Methodological agility in the Anthropocene : an emergent, transformative transdisciplinary research approach

Van Breda, John Reitz (2019-12)

Thesis (PhD)--Stellenbosch University, 2019.

Thesis

ENGLISH SUMMARY : The publication in 2002, by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen, of the ushering in of the Anthropocene, with the inception of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North-America in the 18th – 19th centuries, has had some far-reaching ontological, epistemological, ethical and methodological implications for our intellectual/academic endeavours. This is the case, because never before in human history on earth were we required to face the global consequences of our own actions since the dawn of this new human-induced geological epoch. Starting at the ontological level, today we are facing the planetary consequences of non-linear human-nature causal relations – i.e. witnessing the once literally unimaginable and universally accepted fact of the immutability of all natural laws and processes. In view of the overwhelming empirical evidence of the anthropogenic causes of climate change and global warming such strongly held views / theories of the ‘objectivity’ of nature is no longer necessarily valid. On the contrary, today it has become quite plausible to accept that human actions are responsible for interfering with and changing some of the earth’s four billion year old / evolved processes – such as, for example, the earth’s temperature self-regulating mechanisms. Very importantly, though, is that this interference and change of the latter has occurred to such an extent that we can no longer speak of the latter as purely ‘natural’ occurring processes. At the epistemological level, this truly unprecedented change in causal human-nature relations, means that we are no longer challenged with the oft-repeated philosophical questions of what is knowledge and how it is produced only. Equally, if not more, important is the question for what are we producing knowledge? In the Anthropocene, it no longer suffices to produce knowledge that is concerned with the understanding (Verstehen) and explaining (Erklärung) of the anthropogenic causes of the Anthropocene only; we are also, at the same time, challenged to produce knowledge that can contribute to changing (Verändern) our thinking and actions responsible for (causing) the Anthropocene in the first place – i.e. producing practical knowledge capable of contributing to social change (Verändern) – in short, co-producing transformation knowledge. However, co-producing transformation knowledge in the Anthropocene is not an end in itself. Transformation knowledge is inextricably linked to ethics / ethical questions with an explicit interest in figuring out how we should act appropriately and fairly / justly in the context of the Anthropocene today. This, in turn, means facing a triple-challenge of co-producing theoretical, practical and normative knowledge which addresses the complex problem situations facing us in the Anthropocene today. No action is arguably the worst form of action to take in the Anthropocene, especially when considering that that the latter is the result of some deep-rooted structural socio-economic inequalities between the rich and the poor in the world. The quest for taking appropriate action is, therefore, fundamentally entangled with the question of figuring out how to act in a fair / just manner that can somehow contribute to undoing some of the historical injustices responsible for the Anthropocene – rather than reproducing the latter. Dealing with these non-separable ontological-epistemological-ethical considerations and questions in the context of the Anthropocene have, indeed, far-reaching methodological implications – warranting some trans-disciplinary responses capable of doing science with society – rather than just on, about or for society – which are, normally, done from much more restricted perspective of only dealing with the study of certain (disciplinary) methods. On the contrary, in the context of the Anthropocene what is required today are trans-disciplinary approaches capable of going beyond (the ‘trans’ in trans-disciplinarity) such reductionist (methods-only) approaches, by engaging with complex societal challenges – which, in the process of doing so, are capable of venturing and crossing into the philosophical provinces of ontology, epistemology, logics, ethics etc. – shaping and being shaped by the latter. However, there is an inherent risk in presenting such trans-disciplinary approaches as some or other methodological panacea – i.e. something which is relevant for