Building Bridges to Where?
Sustainability Collaborations and the Arts of Ethnography
March 18, 2015
I was in a group of ten or so engineers, business representatives, nonprofit workers, and a government employee, discussing whether we could develop a definition of social sustainability, which we understood as the third and neglected leg of the sustainability “stool” of environment, economics, and society. Like some other topics, it seemed that while we knew it when we saw it, we were hesitant to draft a definition or even a broad characterization. The reasons for and the degree of hesitancy varied from person to person, making the conversation even more difficult. Defining something meant limiting it, and our readings in the area warned us away from a specific delineation; we all seemed to shy away from a strict definition. Yet whether or not to characterize it was still up for debate—some in the group argued that this too would limit the scope of “social sustainability,” preventing us from engaging with those outside of this scope. Others found it a practical necessity to have some way to describe social sustainability, even if the characterization focused on its processes rather than its elements.
The “Three Cultures” Problem in Global Change Research
March 9, 2015
Has academic life become notably less balkanized since C. P. Snow delivered his famous “two cultures” lecture in 1959? Apparently not. In this week’s issue of Science (6 March 2015) appears an article extolling the virtues of the humanities. It argues that scientists too often define research problems narrowly, leading to technical “solutions” that address only symptoms (not causes) or even make the problems worse for those in society affected by them. Kevin Boehnke, the author, commends historians, philosophers, literary critics, and anthropologists to his readers—who are mostly physicists, chemists, engineers, and the like. Humanists’ focus on the intricacies of peoples’ identities, relations, values, and disputes, Boehnke argues, can allow scientists to better link their work to the wider world it so often alters (by accident or design). Nearly sixty years after Snow’s lecture, Boehnke’s article suggests that academic specialization cuts deep—so deep that the editors of Science have seen fit to let him reprise rather old arguments about the need for better links between STEM researchers and those who study the rich tapestry of “the social.”