By Jonas Gleitz
A small shack surrounded by fields. A ridiculously huge bonfire. Old and young people gathering around it. Some dancing, some just staring and probably admiring. Easter Saturday in Germany’s rural areas has quite some fun and horror to offer, depending on your perspective. When I last overcame my initial reluctance and attended one of these occasions, everybody seemed to remember my name from last time I was there. The major and his family, which I knew by chance, pulled me right to the bar and served the obligatory „Cola-Korn“. To all non-German readers: It is Coke mixed with a clear alcohol made from grain. It will get you drunk.
From that moment on it seemed unimportant to whom or what I was talking about if I was dancing or just admiring the fire. I refuse to believe it was just the alcohol. Nobody cared whether I was a scientist or a farmer. There was a sense of „togetherness“ transcending social categories. We were together in the same place and time, sharing a magnificent experience.
This reminded me of how easy a feeling of community can be achieved. But when we talk about creating exactly those meaningful experiences of community in transdisciplinary science it appears to be far from easy. In this Blog post I want to explore the possible lessons that we might be able to take from my evening at the bonfire. By this I do not aim to advocate the use of alcohol in science, I would rather like to work out some underlying elements – metaphorical speaking, the embers – of community for collaborative (science) processes. It may be that at the bonfire, I happened to be in the presence of especially tolerant and empathetic individuals. But this might be unlikely.
Transdisciplinary research involves people from as many different branches of society as needed to work out complex problems. For this, Lang et al. 2012 recommend a strong team-building phase and emphasize the importance of developing a „common language“. This means finding a space in which a diverse team of collaborators can work together at eye level. Obviously that can be difficult because some individuals might prove themselves to be reluctant (as I was at first with attending the bonfire) to accept others as their equals. Yet, some occasions and some individuals appear to have certain qualities that work against the forces of separation. So what are the pillars of communal space? And what specification does such a space need in order to naturally be accepted as what it is? Alternatively: what made all individuals at the bonfire suddenly speak a similar language?
Vilsmaier and Lang 2015 in recurrence to Graham Fairclough, argue that transdisciplinary research and learning spaces are sort of a no man’s land. Meaning:
„…places that do not belong exclusively to one person but are shared and used by many people as a common good. [. . .] As a place of complex resources shared in common, they reflect community and collectivity, but at the same time they lay outside and challenge many norms of ‚society’.”
In no man’s land everybody is supposed to be equal. To me this sounds a little like temporal anarchy (reminding me again of the bonfire). Let’s stay with this notion: In an anarchic space everybody can be brutally subjective. Does this mean, that you can do whatever you want? Yes. It does. But it does not mean that you should. It also does not rid you of your empathy. What I am saying here could be called Satyagraha: the Soul Force or Force of Truth – doing what you know is right (Gandhi 1968), in a sense of composure in social practice.
The guiding principle that makes you act accordingly to Gandhi’s concept is not knowledge. It is the unifying and humbling experience of being part of something bigger. In this case the imaginary anarchic space of the bonfire. The realization that all of the people in it are there to enjoy the occasion and that everybody will be their most subjective, conflict arousing self, forces them to be empathetic. The humbling experience of the fire itself makes them experience the importance of community and collectivity. One could argue that all humans are similarly unified by the world itself. We all share a need for food, shelter and love which implies the need for the world, life and community itself.
I heard Vandana Shiva this year in a presentation at Kampnagel in Hamburg, were she argued that all humans have these things in common. At least we are connected by the roots and seeds of our food (Compare to her TEDx Talk). Such are topics of major relevance to sustainability science and I think that transdisciplinary science should integrate them and the humbling experiences of connectivity into the collaborative process.
Maybe we should find activities that include the above stated basic human needs and combine them with a grand experience. If all collaborators shared such an experience it would remind them of their basic human connection and hopefully makes them feel a sense of community.
It would be necessary for every individual to actively participate in that activity and of course this activity has to include everyone. I also believe that such an event should „force“ everybody to be brutally subjective and empathetic at the same time. In recurrence to my own experience, this is the only way to gain mutual understanding and a true sense of community. There may be conflict and reluctance at first, but if the team-building phase can make the collaborators overcome these obstacles, it will make the group’s sense of community thrive. A bonfire may not be the perfect fit for environmentalists or sustainability scientists but every team will require different experiences anyway. I think that transdisciplinary scientists should spend some time on finding fitting Embers of Community for their collaboration and take responsibility for making them into a bonfire.
- Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (1968): Satyagraha in South Africa. In: Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Volume Two.
- Lang et al. (2012): Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. In: Sustainability Science (2012) 7 (Supplement 1).
- Shiva, Vandana (2012): TEDxMasala – Dr. Vandana Shiva – Solutions to the food and ecological crisis facing us today. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ER5ZZk5atlE (Last visit: 28.09.2017).
- Vilsmaier, Ulli / Lang, Daniel J. (2015): Making a difference by marking the difference: constituting in-between spaces for sustainability learning. In: Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (2015).