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«ISSUES IN INTEGRATIVE STUDIES No. 19, pp. 123-136 (2001) The Practice of Interdisciplinarity: Complex Conditions and the Potential of ...»

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The Practice of Interdisciplinarity 123


No. 19, pp. 123-136 (2001)

The Practice of Interdisciplinarity:

Complex Conditions and the Potential

of Interdisciplinary Theory1


Jack Meek

University of La Verne

Department of Public Administration

Abstract: This article illustrates the formulation of interdisciplinary process presented in Bill Newell’s article, “A Theory of Interdisciplinary Studies,” by examining a “self-organized” community effort. This effort shows the power of interdisciplinary process, whether consciously or unconsciously applied, in a social setting. It also guides our understanding of the potential strengths and limits of the interdisciplinary process, especially in complex social systems.

Introduction MY COLLEAGUE, WILLIAM NEWELL (2001), in his article, “A Theory of Interdisciplinary Studies,” has described the interdisciplinary process as a specific series of steps designed to allow the creation of new outcomes and insights that could not otherwise be achieved. The interdisciplinary process holds enormous potential for application in a variety of settings, including the analysis of social issues and the derivation of new solutions to those issues. This potential to derive new solutions is especially true of interdisciplinary methods as applied to social problems. This article attempts to illustrate how interdisciplinary processes lead to creative solution making that is collective, participatory, engaging, and inclusive in a complex environment. We suggest that without the use of an interdisciplinary protocol, like the one suggested by Newell, solution making such as that exemplified here would be unlikely to have the above characteristics in the same degree. Newell (2001) has also argued the centrality of complexity to the interdisciplinary process. This article will examine that argument as it applies to the application of interdisciplinary protocols in 124 Jack Meek social settings. Such application is what Julie Klein refers to as “deciding about future management or disposition of the task” (Newell, 2001, p. 14) or what William Newell refers to as “testing the understanding by attempting to solve the problem” (p. 15). Newell implies that the interdisciplinarycomplexity connection is the sine qua non of interdisciplinary study and the outcome of the interdisciplinary process is the intellectual delight of integration. This article challenges the narrow understanding of interdisciplinary as primarily intellectual and seeks to describe the less appreciated power of interdisciplinary protocols to solve complex social problems.

The Marriage: Complexity, Interdisciplinary Process, and Practice In the exploration of social problems, we can usefully marry at least three domains of academic and social inquiry: (1) the domain of understanding complexity as a social condition; (2) the domain of solution generation (the interdisciplinary process); and (3) the domain of practice, which includes decision making and action. Julie Klein (1999) has referred to this latter domain as an “instrumental form of interdisciplinarity” (p. 1). In the field of complexity theory, the implementation of solutions may also be referred to as self-organization.

This paper proposes that the marriage of these three domains2 will allow us to visualize and interpret a meaningful experiment of social intervention in urban communities in Los Angeles, California: the creation of an Institute for Community Leadership. The marriage is also intended to draw some lessons for interdisciplinary theory, especially focusing on implications of the interdisciplinary process as a social technology and as an applied experience.

Prior to examining how the institute was created, it is useful to discuss the nature of the environment surrounding the institute. We will then briefly review the interdisciplinary protocol that purports to create interdisciplinary solutions, and how this protocol was reflected in the creation of the Institute.

The Condition of Complexity

Following Newell (1999), we will use the term complexity to refer to a system in which:

–  –  –

and interact within the system;

• the interaction of these elements produces self-organizing patterns, referred to as attractors, that form a “basin of attraction”;

• these elements can be viewed differently, from different perspectives, which highlight their multifaceted nature.

In our previous work (Newell and Meek, 1997), we established several examples of how our current social systems can best be viewed as complex social systems that produce self-organizing patterns. These patterns include new forms of association, such as co-production social services, networks of administrative units, and inter-organizational agreements. As social systems, these patterns should be considered a result of free will such that each interaction contributes to each other’s production in a manner that is self-organizing, and the pattern should be viewed as multi-dimensional. Newell (1999) used a rather common example, marriage, to illustrate the multi-dimensional nature of complex systems: marriage can be viewed “simultaneously as economic, social, cultural, and religious.” 3 This multi-dimensional character of elements and interactions challenges participants when faced with new problems. Traditional systems, and traditional solutions seem not to be enough because they do not incorporate the multi-dimensional nature of the problem. We need to see urban communities in new ways.

Fortunately, some scholars in the field of public administration are now offering new interpretations of urban environments. What scholars are now observing are new and emerging forms of arrangement among citizens, policy makers, and governments (Frederickson, 1997). These new forms of arrangement are a recognition of the inability of the state as government—organized through bureaucracies, and represented through increasingly meaningless geographic jurisdictions—to be responsive to citizen’s needs and the creation of social good. Simply stated, social problems have outpaced traditional solutions. This condition represents a “disconjunctive state” (Federickson, 1999),4 a condition where social issues have overcome bureaucratic solutions. For our purposes, this condition is one of complexity.

