John van Breda - Abstract

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The implications of a new social ontology of irreduction
for transcending the disciplinary divide

– a precondition for understanding and meeting
the challenges of the current planetary crisis

It has become a bit of a cliché these days to repeat Einstein’s dictum that it is impossible to solve a problem within the same mindset that created the problem in the first place. Equally, to repeat the saying that we need complex thinking to understand the complex world with its complex challenges facing us today. However, when facing the scale and consequences of the current planetary crises – what Edgar Morin has referred to as the ‘polycrisis’ – then it is certainly worth the effort to remind ourselves that is it neither desirable nor possible to approach this crisis within our fragmented knowledge-systems. There is not only an obvious logical contradiction involved in this, but the risk arising from the consequences of actually producing so-called ‘solutions’ with/in the same fragmented mindset that created the problems of the fragmented world in the first place provides sufficient grounds for the imperative to radically transform our fragmented thinking, our attitudes and our strategies with which we approach the world today.

What this means for transdisciplinarians is that bridging the disciplinary divide between the natural vs. social sciences has become integral to finding long-term sustainable solutions to problems that can no longer be separated and reduced to either ‘natural’ vs. ‘social’ problems only. So, for example, when facing the problem of global warming / climate change we are no longer dealing with a natural phenomenon only, but with human-made / anthropogenic polluting of the atmosphere with excessive amounts of CO2. We, therefore, face the twin challenge of having to find sustainable solutions for real-world problems whilst, at the same time, having to transcend the disciplinary divide. To ensure that we escape the trap of merely reproducing our own fragmentary thinking, we not only have to integrate current natural and social science concepts, methodologies, strategies and practices critically, but we also have to look at innovative modes of thinking and approaches that have the potential of taking us beyond the ‘natural’ vs. ‘social’ divide all together. Developing an attitude, thought processes, methodologies and policies that no longer seek to separate the world into two fundamentally different realities – the ‘natural’ world for nonhumans and the ‘social’ world for humans – becomes of paramount strategic importance. To put it differently: if the polycrisis we are facing today is the story of the consequences of how humans have become more, not less, entangled and dependent on nonhumans for their future, it then follows that transcending the asymmetry of the two-world theory, that has been so effective in keeping the disciplinary divide intact for centuries, has indeed become a prerequisite for science when engaging with the complex challenges of the polycrisis.

Against this background of engaging with the fragmented / fragmenting world, the purpose of this paper is to investigate the implications for transdisciplinary thinking and practice of social theory that purports to replace the two-world theory with its multiple asymmetries with a position that posits and upholds human–nonhuman symmetry at the ontological, epistemological as well as methodological levels of understanding and inquiry. In this regard, the paper will start off with a systematic expose of the theory and practice of ‘actor network theory’ as developed by Bruno Latour and his colleagues. Thereafter, the focus will shift to a critical discussion of some of the strengths and weaknesses of actor network theory. This will be done by giving a critical comparison of the differences and similarities between actor network theory and other non-reductionist approaches such as ‘socioecological systems theory’ and ‘complex systems theory’. The paper will then conclude with an attempt to provide the best possible synthesis of these different approaches with a view to both inform and enrich the boundary-crossing reflections and discussions of the Conference.


Title: Transcending the natural vs. social science disciplinary divide – a precondition for understanding and meeting the challenges of the current planetary crisis

Author: John van Breda

It has become a bit of a cliché these days to repeat Einstein’s dictum that it is impossible to solve a problem within the same mindset that created the problem in the first place. Equally, to repeat the saying that we need complex thinking to understand the complex world with its complex challenges facing us today. However, when facing the scale and consequences of the current planetary crises – what Edgar Morin has referred to as the ‘polycrisis’ – then it is certainly worth the effort to remind ourselves that is it neither desirable nor possible to approach this crisis within our fragmented knowledge-systems. There is not only an obvious logical contradiction involved in this, but the risk arising from the consequences of actually producing so-called ‘solutions’ with/in the same fragmented mindset that created the problems of the fragmented world in the first place provides sufficient grounds for the imperative to radically transform our fragmented thinking, our attitudes and our strategies with which we approach the world today.

What this means for transdisciplinarians is that bridging the disciplinary divide between the natural vs. social sciences has become integral to finding long-term sustainable solutions to problems that can no longer be separated and reduced to either ‘natural’ vs. ‘social’ problems only. So, for example, when facing the problem of global warming / climate change we are no longer dealing with a natural phenomenon only, but with human-made / anthropogenic polluting of the atmosphere with excessive amounts of CO2. We, therefore, face the twin challenge of having to find sustainable solutions for real-world problems whilst, at the same time, having to transcend the disciplinary divide. To ensure that we escape the trap of merely reproducing our own fragmentary thinking, we not only have to integrate current natural and social science concepts, methodologies, strategies and practices critically, but we also have to look at innovative modes of thinking and approaches that have the potential of taking us beyond the ‘natural’ vs. ‘social’ divide all together. Developing an attitude, thought processes, methodologies and policies that no longer seek to separate the world into two fundamentally different realities – the ‘natural’ world for nonhumans and the ‘social’ world for humans – becomes of paramount strategic importance. To put it differently: if the polycrisis we are facing today is the story of the consequences of how humans have become more, not less, entangled and dependent on nonhumans for their future, it then follows that transcending the asymmetry of the two-world theory, that has been so effective in keeping the disciplinary divide intact for centuries, has indeed become a prerequisite for science when engaging with the complex challenges of the polycrisis.

Against this background of engaging with the fragmented / fragmenting world, the purpose of this paper is to investigate the implications for transdisciplinary thinking and practice of social theory that purports to replace the two-world theory with its multiple asymmetries with a position that posits and upholds human–nonhuman symmetry at the ontological, epistemological as well as methodological levels of understanding and inquiry. In this regard, the paper will start off with a systematic expose of the theory and practice of ‘actor network theory’ as developed by Bruno Latour and his colleagues. Thereafter, the focus will shift to a critical discussion of some of the strengths and weaknesses of actor network theory. This will be done by giving a critical comparison of the differences and similarities between actor network theory and other non-reductionist approaches such as ‘socioecological systems theory’ and ‘complex systems theory’. The paper will then conclude with an attempt to provide the best possible synthesis of these different approaches with a view to both inform and enrich the boundary-crossing reflections and discussions of the Conference.