ALL the different kinds of problem situations we are encountering in the Anthropocene today. Falling into this trap should be avoided at all costs, because not ALL problem situations faced in the Anthropocene today are necessarily complex problem situations. Indeed, some are straightforward / simple, others complicated and still others chaotic – for which there are certainly more appropriate methodological responses such as mono-, multi- and inter-disciplinarity, for example. In other words, it is much better to imagine trans-disciplinarity as one amongst a few context- or domain-relevant methodological responses; with the understanding that trans-disciplinarity is much more specifically focussed on and interested in tackling complex societal challenges that are considered too complex for tackling strictly from within single disciplinary boundaries only, but rather warrant methodological approaches capable of working both across, between and beyond disciplinary boundaries – including engaging with social actors’ non-academic knowledge systems. The implications of working with such different domain-relevant methodologies, in turn, implies being or becoming methodologically agile – i.e. the ability to switch between and within the said different domain-relevant methodologies as and when required by any changes occurring in the problem situations (contexts) at hand. This should not, however, be confused with the much more onerous Kuhnian notion of ‘paradigm switching’, which is simply too arduous an undertaking for the nimbleness required when facing ever-changing problem situations in the Anthropocene today. In light of the above, the fundamental focus of this study is on developing such an agile transdisciplinary methodology – with an explicit interest in contributing to just and sustainable social change in/to the complex societal challenges facing us in the Anthropocene today in a manner that is mindful of not falling into the said trap of presenting itself as a panacea for ALL the different kinds of problems situations facing us in the Anthropocene today. In short, such an agile transdisciplinary methodology will be referred to throughout this study as an emergent, transformative transdisciplinary research (ETTDR) approach.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING : Die publikasie in 2002, deur die Nobel Laureaat Paul Crutzen, van die aanvang van die Antroposeen, sedert die Industriële Revoulusie in Europa en Noord-Amerika in die 18de – 19de eeu, het verreikende ontologiese, epistomologiese, etiese en metodologiese implikasies vir ons intellektuele/akademiese strewe meegebring. Dit is die geval, omdat nog nooit voorheen in die geskiedenis van die mens op die aarde is van ons verwag om sedert die aanbreek van hierdie nuwe mensgeïnduseerde geologiese tydvak, die globale gevolge van ons eie optrede/aksies die hoof te bied nie. Beginnende by die ontologiese vlak, wat ons vandag in die gesig staar is die planetêre gevolge van nie-lineêre mens en natuur oorsaaklike verhoudings – dit is die waarneming van ‘n fundamentele klem verskuiwing in die eens letterlik ondenkbare en universeel-aanvaarde feit van die onveranderlikheid van alle natuurwette en –prosesse. In die lig van die oorweldigende empiriese bewyse en antropogeniese oorsake van klimaatsverandering en aardverwarming is hierdie sterk opvattings en teorieë nie meer noodwendig geldig nie. Inteendeel, vandag is dit heel wetenskaplik aanvaarbaar om te erken dat menslike optrede verantwoordelik is vir die inmenging met en verandering van die aarde se vier biljoen jaar oue geleidelik ontstaande en selfregulerende temperatuurmeganismes, in so ’n mate dat ons nie meer na laasvermelde kan verwys as ’n suiwer ‘natuurlike’ proses nie. Op die epistomologiese vlak, beteken hierdie ongekende verandering in die mens en natuur kausale verhoudings dat ons nie meer alleenlik te staan kom voor die tradisionele filosofiese vrae oor wat kennis is en hoe dit voortgebring word nie. Ewe, indien nie meer, belangrik is die vraag: waarvoor bring ons kennis voort? Dit is nie langer voldoende om slegs kennis voort te bring wat alleenlik bydra tot ons verstaan (Verstehen) en verduideliking (Erklärung) van die antropogeniese (mensgeïnduseerde) oorsake van die Antroposeen. In die konteks van laasvermelde word daar ook, terselfdertyd, verwag dat ons kennis voortbring wat kan bydra tot die verandering (Verändern) van ons denkwyses en optredes wat in die eerste plek verantwoordelik is vir die oorsake van die Antroposeen – m.a.w die produsering van praktiese kennis wat tot sosiale verandering kan bydra. – kortliks: die mede-produksie van transformasie-kennis. In