Guided tour of my service and institutional development work VII: Transdisciplinary Development–A Context for ISHPSSB and Related Contributions

VII. Transdisciplinary Development: A Context for ISHPSSB and Related Contributions

(continuing a guided tour of my work presented in the spirit that service and institutional development can also be practically and theoretically coherent)

Excerpted from — but this version has added notes in brackets.

  • My environmental activism during the early 1970s in Australia led me to switch from medical studies to ecological science. I had a mathematical disposition, so I chose to focus less on field studies and more on quantitative analysis and modeling, with a view to planning to prevent problems from emerging. I soon developed an interest, which continues to this day, in ecological complexity as a challenge to conventional scientific ways of knowing. Although ecological and environmental researchers partition complex situations into well-bounded systems and backgrounded or hidden processes, such moves tend to be confounded by “intersecting processes” that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time. These cannot be understood from an outside view, I concluded; instead positions of engagement must be taken within the “unruly” complexity. Knowledge production needs to be linked with planning for action and action itself in an ongoing process so that knowledge, plans, and action can be continually reassessed in response to developments — predicted and surprising alike.
  • As I developed this picture, my work in ecology and environmental studies opened out to interpretive studies of science [thanks, in no small part, to opportunities opened up through ISHPSSB] and then to facilitation of critical, reflective practice. The integration of these three levels or angles is evident in my book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005). This work not only examines the problematic boundaries of the complex situations studied by scientists, but also interprets their efforts to build social support for adopting explicit or implicit boundaries and studying what is inside. Similarly for the complex situations interpreted by sociologists, historians, and other scholars in the area now known as science and technology studies (STS). Moreover, I explore ways to stimulate researchers (and students training to become researchers) to examine self-consciously the complexity of their social situatedness so as to change the ways they address the complexity of the situations they study. In recent years, I have transferred this three-level engagement with complexity from ecology to social epidemiological approaches that address the life course development of health and behavior. This has resulted in new critical angles on heritability studies underlying nature-nurture debates (Nature-Nurture? No…: A Short, but Expanding Guide to Variation and Heredity, book ms.) and forms the focus of a current book project, Troubled by Heterogeneity?
  • This project on complexity and change had its beginnings, as mentioned above, in environmental and social activism in Australia that led to studies and research in ecology and agriculture (B.Sc., Monash University, 1975; research positions at Universities of Queensland and Melbourne, 1976-79). I moved to the United States to undertake doctoral studies in ecology (Ph.D., Harvard University 1985), with a minor focus in what is now called STS [1]. Subsequently, I combined scientific investigations with interpretive STS inquiries, my goal being to make STS perspectives relevant to life and environmental students and scientists (MIT, New School [2], U.C. Berkeley [3], Cornell University [4], 1985-96). (Historical, sociological, and pedagogical cases have included the origins of systems ecology, socio-economic analysis of the future of a salt-affected irrigation region, systems dynamics modeling of nomadic pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa, researchers mapping the conditions in which they work [5], and political ecological critique of the tragedy of the commons framework.) Critical thinking and critical pedagogy/reflective practice became central to my intellectual and professional project as I encouraged students and researchers to contrast the paths taken in science, society, education with other paths that might be taken, and to foster their acting upon the insights gained (Biology & Society program, Cornell, 1990-96 [4]; Eugene Lang Professor for Social Change, Swarthmore College, 1997-98 [6]; U. Mass. Boston 1998-present [6]).
  • My work at the intersection of STS and environmental sciences has been supported by Mellon, Wantrup, and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships (1985-86, 87-90, 96-97, respectively), and by visiting professorships at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas and the Centro de Ecología, U.N.A.M., Mexico (summer 1992, 1993) and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University (2003). My work at the intersection of STS and health sciences has been supported by NSF grants (2003-05, 2006-09), and as a visiting scholar at the Pembroke Center, Brown University (2002-03) and the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Austria (2008 & 2010). My work on educational innovation and interdisciplinary workshops has been supported by the Academy of Finland (1988) [5], the University of Tampere (1996-2000), NSF grants (2004-05, 05-09), and the Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Teaching at my university (2009).

[1] I chose to study with Levins and Lewontin (who influenced many of the early HPSSB’ers) because they were explicit about their intellectual work being simultaneously a political project. Two essay reviews reflect on their influence: “Dialectical Biology as Political Practice. An essay review of R. Levins & R. Lewontin The Dialectical Biologist” Radical Science 20: 81-111, 1986 and “Biology as Politics: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Lewontin and Levins (An essay review of Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health),” Science as Culture, 19 (2): 241-253, 2010.

[2] Founding member of Science, Technology, and Power Program at Eugene Lang College, 1986-87.

[3] I organized a semester-long seminar series, “Shifting frames in interdisciplinary studies,” 1988.

[4] As the second faculty member appointed full-time to the Program in Science, Technology & Society in 1989, I played a consistent supporting role to the Director, Sheila Jasanoff, in making new hires, securing a major interdisciplinary graduate training grant in the life sciences, and bringing the Department of Science and Technology Studies into existence. I taught the core course in the large undergraduate Biology & Society major and shepherded through changes in the Major that strengthened the interpretive (H, P, and S) side of the students’ studies. I also organized a multi-year seminar series in “Social Analysis of Ecological Change,” a title chosen to reflect both environmental change and change in the field of ecology.

[5] The idea that “STS perspectives [should be made] relevant to life and environmental students and scientists” led me to co-host with Yrjö Haila (a regular IHSPPB participant from the late 80s through the late 90s) a workshop in Finland in which participants mapped the “heterogeneous resources” mobilized in their scientific work. This led to another workshop at U.C. Berkeley in 1989 and an ongoing exploration of workshop and group processes that enhance people’s capacity to summon resources needed to change the direction of their work. In 2000 I analyzed my experience of four interdisciplinary workshops concerned with environment, science, and society to try to understand the conditions for successful workshops (unpublished ms.).

[6] At Swarthmore I organized a faculty discussion group on “New biology: New and old questions,” and a 3-day workshop on “What we can do to help each other with ‘agency’,” which was a precursor of the series of science-in-society workshops I organized after moving to UMass Boston ( that led to the New England Workshop on Science and Social Change.

[7] Besides the sessions that I organized at ISHPSSB that have resulted in anthologies, I have participated in many other transdisciplinary workshops leading to publications, including: M. Dore and T. Mount (eds.), Global Environmental Economics: Equity and the Limits to Markets. Oxford, Blackwell, 1999; S. Oyama, P. Griffiths and R. Gray (Eds.), Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001; “Critical Reflections on the Use of Remote Sensing and GIS Technologies in Human Ecological Research,” Human Ecology, 31 (2), 2003; How Nature Speaks: The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition , ed. Y. Haila and C. Dyke. Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2006; M. Turner, M. Goldman, and P. Nadasdy (eds.) Knowing Nature: Conversations between Political Ecology and Science Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming; A. Belgrano, C. Fowler (eds.) Ecosystem Based Management for Fisheries: Linking Patterns to Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming; Revisiting ecology. Reflecting concepts, advancing science, ed. K. Jax and A. Schwarz (eds.), Berlin: Springer, forthcoming; The Reshaping of Human Life [provisional title], Lisbon: Gulbenkian Foundation, forthcoming).


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

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