as a basis to self-reflexion and dialog. In fact, there is not even a clear definition of what can be considered interdisciplinary action.

The objective of this paper is to develop a theoretical model to analyse and facilitate interdisciplinary dialog and collaboration between art, science, engineering and humanities. The model is inspired in key concepts taken from sociological Theories of Collective Action, which, usually are applied to understand different kinds of collective actions (for instance they are used to understand the action of ecologist, feminist or pacifist movements, among others). We propose that these theories can be pertinent to understand, in a very structured way, the interaction between the main dimensions, agents, resources, contexts and strategies of interdisciplinary action after a little conceptual translation or adjustment.

The hypothesis is that interdisciplinary action can be understood as a form of collective action according to the following definition: Collective action is “the result of a social action (or collective challenge) carried out by the set of formal and informal interactions established between (1) a plurality of individuals, collectives and organized groups (who share, to a greater or lesser extent, a sense of belonging or collective identity among themselves) and (2) other social and political actors with which they come into conflict. This conflict is triggered by the appropriation (of), participation (in), and transformation of relations of power to achieve social goals, and above all, through the mobilization of certain sectors of society” (Tejerina, 2010).

When collective action forms groups it is crucial to understand how these collective entities are shaped by means of discussions, negotiation and re-negotiation processes and not take their existence for granted.
Given the different forms in which interdisciplinary collaboration or interdisciplinary entities have historically developed it is not possible to present any essential definition of this kind of action. In each age there has been a variety of ways, objectives, motivations and concerns to develop this kind of collaboration.

There is a need to develop a typology of different kinds of interdisciplinary collaboration in which the elements that structure it are reflected. However, although this typology is still to be done, there are a few elements present in each of one the possible kinds and upon which interdisciplinary action depends. This paper will focus on the key elements to construct a theoretical model for interdisciplinary action. These elements are: (1) the components of collective action, that is to say, why, where, when and in which way collective action happens (Theory of Collective Behaviour, Smelser, 1963); (2) the relationship between costs and benefits of collective action, that is to say, the dependence of collective action on available resources, group organization and opportunities and on the strategic and political factors involved (Theory of Resource Mobilization, Jenkins, 1983; McCarthy and Zald, 1977); (3) context interaction (Theory of Social Interaction, Turner; Kilian, 1957); (4) the political aspects (Theory of Structure of Political Opportunity, Kriesi, 1992; Tarrow, 1989, 1994; 1998); (5) the collective sense and aims (Theory of Collective Identity, Melucci, 1995), as in collective actions there is a blend of intentions, resources and limits. Collective actions imply intentional decisions and interaction structures inside a system of opportunities and restrictions.

The concept of interaction structure is central to analyse how interdisciplinary research and creative work, learning and knowledge transmission processes develop (regarding agents, ways, tools and environments). Having the broad map of these structures will improve our capacity to suggest the best actions to different stakeholders, specially to those in the position of making decisions; to identity and overcome obstacles and to enhance opportunities for collaborative action across science, engineering, arts and design.

Opportunities and obstacles will be identified according to different spheres and scales: (1) in the scale of face-to-face interactions (such as linguistic opportunities and problems, cross-communications misunderstandings and insights, etc.); (2) in the scale of inter-disciplinary power synergies, struggles and competitions such as those that belong to authority and power elites inside each discipline (interest groups); (3) in the scale of institutional educational and research structures that are discipline-based and can be seen as structures for new opportunities or threatens to any kind of interdisciplinary action; (4) in the scale of the social paradigm that is common in public political-administrative systems of funding at different levels like national, regional, European or international that are not adapted to interdisciplinary action (for instance, it is considered appropriate that a scholar follows a unique lineal disciplinary path during her/his academic trajectory and any break in this lineal path needs to be justified so that the carrier is considered adequate to academy, what reflects a Cartesian mode of thinking about academia and constitutes an obstacle for interdisciplinary fluidity).

The paper will contribute to improve the vision on how interdisciplinary actions change knowledge production and how the aims, motivations, and interactions around interdisciplinary problems synchronize and find resonance (or not) in an environment of limited resources and changing opportunities in which there are collaborators and opponents that need to dialog. Each suggested action will be related to the big picture but addressed to each different stakeholder in its own sphere of action (for example: artists, designers, engineers, scientists, educators; funding agencies).