FIDEA - Frameworks for Interdisciplinary Enviromental Analysis

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Interdisciplinary environmental research

What is interdisciplinary research?

Interdisciplinary research (IDR) is a mode of research by teams or individuals that combines information, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, or theories from two or more research traditions. Its purpose is to explore questions that are not confined to a single field of research. The increasing complexity of the relationship between nature and society has heightened the need for IDR. At the same time, the development of science and technology has resulted in new forms and practices of inquiry that continually change the disciplinary landscape of knowledge production.

IDR takes so many forms that it is best understood not as one thing but as a variety of different ways of bridging and confronting the prevailing disciplinary approaches. Interdisciplinary environmental research will be characterized here in terms of its scope, depth, and goals. The scope of IDR defines which fields or perspectives are involved. The depth of IDR, in turn, defines the level or type of intellectual interaction between them. Finally, the goal of IDR indicates why an interdisciplinary approach is adopted.

Narrow and broad interdisciplinarity

Environmental research is, by definition, interdisciplinary. Understanding environmental processes requires collaboration between various natural and life sciences, and the way in which environmental problems arise and are dealt with cannot be explained without the social sciences, humanities, and engineering. A large majority of environmental research is interdisciplinary in a narrow sense, involving experts from fields that are conceptually and culturally close to each other. This kind of research combines different expertise from biological and life sciences, from various fields of technology, or from several social sciences, for example.

In environmental research, broad interdisciplinarity usually means interaction across the more deeply-rooted conceptual and cultural boundaries between the districts of natural and social/human sciences. It is evident that the distance between the participating fields has a profound effect on the nature of interaction. In research with narrow scope, the interaction between fields may not be exceptional or particularly challenging since the concepts, theories, methods, and practices are relatively similar in their epistemological presuppositions. For example, engineering research on transport carbon dioxide emissions may be conveniently integrated into a general circulation model in climate change research. When the scope of research is broader, advanced interaction may become a real challenge because of the epistemological and cultural heterogeneity and thus increase the likelihood of conflict and shortfalls of integration. For instance, applying sociological perspective into transport emissions is far less straightforward.

Levels of interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinary interaction in environmental research may occur at various levels of integration. Multidisciplinary approaches juxtapose or coordinate disciplinary perspectives, adding breadth and available knowledge, information, and methods. Yet, they speak as separate voices: the ingredients of new knowledge are imported, exported, or pooled across disciplinary boundaries without being integrated or substantially adapted in the course of interaction. In contrast, “truly” interdisciplinary research integrates separate bodies of knowledge in order to create a synthetic view or common understanding of a complex environmental problem; it goes beyond a sum of the parts. Integration in a synergetic sense, however, is not the premise of IDR, since interdisciplinary dialogue across fields may occur in a critical manner as well. Critical dialogue between some technological and social science approaches, for example, may have a profound effect on how environmental issues are handled.

Interdisciplinary environmental research is increasingly transdisciplinary today. The concept is in some discourses understood as the highest level of integration, aiming to create generic links between fields, inhabit a new territory of knowledge, or establish a new paradigm of inquiry. More currently, the term is connected to the attempts to broaden the domain of research even more and integrate also non-academic expertise. Both trends are clearly visible in environmental research, though transdisciplinarity in the latter sense is a more recent phenomenon and is expanding rapidly.

Why interdisciplinarity?

The motivation for crossing disciplinary boundaries in environmental research varies from a purely epistemological aim to advance understanding, to a clearly instrumental goal to achieve some pragmatic goal. Epistemological orientation is typically linked with a desire to produce more comprehensive understanding of environmental phenomena, a belief in cognitive synergies that arise from the sharing of expertise, or an intellectual interest in novel approaches.

In instrumentally oriented research, in turn, the purpose of interdisciplinary approach is to find a technical, social, economic, or other solution to a particular environmental problem. Interdisciplinary approach in environmental research may, of course, be expected to serve both the comprehensive explanation of a problem and the development of solutions at the same time.

