Webinar on Challenges and Pitfalls in Transdisciplinary Research on Climate Change – summary

Tuesday April 6th, 2021

We had a pleasure to introduce our project to the public during a webinar in March.

On the 19th of March 2021, we carried out the webinar “Challenges and Pitfalls in Transdisciplinary Research on Climate Change”. In the first part of the webinar, the EmCliC team introduced our preliminary methodology – the result of the first few months of the project. The methodology will consist of four elements represented by following disciplines: climatology and epidemiology, quantitative sociology, social anthropology and physics of atmosphere.

The main objective of the climate science part of the research is to understand hazard and exposure to heat, calculating future health impacts and determining relative risks. It will be achieved by downscaling of climate models into 1 square kilometer resolution in Warsaw and Madrid and comparing this data with available health and epidemiological data (mortality and number of hospitalizations) in these two cities. The comparison will help to explore correlation between heatwaves and higher risk of mortality and morbidity in two studied cities.

Sociological part of the research will help to understand how heat and heat stress are experienced, and how people – especially from vulnerable groups – deal with it and what adaptive capacity they have. For that reason, there will be a survey conducted in Warsaw and Madrid among representative older adults population sample. The objective is to estimate characteristics of this vulnerable group and how these characteristics (perceived health, activity level, socio-economic status, perception of heat and climate change) may influence their experience and adaptive capacity to heat stress.

The aim of the anthropological part of the research is to understand participants’ long term embodied experiences of heat. The term embodied refers to all reactions, gestures, movements and adaptation strategies that emerge from participants’ bodies. Anthropological part of the research will consist of critical discourse analysis, focus groups and most importantly – long term ethnography using participant observation and ethnographic film. Using these methods will enable the qualitative team to explore the more sensuous relationships to heat, that is, the intangible moments of experience that are not easily articulated through language based discourse.

Fourth part of the research will introduce sensors technology, which allows to measure personal exposure to heat and body responses to it in the real time. Two kinds of wearable sensors will gather data about participants’ skin temperature, cardiovascular data, activity level as well as outside temperature and humidity – in Warsaw and Madrid. Data gathered through sensors will be juxtaposed with people’s own perceptions, descriptions and embodied experiences gathered during ethnographic research.

While different parts of the project have their own distinctive methodologies, we are looking for ways to make our perspectives, methods and data results speak to each other. We aim to study different aspects of the same phenomenon – urban overheating – from a global climate perspective as well as localized and individual experiences.

In the second part of the meeting, Andrea Nightingale’s gave a talk on “Chimeric scholarship – situated knowledges, mixing methods and the challenges of interdisciplinary research”. Starting point to discuss working on a transdisciplinary project was Donna Haraway’s work on “situated knowledges” – a call to reject the view that scientists need to stay away from research problems and understand everything from the outside perspective. Haraway’s argument is simply that all knowledge is a view “from somewhere”. Although we can look at things from different angles, we cannot escape our own history, social status and previous knowledges.

The idea of situated knowledge opens up a methodological space to work with plural epistemologies. Nightingale argued, that interdisciplinary border crossing creates challenges, not only methodological ones, but also ontological and analytical, and it is important to have them in mind while working on transdisciplinary projects.

Designing transdisciplinary work means facing multiple forms of knowledge making – each discipline provides a slightly different way of understanding the world. Moreover, behind each discipline stands a different understanding of the research phenomenon. It creates an ontological quandary – different methods imply more than just different data. For instance, “heat” might be something profoundly different depending on who is exploring it. Therefore, it is important to work with divergence and assume that within one project we do not study the same thing.

Andrea Nightingale claimed that the most common way of triangulating data – comparing, integrating and then interpreting them – creates a desire to “make different methodological components to speak to each other”. In such approach, scholars are looking for convergence and complementarity, which may result in overlooking meaningful differences. Her main argument was to accept differences among the perspectives and to treat them as inspiration, therefore to triangulate for divergence. This approach focuses on research areas, where data and results do not overlap. It results in new terrains of inquiry, new theoretical insights and analyses that are otherwise impossible.

The figure, that represents “triangulation for divergence” approach is Chimera – creature composed of different body parts of different animals. It captures plurality, unruliness, ambiguity and multiple terrains of meaning, it embodies multiple possibilities without conflict.

Subsequently, Andrea Nightingale gave some more practical insights on how to proceed with multiple perspectives in a transdisciplinary project. First step is to reject universalism (striving to discover the One Truth) and embrace multiple truths. Acknowledge that all the methods provide equally valid knowledge – each discipline may have its own truths, neither of them being more important or ‘more true’ than others. Then reject a desire to integrate, to agree on consistency and demand for consensus. Use the moments of conflicts as an inspiration and when datasets do not line up – ask why, do not smooth it over, look for saliences and gaps. Be a visitor in the other fields, ask each other uncomfortable questions, do not take anything for granted and see how other members of the team understand their part.

Furthermore, Nightingale argued, that the best way to work within a transdisciplinary team is to validate data within its own frame, so it can stand for its own. And only after that try to analyze the results together.

Andrea Nightingale’s talk was followed by short a discussion on the possible problems and hazards of working in a transdisciplinary team. One of the problems identified was that one result may dominate over the others. For instance, qualitative data might be used only as an illustration for quantitative data, rather than an equal set of results. Transdisciplinary research may also encounter practical problems regarding publications out of one’s discipline. Furthermore, climate science and epidemiology are dominated by the positivist approach whereas social anthropology builds more on critical perspectives and social constructivism, so there might be a risk of underestimating one approach over the other.