die Antroposeen is die mede-produksie van transformasie-kennis egter nie ‘n doel opsigself nie, aangesien dit onlosmaaklik met etiek / etiese vrae verbind is met ‘n eksplisiete interesse in die vraag oor hoe ons toepaslik en regverdig / billik vandag in die konteks van die Antroposeen moet optree? Dit, op sy beurt, beteken dat ons voor ‘n drieledige uitdaging vandag te staan kom oor hoe om teoretiese, praktiese en normatiewe kennis voort te bring wat komplekse probleemsituasies in die Antroposeen aanspreek. Geen optrede is waarskynlik die ergste vorm van aksie om in die Antroposeen te neem, veral met dié wete voor oë dat laasvermelde die gevolg is van sommige diepgewortelde strukturele sosio-ekonomiese ongelykhede tussen die wêreld se rykes en armes. Die soeke na die neem van gepaste aksie is daarom onlosmaaklik verstrengel met die vraag oor hoe om op ’n regverdige/billike wyse op te tree op só ‘n wyse dat dit kan bydra tot die ontknoping van sommige van die historiese onregverdighede wat tot die ontstaan van die Antroposeen gelei het – eerder as om laasvermelde te reproduseer. Die hantering van sulke onlosmaaklike ontologies-epistemologies-etiese oorweginge en vrae het verreikende metodologiese implikasies vir die manier waarop ons navorsing doen in die Antroposeen. Hiervoor is daar sekere trans-dissiplinêre benaderings benodig word, wat daartoe instaat is om wetenskap doelgerig saam met die gemeenskap te bedryf – eerder as om net kennis oor of vir die gemeenskap te lewer. Sulke pogings gaan gewoonlik gepaard met baie beperkte benaderings wat die konsep van metodologie gewoon wil reduseer tot die studie van sekere dissiplinêre metodes. Wat vandag, in die konteks van Antroposeen, benodig word is trans-dissiplinêre benaderings wat verder kan gaan (i.e. ‘trans’ in trans-dissiplinêr) as sulke reduktionistiese, instrumentele benaderings. M.a.w navorsingsmetodologieë wat daartoe instaat is om op so ‘n wyse met komplekse samelewingsprobleme om te gaan dat dit die intense wisselwerking tussen metodologie en die filosofiese sfere van ontologie, epistemologie, etiek etc. aanspreek. Daar is egter ‘n inherente risiko daaraan verbonde om sodanige trans-dissiplinêre benaderings aan te bied as een of ander tipe metodologiese wondermiddel wat relevant en bevoeg is om letterlik AL die verskillende probleemsituasies wat ons vandag in die Antroposeen in die gesig staar, aan te spreek. Hierdie lokval moet ten alle koste verymy word, aangesien ALLE probleemsituasies wat ons vandag in the Antroposeen ervaar nie noodwendig komplekse problemsituasies is nie. Sommige is voorwaar heel duidelik/eenvoudig, ander is ingewikkeld en nog ander is chaoties van aard – waarvoor daar duidelik meer gepaste metodologiese benaderings is, soos byvoorbeeld: mono-, multi- en inter-dissiplinêre benaderings. Met ander woorde, dit is baie beter om die trans-dissiplinêre benadering te sien as een van enkele konteks- of domein-relevante metodologiese benaderings. Met dit in gedagte, is die fokus van transdissiplinêre navorsing baie meer spesifiek gerig op die hantering van komplekse samelewingsuitdagings – i.e. probleemsituasies wat as te ingewikkeld beskou word om streng net vanuit enkel-dissiplinêre grense aan te pak, eerder benader moet word deur oor, tussen en buite dissiplinêre grense heen te beweeg – insluitende die betrokkenheid van nie-akademiese kennisstesels. Die implikasies om met sodanige verskillende domein-relevante metodologieë om te gaan, impliseer weer op sy beurt ’n breë ingestelheid van metodologiese behendigheid – i.e. die vermoë om oor te skakel tussen die vermelde domein-relevante metodologieë – waar en wanneer sulke skuiwe nodig geag word in die lig van enige veranderinge wat in die probleemsituasies na vore kom. Sodanige oorskakeling tussen verskillende domein-relevante metodologieë moet egter nie verwar word met die Kuhnian-begrip van ‘paradigma skakeling’ nie, omdat laasvermelde eenvoudig te gewigtig is vir die beweeglikheid wat vereis word deur die gedurig-veranderende probleemsituasies (kontekste) in die Antroposeen. In die lig hiervan is die basiese fokus van hierdie studie gerig op die ontwikkeling van so ’n beweeglike transdissiplinêre metodologie – ’n benadering met ‘n eksplisiete interesse om regverdige en volhoubare maatskaplike verandering aan te bring in genoemde komplekse probleemsituasies wat ons vandag in die konteks van die Antroposeen in die gesig staar. In kort, daar sal regdeur hierdie studie na so ’n behendige transdissiplinêre metodologie as ‘n ontluikende, transformatiewe transdissiplinêre navorsingsbenadering (ETTDR) verwys word.

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