Nathaniel A. Rivers on Katharine N. Farrell, Tommaso Luzzati, and Sybile von den Hove, eds. Beyond Reductionism: A Passion for Interdisciplinarity.

Katharine N. Farrell, Tommaso Luzzati, and Sybile von den Hove, eds. Beyond Reductionism: A Passion for Interdisciplinarity. New York: Routledge, 2013. Routledge Series in Ecological Economics. xxv + 317 pp. Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-415-47014-8.

It is my unfortunate task to reduce an edited collection working against the very act of reduction, which the editors describe as “the systematic […] endeavor to interrogate the physical world, piece by piece, disclosing the secrets of nature” (1). Set against the backdrop of the Anthropocene, the contributors to Beyond Reductionism: A Passion for Interdisciplinarity, a mix of young and established scholars in and around what the editors label “social ecological systems” (SES), pursue the past, present and future of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity work. Such work is a response to reductionism, which, all contributors agree, leaves us ill-equipped to face the complex and global challenges we now face. SES is, “by definition, concerned with the interplay between complex living systems” (2). Breaking up the world into pieces simply will not do. In terms of inter- and trans-disciplinarity thought, reading work in SES is compelling because with it we have research necessarily predicated upon such thinking (36). For those outside of SES, then, the book is a valuable field site to witness scholars simultaneously engaging in interdisciplinary work and reflecting upon the values and implications of that work.

But before we get to the field site, we find two prefaces by Robert Costanza and Richard Norgaard, both of which enunciate what I see as the attitude of the collection. In his preface, Costanza links the nature of interdisciplinary politics to what, drawing on Deborah Tannen, he calls “argument culture” (xvi). “There is an almost obsessive desire in academia to stake out intellectual turf and defend it against outsiders” (xvi). This desire makes it difficult to link scientific research and environmental policy, which requires us to move beyond our disciplinary comfort zones: reductionism is comforting. Costanza suggests the reductionism is in fact born of our inability to move outside these zones. Nevertheless, transdisciplinarity is the way forward that Costanza proposes. Resonating with Costanza, Norgaard writes of a new way to link research and policy not predicated upon an unreasonable faith in the ability of science to provide all the answers. Working within the narrow confines of disciplines, researchers have produced correct answers (“partly correct” Norgaard says) that are nevertheless “wholly wrong” (xxi). By this, Norgaard means that narrow pursuits reduce complexity and so create “unrealistic expectations” about our own, human abilities to solve global problems (xxiii). Countering correct but narrow answers, Norgaard ask us to embrace humility. Humility and transdisciplinarity are, then, the spirits that animate Beyond Reductionism.

Part I (“The idea of ‘ecological economics’”) offers readers “a feeling for the general subject of interdisciplinary research concerning social-ecological systems and relationships” and points to challenges faced by its practitioners (3). An exemplar of this offering is Joan Martinez-Alier’s “Social Metabolism, Ecological Distribution Conflicts and Languages of Valuation,” which provides a series of methods that address the common reduction of economic concerns to the exchange of commodities (“actual or fictitious”). Martinez-Alier’s notion of metabolism attempts to make sense of global phenomena without reducing complex variables to a common denominator such as “commodities.” “But the requirement for such an exercise,” writes Martinez-Alier, “is commensurability of values and a single language of valuation” (29). The value of interdisciplinary work, Martinez-Alier suggests, is its ability to approach complexity through multiple vocabularies. In this way, readers get a feel for what interdisciplinary research is in SES: an attempt to work through complex problems without the desire to reduce that problem.

The complexity implicit in Martinez-Alier is subsequently intensified by Farrell, et al.’s “What Lies Beyond Reductionism.” If we wish to move beyond reductionism, then we must not shy away from uncertainty, the fear that may very well motivate reductionism. Farrell, et al., reflect upon the six “inevitable characteristics” of interdisciplinary work: complexity, ontological diversity, methodological diversity, dominance and gatekeeper disciplines, a dual role for social science, and team research. These attributes clue us in to how the complexity of multiple vocabularies and values might be employed in interdisciplinary research: how does one maintain multiple methods across a team of scholars from multiple disciplines in the face of a discipline that sees itself as dominant? For instance, “within projects combining contributions from social and physical sciences the orientation [within SES research] is often weighted towards physical science methodologies” (47). Maintaining complexity in methodology is hard work, and Farrell, et al., describe that work.

Part II (“Life after reductionism”) gives readers a glimpse “into the world of applied interdisciplinary” investigations and analysis. A particularly compelling chapter (“How Ecofeminists Use Complexity in Ecological Economics”) is in fact a conversation between four practicing ecofeminists: Ariel Salleh, Mary Mellor, Katherine N. Farrell, and Vandana Shiva. Salleh states that by virtue of their desire to “redraw conceptual connections,” “most ecofeminist writing is transdisciplinary work” (155). The conversation then works through ecofeminism as practice beyond reductionism. Mellor remarks that ecofeminism positions humanity as “part of a dynamic, interactive ecological process that [sic] cannot manipulate at will or without consequences” (162). This lends itself, all the contributors agree, to a more holistic approach to ecological issues. Farrell pulls from a previous communication with Vandana where the latter argued, “Ecofeminism moves beyond reductionism by highlighting the integrity of ecosystem and organisms” (163). Mellow subsequently adds, “A holistic science would acknowledge that such complexity creates uncertainty and incomplete knowledge. This does not mean that we cannot take a reasoned approach” (164). What shines through the conversation is how ecofeminism resists the narrow, piecemeal approach of reductionism. Resonating with Norgaard’s preface, the contributors in Part II resist the temptation of certainty offered by reductionism, but nevertheless work to develop methods that allow us to deal with complexity. Incompleteness, contingency, and uncertainty are not reasons to stop research but calls to go on.

Part III (“Into the woods”) points readers toward the possible futures of interdisciplinary research: that is, how we might go on. One chapter in particular stands out. Writing that we are “still grappling with what complexity means and implies for both natural and social science” (284), Arild Vatn, in “Beyond Reductionism: Issues for Future Research on Sustainability,” argues, “what seems clear is that single analytics and one-dimensional approaches are not going to provide us with the information and analyses that are required to take up the challenge of developing […] new forms of cooperation” (303). In addition to outlining several interlinking research agendas, Vatn makes a convincing case that we must be able to first “conceptualize what kinds of institutions we will need in order to advance our coordination capacities” (303). Disciplines are tightly yoked to institutions, and vice versa. To embark upon inter- and trans-disciplinary work with no regard for the institutions in which it will take place might very well doom such an enterprise from the start. Indeed, another chapter, which combines the remarks of Brian H. Walker and C.S. Holding (“Probing the Boundaries of Resilience Science in Practice”), traces the history and possible future of institutions that support such work.

As I conclude, however, I must note that the collection, as a field site, does little to explain or pull itself together. Given the range of the collection, the introduction is somewhat insufficient. It addresses the moment that the collection responds to, but does little to describe the collection, how it was put together, how it hangs together, or how it might be approached, made sense of, or traced. While not necessarily a critique of the collection, potential readers should be warned that some chapters are more accessible than others. Now, this is certainly not a problem, but it is does result in the collection feeling less developmentally coherent. I, for one, would have liked more guidance from the editors, but leaving work for the reader is as much an indication of the collection’s strength as it is its weakness.


Nathaniel A. Rivers
Saint Louis University