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  • Resilient ObservationToward Transformational Research among Environmental Humanities and Sciences
  • Michael Simeone (bio)

It is accepted that wicked problems require the collective attention of many research disciplines at the same time. This consensus is for good reason; these are challenges comprised of interlocking research problems and conflicting perspectives, the kind of challenges facing the collective health of the planet, such as climate change, food justice, and water security. In turn, there is consensus among environmental humanities experts around the idea that because of the deep complexity of these problems, humanities require a place in collaborative research teams that take on wicked problems. The humanities offer a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the human realms of history, thought, ethics, and justice.

The formulation of problems as "wicked" radically expands the jurisdiction of the humanities. Water security intersects with human history, culture, and beliefs, so a water security research team should include experts from the humanities. Climate change is both produced and felt by humans, so climate change studies may do well to consider a humanistic perspective. Energy is generated and consumed within the contexts of human culture, ethics, and communication. This reasoning appears advantageous to the humanities and environmental humanities. Wicked problems describe some of the central challenges facing our species, and the humanities are everywhere we look in wicked problems!

But justifying collaborations between humanities and other research fields based on a framework of wicked problems introduces obstacles to [End Page 36] performing transformative work. By transformative, I mean the kind of collaborations that place the humanities in an equitable position when contributing to the scope, direction, and objectives of collaborative research. This kind of position might allow for leadership and agenda setting from the humanities. I contend that the wicked-problems approach can act as a constraint that ultimately limits the ability of the environmental humanities to work equitably with sciences and engineering. Merely designating a problem as massively transdisciplinary does little to bring about transdisciplinary work. While this may bring experts into the same room, the subsequent research must commit to generating new expertise rather than combining extant academic disciplines. The wicked-problems framework hails participants by their disciplinarity, even if the problem at hand resists disciplinarily. Thus, prior to work even beginning, experts are oriented into performing tracks of disciplinary labor that are more parallel than intersecting.

In the following essay, I propose resilient observation as a technique for transdisciplinary collaboration that synthesizes insights from both the environmental and digital humanities. With resilient observation, knowledge integration among experts begins with collocating evidence and shared observation in the context of wicked problems. As a method for cooperative data creation and interpretation, resilient observation enables the humanities to matter in a transdisciplinary collaboration with sciences and engineering. By formalizing research practices of sharing and comparison that can happen earlier in the research process, resilient observation enables more shared stakes in formulating research questions than collaborations between humanities and sciences typically permit. And in the contemporary research landscape of the United States that is dominated by science and engineering, the humanities need new pathways into collaborations with experts outside the humanities.

Among Humanities and Sciences

Equitable cooperation between the fields of environmental humanities and of science and engineering faces serious limitations. For decades, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, and literary experts have worked alongside scientists, only to encounter thinking like the kind demonstrated in Stephen Pinker's 2013 think piece that calls on humanities to [End Page 37] adopt more of the sciences in their own work—more scientific findings, more scientific methodologies, less fear of empirical procedures.1

There is little progressive exchange in what Pinker and others demand. A more scientific humanities academy, while succeeding in connecting the two research domains, does not effect the kind of tectonic change desired by environmental humanities experts when articulating humanities to wicked problems. These experts want humanistic knowledge and research to matter enough to generate new questions, new solutions, and new areas of research and design in cooperation with, not service to, scientific research.

Economic contingencies have additionally stymied collaborations among the fields and decreased public attention to and respect for the humanities. A flagging US economy has spurred unrelenting emphasis...


Additional Information

pp. 36-48
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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