What do we mean by interdisciplinarity in water research?

As the research phase of IHE Delft MSc program in Water Management and Governance kicks off, we share the first outcomes of an action research on interdisciplinarity involving the students that just graduated and their supervisors.

Who’s against interdisciplinarity? Everyone – at least on paper – seems to recognise its relevance to understand and tackle today’s complex or wicked problems. Initially looking as the creative effort to challenge boundaries and power positions in academia by those aiming at not being (too) disciplined, is interdisciplinarity becoming the new orthodoxy?

At IHE Delft, in the MSc program in Water Management and Governance, we teach and preach interdisciplinarity too, and we encourage the students to practice it. In this endeavour, how can we avoid the risk of being caught in the interdisciplinary bandwagon? A thorough reflection is needed about what we mean by interdisciplinarity and how we practice it, also to address the limits of and critiques to interdisciplinarity. Indeed, in official occasions like MSc thesis defence, as well as in informal discussions, we realised that among staff and students there are very different ways of understanding and practicing interdisciplinarity.

That’s why last October we decided to embark in an action research with students, mentors and supervisors to clarify what we mean by being interdisciplinary and to improve our work in that direction. We initially focused on the research phase of the MSc program in Water Management and Governance WMG), asking to four students, to their mentors and their supervisors to reflect on how interdisciplinarity is: i) planned in the selection of the thesis topic and in the development of the thesis proposal, ii) practiced during fieldwork, data collection and analysis, and iii) evaluated during the thesis defence and assessment.

Embodying interdisciplinarity

We began by asking to the students if and why they considered their research an interdisciplinary one. All students started by mentioning their background: in most of the cases they come from studies in engineering, natural sciences or technical aspects of water management, and they are interested in engaging with social sciences. In this respect, many of our students seem to have the profile of the trandisciplinary engineer advocated some years ago by Peter Mollinga to incorporate ecology, equity and democracy concerns into water professionals attitudes.

The presence of two mentors, from different disciplines or departments, was also listed as a feature of an interdisciplinary thesis. Linked to the presence of two mentors, there is also the idea that interdisciplinary research adopts mixed methods: interestingly quantitative methods are most of the time automatically associated to engineering, natural science or hydrology, while qualitative methods are equated to social sciences: but is it always the case?

Conversations with mentors and supervisors, were considered particularly helpful to make a motivated choice towards an interdisciplinary thesis. In order to further facilitate this choiche it was suggested to add a specific entry on interisciplinarity in the e-booklet prepared evry year by the mentors and supervisor with the description of proposed thesis’ topics. This year students will find such an additional description and I am curious to see if and how it will create more awareness about interdisciplinarity in MSc research.

A third element of interdisciplinarity was identified in the theme itself: we often hear and repeat and that water is a quintessentially interdisciplinary issue, cutting across the boundaries of traditional disciplines or subject matter. However, we also challenged this idea, discussing how you can still study water from a very disciplinary perspective – water law, water economics, water engineering… – without having to automatically engage with other disciplines. It was noted that perhaps interdisciplinarity does not lay in the topic itselft, but rather in the conceptual frameworks that we adopt to analyse it: interdisciplinarity has the ambition to carve new lenses to look at water in original ways.

All these reflections resonate with the report for the re-accreditation of the WMG program , where interdisciplinarity is presened as being about three “P”: people (the students and the mentors), processes (combining different methods and disciplines) and problems (water and the conceptual frameworks we use to study it).

Assessing interdisciplinarity

Another question revolved around how to reward interdisciplinarity, particularly in the thesis assessment. An interdisciplinary thesis might risk to fall short of the standards applied in each of the disciplines: indeed mastering two is more difficult that mastering one. How to avoid that the interdisciplinary effort get penalized by the narrow focus of disciplinary assessment? We decided to draft an optional criteria on interdisciplinarity for the rubric used at IHE Delft to assess the thesis. Summarising in a few sentences how an excellent, very good, good o satisfactory interdisciplinary thesis should look like, has not been an easy task: suggestions on how to improve our text will be highly appreciated. But, after having observed how the rubric and the optional criteria have been used in evaluating this year’s thesis, I can say that it pushed the examination committees to explicitly acknowledge and appreciate the challenges of interdisciplinary research, and to reward it – oh yes! – with higher marks.

What’s next?

A bit thanks goes to Iara Bueno Giacomini, Ruth Nguma, Stefano Archidiacono, and Cristiano Steinkirch De Oliveira, the 2017-2019 MSc students who participated in the action research, as well as to their supervisors Margreet Zwarteveen and Pieter van Der Zaag, to Angela Bayona and Akosua Boakye-Ansah who shared their experience as previous MSc students, and to Mireia Tutusaus, the Program Coordinator. The action research is not over yet. We are planning to further reflect and act on the skills and tools that are needed to do interdisciplinary research on water: the students currently enrolled in the WMG program that would like to engage in interdisciplinary research, are invited to co-design a sub-module on “Interdisciplinary research methods for MSc research on water management and governance” that will be embedded in the Research Methods module scheduled for next September. We will identify together learning objectives, activities, lecturers and assessment methods. The students interested can already find some ideas in the books of Amsterdam University Press series on interdisciplinary education, available at IHE library. I am looking forward to this new step: our interdisciplinary journey is just at the beginning…and indeed it looks as important as the destination!

Photos: Field interviews (Egypt and Morocco), credits Francois Molle, from the Water Alternatives Photo Library


Emanuele Fantini

Emanuele (@emanufanti) is senior lecturer and researcher at the Water Governance Chair group of IHE Delft. He works on water, politics and development in Ethiopia; media, science and water conflicts in the Nile basin; visual research methods. Emanuele hosts the podcasts "The sources of the Nile" https://nilewaterlab.org/podcast-the-sources-of-the-nile/ and Water Alternatives Podcast http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/wat

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1 Response

  1. Ilyas Masih says:

    Thanks for sharing this interesting blog and best wishes for this journey to understand and apply interdisciplinarity in education and research at IHE Delft! Well done all who contributed and will lead this initiative.

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