The case experience from which this article draws lessons, is one where a thoughtful local hospital administrator, under the sponsorship of senior management, engaged in developing several outreach programs intended to provide services to people in the geographical area served by the hospital. In coincidental support of this administrator’s initiative, the state of California recently passed a law that not-for-profit healthcare institutions justify their status by delineating their community services. So, given this clear mandate 126 Jack Meek for institutions to address community service, many organizations will face the problems that complex social settings pose, and that interdisciplinary understanding and protocols may help solve.

The adventure into community programs, however, will be an enormous challenge for several reasons identified by recent works in political science.

First, as noted by Robert Putnam (1999), there is a marked decline in social capital, a condition he calls a “dissociated state” which echoes the disconjunctive state, referred to earlier. Civic capital is an institutional cornerstone of functional social relationships and system cohesion, and without it, traditional solutions are far less dependable. Putnam has also observed dissociation from civic duty not only in generation of funds, but also in involvement. Involvement in voluntary associations and social organizations has characterized the American social fabric since the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, but the traditional ways of luring that involvement have been seriously challenged. Second, as observed by Joseph Nye and others, there has been a steady decline in the public trust of government (Nye, Zeliko, and King, 1997). According to Nye, confidence in American government has been declining for three decades. Three-quarters of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing in 1964.

Today, only a quarter does.5 This lack of confidence in government may be matched by a new generation’s general lack of confidence in institutions.

According to some, institutions are not seen as problem solvers or places where some groups of individuals can experience their issues being significantly addressed. These groups are turning away from traditional institutions to create solutions, many of which involve new forms of associations.

What is useful to recognize here is the fundamental change in the nature of associations and relations among citizens, policy makers, civic leaders, and government in metropolitan areas. What seems to be happening is the slow movement away from government to governance! Governance is characterized by a public administration that facilitates the associations of citizens and social organizations in order to produce social goods and services.

This is a very different state of affairs than the functionally distinct roles for the state, the citizens, and private institutions, where institutional clarity and role were familiar. Today, government is no longer viewed as the problem solver, but can be viewed as a pathway to solution making. In this complex environment, new forms of association, especially those formed by institutions whose leadership recognizes the changing nature of problem-solution, are emerging. Such initiation, referred to by some as epistemic, is likely to be born from the use of interdisciplinary thinking that forms the bridges beThe Practice of Interdisciplinarity 127 tween complex problems and solution making (Haas, 1992).

In addition, the complex conditions we now face have created a yearning for community, a feeling that institutions are limited in their ability to resolve issues, to represent meaningful citizen needs. The limitations of governmental institutions, and the call for community-based initiatives will necessitate the creation of new forms of interaction and new forms of association. George Frederickson (1998) has argued that there will be a paradigm shift in the

movement from the institutional focus of urban city life to a community focus. This paradigm shift will require addressing central questions such as:

What is meant by community? What will govern the associations of community? What central features of community will replace the institutional paradigm? The chief social changes, the shift, will be from:

• efficiency, equity, and order to civil discourse, trust, and responsibility;

• law and regulations to norms of civil reciprocity;

• representative debate to participating and education;

• winners and losers and compromise to consensus and mediation;

• governed and led to belonging and connection; and

• institution, jurisdiction, districts/precincts, hierarchy to neighborhoods, groups, and multi-institutional associations.

These changes represent new relationships among the governed and between the government and the governed. How we achieve these new relationships, how new forms of relationships will be developed, and the role in this process of interdisciplinary protocols can be glimpsed in the case that follows.

Initiation of the Institute of Community Leadership The Institute of Community Leadership (the Institute) is a new southern California academy dedicated to educating and strengthening leaders for the task of transforming their communities. The Institute is a joint project of the Citrus Valley Health Partners, Immaculate Heart College Center, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, the UCLA School of Public Health, and the University of La Verne. Its programs’ goals are to develop the leadership capacity of a diverse group—community activists and students and leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors throughout southern California—specifically with a focus on promoting vital social, economic, and environmental transformation on behalf of the 128 Jack Meek common good.

Two characteristics are useful to recognize in the formation and meaning of this institute. First, the institute could not have been possible without the vision of Tom McGuiness, the central figure at Citrus Health Partners who helped to form a network of stakeholder individuals and institutions.

McGuiness was heavily influenced by Harvard Professor Mark Moore’s inspirational work, Creating Public Value (1995). Moore’s argument, that current institutions must find a way to create public value, inspired McGuiness, and many others, to examine ways existing institutions can create positive futures for the public good. Second, McGuiness’s leadership led to the formation of a network of individuals who shared common experiences even though they worked in separate institutions and bureaucracies. In McGuiness’s view, each participant held part of the leadership solution in communities.

While the academics had insight into curriculum, the hospitals had the resources and expertise in medical care, and the government had access to financial resources. McGuiness’s idea was that this network would work together to form an association that could offer solutions to complex problems in a complex environment.

Forming of Principles:

Representations of Interdisciplinarity Through one year of workshops, brainstorming sessions, and countless input seminars from various disciplinary sources, the network formed an interdisciplinary framework of action culminating in the Institute’s principles.

These principles are summarized below:

The foundational principles guiding the Institute for Community Leadership are based on the fundamental belief that all resources and systems

should serve to enhance and strengthen healthier communities. These principles include:

–  –  –

Once the principles for guiding the Institute for Community Leadership were established, the next step was to select individuals for the institute.

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