From Objects to Relationships and The Place of Interdisciplinarity

Two ideas resonate throughout the interdisciplinary studies literature: complexity is at the heart of interdisciplinarity and an epistemology of complexity is predicated on non-reductionist methodologies.

Complexity theory is a theory of development, adaptation and change that examines the regularities in systems that at times seem chaotic and even random. Complex systems are ubiquitous throughout the living world: organisms, ecosystems, weather systems, social systems. They are multi-layered: trees and forests, people and societies, ants and ant colonies. The list is quite literally endless. Not surprisingly, then, complexity refers to a new science “that recognizes that there are fundamental principles governing our world— such as emergence and organization— that appear in various guises across all of the nooks and crannies of science” (Miller 2015, Kindle Locations 206-208).

Complexity theory compels a perspective that sees the natural world is comprised of a series of interactional relationships among various entities at various levels of organization. Whether it is the assortment of biological systems that orchestrate the human body or the transactions between consumers, businesses and regulators that animate the economy, the point is that these entities are relationships in process and cannot be reduced to basic discrete units. Studying the human body is a qualitatively different task from studying the human being. So too, studying the consumer is something quite different from studying the economy: the two are related, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts, as they say.

The primary epistemological imperative of complexity theory, therefore, is a shift of focus from objects to relationships. The mechanistic worldview of Newtonian physics has instilled a compulsion to see the world as comprised of sets of basic or fundamental objects assembled in various configurations, reductionism, in other words. As one scholar points out, however, in the complexity view of the world “reductionism fails because even if you know everything possible about the individual pieces that compose a system, you know very little about how those pieces interact with one another when they form the system as a whole. Detailed knowledge of a piece of glass does not help you see, and appreciate, the image that emerges from a stained-glass window” (Miller 2015, Kindle Locations 204-206). It would be a mistake to disregard the incredible contributions traditional science has made to our contemporary world, though one could debate the notions of progress and improvement typically embedded in such discussions.

The shift of focus from objects to relationships is a key principle in this new science, and it has  several important implications for interdisciplinary studies. First, that the academic institution has recapitulated reductionist ideology is well-established, and the rise of complexity-based insights should spur a re-organization. The notion that the natural world can be carved at its joints is embedded in the institutional structure of discrete academic departments and disciplines. As Miller writes:

“Science as currently practiced— with psychology separate from economics, physics separate from biology, and on and on— has been remarkably productive. The creative destruction of scientific ideas, with its inherent quest to define the frontier by publicly disclosing, evaluating, and correcting ideas, has provided us with an engine of insight. The cost, however, is that individual fields have become increasingly separated from one another intellectually. Taking an exact look at a small piece of the world has become the academic norm and has almost fully displaced taking what my Santa Fe Institute colleague Murray Gell-Mann calls ‘a crude look at the whole.’ That may seem a minor problem, but we see its importance when we look at the true places we wish to explore. Take any global-scale, societal challenge, such as financial collapse, climate change, terrorism, epidemics, revolution, or social change: not one neatly aligns with any particular academic field.” (2015, Kindle Locations 216-222)

Indeed, we are beginning to see a re-structuring of academic institutions around key issues, problems, and ideas.  For academia to remain relevant and maximize its benefits in society, it must be responsive to the changing needs of its students, teachers, and broader communities (ideally, it would adapt a lot quicker than it currently does). And to do this, it really must strive to more fruitfully cultivate insights from between the disciplines–hence interdisciplinarity. From an interdisciplinarian’s perspective, the changing face of the university to this end is a good thing, but it is not quite sufficient without a broader more pervasive shift in how knowledge is done not just organized.

So, shifting focus from objects to relationships has a second epistemic implication: to know about complex systems one cannot break them down, as this destroys the very system one is trying to study. In other words, one cannot approach the study of complex systems through a process of domination, dissection, and control such has been the methodological ideals of traditional scientific approaches. Complex systems exist through a continual exchange of information within the system and between the system and its environments. These are often referred to as feedback loops. Furthermore, we too, as people, researchers, knowers, are ourselves complex systems, and so knowing about complex systems is best understood as a process engagement: participation, or an exchange of information between the system and ourselves. It is therefore not sufficient to change university program structures. We must also change university classrooms.

I am reminded of my first encounter with complexity theory as a piano major in a jazz studies program. I grew up learning piano in the classical tradition: scales, repertoire, theory, and history. I learned all the pieces, and when I entered the jazz-studies program, I tried to utilize the same approach to learn to play jazz piano. I studied the theory, practiced the exercises, and memorized the tunes. But I did not progress as much as I would have liked because, while learning to play jazz piano does include all of these components, understanding came only through experience: sitting with other musicians and participating in the process of making music. No matter how well I did at mastering all the components, and I did very well, it did not translate into the radically different experience of sitting in a small combo with other musicians and engaging in the music-making process with them. The classical approach was about mastering the material, dominating it, controlling it, and repeating it precisely. All all of this has its place and value, but learning to improvise and play jazz, to be innovative and adaptive, while still requiring all those elements, requires a different set of cognitive tools–acceptance of uncertainty and vulnerability, tolerance of ambiguity, openness, risk-taking, and an understanding of the productive value of repeated failure.

Uncertainty, vulnerability, ambiguity, openness, risk-taking, and repeated failure are not epistemic values of traditional education, yet they are the crucial epistemic values of creativity and innovation. They are crucial epistemic values of complexity, and to the extent that complexity is at the heart of interdisciplinarity, they are crucial epistemic values of interdisciplinarity. We must strive to develop classes that cultivate these cognitive tools if we wish to truly transform the academy into an adaptive, innovative, and relevant institution capable of engaging and improving the increasingly complex world. This is the place of interdisciplinarity.


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