Interdisciplinary research in FIDEA

Within the FIDEA group, interdisciplinarity is understood and implemented at the broad scope. We build on latest knowledge about the state of the environment and the ecological processes that change it, as well as on the understanding of the various social and political factors that define how environmental problems are produced, interpreted and responded. We integrate expertise from various approaches to environmental issues, including e.g. environmental policy, sustainability studies, media analysis, futures studies, science studies and environmental education. Our empirical focus has been on the environmental questions of climate change, eutrophication and biodiversity. Energy, transport, forestry and agro-food issues have been the key socio-ecological systems analysed. In addition that our work brings these fields into close collaboration, each of them is also interdisciplinary by definition.

While we support all means of intellectual exchange across and beyond disciplinary boundaries, we prioritize regenerative dialogue over simple borrowing or coordination of expertise. Thus, disciplinary interaction unfolds in our work not only in the framing of research problems and aggregating results between fields, but also in the everyday research practice, including the development of ideas, analyses, and conclusions. Transdisciplinary ideal of an integrated knowledge system, characterized by permeating boundaries, problem-oriented approach, and closer link between knowledge production and consumption, is also present in FIDEA. It becomes visible in the comprehensive, problem-centred frameworks within which we operate, the way we combine expert and lay knowledge, and the participatory methods we employ.

The motivation behind our inter- and transdisciplinary approach is both epistemological and instrumental. FIDEA research takes as its starting point that environmental problems are an indication of the complex relationship between the ecological and human systems. Various ingredients of the human system, including its social, technological, economic, and cultural aspects, contribute to this complexity in different ways. Environmental problems are best understood by analyzing these aspects together, paying particular attention to their interactions in different temporal and spatial scales. At the same time, we aim at producing concrete solutions to particular environmental problems – a reduction in transport or energy emissions, maintaining forest biodiversity, avoiding eutrophication, enhancing environmentally conscious consumption, etc. The interdisciplinary approach of FIDEA research is thus driven by the desire to promote environmentally sound actions in our present and future societies.

In addition to conducting interdisciplinary environmental research, FIDEA also contributes to the theoretical discussion on interdisciplinarity. We actively participate in this discussion, reflect our work from this point of view, and develop interdisciplinary concepts for environmental analysis. Moreover, we conduct empirical inquiry of the concepts and practices of IDR more generally. For example, we have developed a conceptual framework for analyzing interdisciplinary projects and explored their evaluation criteria and procedures.

To cite this text, please use the following reference: Huutoniemi, K. (2010): "Interdisciplinary environmental research." Frameworks for Interdisciplinary Environmental Analysis (FIDEA), Helsinki.

Selected readings

  • Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research (2005) Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research and Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. The National Academies Press, Washington DC.
  • Huutoniemi, K., Klein, J.T., Bruun, H., Hukkinen, J. (2010) Analyzing interdisciplinarity: Typology and indicators. Research Policy 39: 79-88.
  • Handbook of Transdisciplinary Research (2008) Hirsch Hadorn, G., Hoffmann-Riem, H., Biber-Klemm, S., Grossenbacher-Mansuy, W., Joye, D., Pohl, C., Wiesmann, U., Zemp, E. (Eds.) Springer.
  • Klein, J.T. (1996) Crossing Boundaries. Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisciplinarities. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville/London.
  • Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity (2010) Frodeman, R., Klein, J.T., Mitcham, K. (Eds.) Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Paloniemi R. & Varho V. (2009) Changing ecological and cultural states and preferences of nature conservation policy: The case of nature values trade in SouthWestern Finland. Journal of Rural Studies 25(1): 87–97.
  • Tapio, P. & Willamo, R. (2008) Developing interdisciplinary environmental frameworks. Ambio – A Journal of the Human Environment 32(2): 125-133.
  • Tress, B., Tress, G. van der Valk, A., Fry, G. (eds) (2003) Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Landscape Studies: Potential and Limitations. Delta Series 2, Wageningen, the Netherlands.

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The FIDEA group conducts crossdisciplinary environmental research from both theoretical and empirical point of view.

We gather specialist knowledge, integrate it, and invite the experts to share their thoughts with people from other fields of environmental expertise. Read more!

Who are we?

The FIDEA group builds on but is not limited to a collaboration of researchers from three organizations – Department of Environmental Sciences at University of Helsinki, Finland Futures Research Centre at University of Turku and Environmental Policy Centre at Finnish Environment Institute. Read more about FIDEA researchers.

FIDEA Researchers


Petri Tapio
+358 40 555 2963
Korkeavuorenkatu 25 A 2
00130 Helsinki Finland


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