Becoming Interdisciplinary

This post by Elsa Lee is the first part of a three part series

The trajectory of my working life has followed a path through very different disciplines. I have moved from an undergraduate degree and a school teaching career in the natural sciences to a postgraduate degree and researching in the social sciences in higher education, so I have crossed the great onto-epistemic divide between positivism and interpretivism/constructivism once already. In doing so one learns that such divides are not straight forward binaries as we first imagine as epistemological framing is far more complex in reality. However, this boundary or disciplinary crossing experience, alongside my lifelong interest in environmental issues (an area of scholarship and practice widely accepted to be inter/trans/ and cross-disciplinary), continually emerges in the way I formulate research problems.  So when I put together the proposal for this study with invaluable mentorship of eminent sociologist and ethnographer, Dr Jo-Anne Dillabough, I found myself grappling once again with how to articulate the interplay between apparently disparate concepts; in this case hydrosociology, ESD and GCE. Intergovernmental organisations like UNESCO recognise the links between ESD and GCE, so that aspect of proposal was not so challenging. The recent worldwide climate protests identify the existence of a young global citizenry concerned about their ‘house on fire’. As Greta Thunberg argues at one of many youth climate protest rallies, ‘if you [adults] don’t behave like adults, we will’. Through these actions and by addressing their concerns in the starkest of terms to governments and intergovernmental organisations, young people have politicised these questions. These contexts bear out that the issues that ESD and GCE seek to address are entwined, and identifies just how important education about issues relating to the environment, contextualised across vast geo-political divides is.    However, articulating how (and why) to integrate human-water systems into my research proposal was more challenging. In the end the connection boils down to the significance of water security for the continuation of life on Earth, and the transnational material structures and forms of capital which underlie access to clean water when compared to the abstract, generalising and contested notion of ‘global citizenship’ and very broad, somewhat ill-defined and similarly contested notion of ESD.  

Research about, and experience with, these contested concepts has led me to conclude that a sense of experiencing membership in a global heterogenous community would be more accessible if there was material exchange involved. This conclusion arises from critical engagement with the research that evinces increased effectiveness of environmental education that is locally situated, in other words, children learn in the ‘here and now’ about things that they can get their hands on.  Alongside this, in the field of hydrosociology there is a growing recognition of the mystery and wonder of water.  It is a very human thing, to be calmed by water; and the fun of splashing in muddy puddles is something which many (if not most) can empathise with.  So in this study we aim to contribute knowledge at the intersection of hydrosociology, ESD and GCE through engaging with ideas and theories about slow violence, structural violence and reflexivity, amongst others. Our research began in January, 2019 with one year left to go before it ends; dependent at the time of writing on how the pandemic affects our efforts.  

The study will generate five open access case profiles of community-based waterway regeneration projects, three based in South Africa (SA) and two in the UK. In keeping with the principles of ethnography we are seek immersion and‘thick description’ through methodical omnivery: we use  participant observation where-ever possible and also interviews and surveys, with member checking forming an important part of our data generation process, working closely with key members of the case study organisations to develop these.  At this time of writing, we are reviewing and reflecting upon our first round of interviews with our interviewees and this process of member checking is proving fruitful. There is a very strong re-engagement with the original transcripts and a deep commitment to ensuring that they represent the intended meanings articulated by participants, and whether the current context has changed how they reflect upon the questions we posed. The strength of re-engagement with the data highlights how seriously our interviewees take their work. We have also found the current global pandemic has changed views about the various meanings participants attribute to global citizenship to some degree, which we will reflect upon in the final blog post of our mini-series.  

Our collaborators engage with waterways and water bodies whose communities constitute households across the socioeconomic spectrum, so our study will begin to  economic and socially and economically marginalised communities in both the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’, as well as more affluent households in the riverine communities. Through long term engagement with our collaborators over time we will produce ‘thick descriptions’ of the work they do and the way their work influences their lives and livelihoods.  

In the UK, we will focus on how these organisations engage with primary and secondary school children, as well as on the adult volunteers who are involved in these projects. In SA, our focus is mainly on school leavers not yet in full time employment, apprenticed to these organisations. We hope to understand what form ESD takes in these organisations, whether the ESD that emerges influences how relatable the notion of global citizenship is to the participants, and whether the materiality of water plays a role in this their work? We also seek to understand how engaging with efforts to alleviate environmental degradation – that slow violence that Nixon writes about – within communities affects the social and economic prospects of marginalised communities.  

By comparing across the countries with very different political, cultural, social, historical and economic circumstances we can improve our understanding of a transnational theory of ESD  and political engagement, particularly that which refers to the wider links there may be between education, citizenship and action. GCE appears in target 4.7 of SDG 4, which seeks, through liberal humanist narratives, to improve ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, but entails the potential to erase tensions and conflicts between local and global citizenly commitments.  Emerging findings from our initial data analysis identifies such tensions. We seek ways to expose how these tensions may be educative, in academic and practice arenas.  

In all of this we are continually engaging with the literature relating to the concepts that underpin our research, drawn from different disciplines, including posthumanist approaches to the ‘environment’ as I will outline in the next blog post. Within ethnography I have found my methodical home, but I continue on my journey of becoming an interdisciplinary scholar.  


  1. Hi Mark excellent article. By the way, I enjoyed reading it and I am with you in this Journee to become interdisciplinary.
    Rui Marques Pinto


    1. Hi Rui, thanks so much for your positive reading of our article. Interdisciplinarity is complex but so very rewarding. Please feel free to email me if you would like to discuss this shared experience.


Comments are closed.