INTER- AND MULTIDISCIPLINARIAN APPROACHES TO THE STUDY OF COMPLEX PHENOMENA IN HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES
Director: Michael Finkenthal

Most research projects undertaken by the different teams and representatives of the City for the Cultures of Peace, from coexistence studies to those regarding youth at risk, represent complex problems. While it is difficult to give simple definitions to the concept of complexity, it is commonly agreed that complex systems are composite entities in which the parts (sub-systems) interact in various ways and the overall behavior of the system can hardly be predicted by a detailed and separate description of its subsystems. As a result, new properties emerge in the complex system and the ways in which it will evolve are difficult to predict (multiple solutions are possible; points of ‘bifurcation’ similar to those encountered in deterministic chaotic systems are identified, etc.). In humanities and social sciences, complexity can be defined in more than one way, some common definitions being somewhat similar others quite different from those used in ‘hard’ sciences. As a result, one of the main purposes of our research group will be precisely that of identifying alternative ways of defining complexity as a function of the specificity of the topic considered.

Once complexity is defined, the question of the ‘tools’ to be used, the methodological approaches, follows. It is clear that these tools have to be adapted to the type of complexity which defines the phenomenon under study: in some cases, methods and concepts from several disciplines can be successfully integrated in an inter-disciplinarian approach with good results. In other instances, the disciplinarian concepts have to be modified and new methods have to be devised for the new concepts (multi-disciplinarity). We shall try to study specific test cases in a wide range from topics our researchers study (like for instance that of multiculturalism) to those of high relevance nowadays, as for example the idea of sustainability.

As a first stage, our efforts will center on the issue of multiculturalism since by (any) definition, this is a complex problem. Whether one defines the concept at the individual or societal levels, within the ‘system’ defined as multiculturalism, one easily identifies ‘sub-systems’ which interact continuously. As a result, new properties emerge within the system and whenever a problem is posed a number of possible outcomes will appear; moreover, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to predict which will take ascendance at a given moment.

Disciplinarian thinking (DT) is not only a way of thinking which admits the existence of separate disciplines dedicated to various domains of research but also a way of thinking built on abstract concepts as units in a structure determined by a well defined logic and laws perceived as objective. As a result, the inter-disciplinarian (ID) approach will extrapolate these ways of thinking and usually use tools developed within one discipline to study phenomena in another one (for instance the concept of equilibrium can be transferred from physics into economics or sociology and the laws of classical mechanics can be (and have abundantly been) adapted and adopted in studies of economy and sociology). However, in doing so, one might often end up with fallacious models and completely wrong solutions (again, it happened often in both social sciences and economy). As already pointed out, in most cases the tools developed in one discipline must be modified in order to be usable in another one: I call this approach, in which concepts are re-defined, re-shaped in order to be applied in areas different from the one in which they have been initially developed, a multi-disciplinarian (MD) approach . Notice that the hereby proposed use of the term is different from the usual one, in which MD means simply the use of concepts taken from different disciplines in order to better characterize a phenomenon in a given domain (for instance, in order to describe the most recent global economic crisis, one needs to take into account, economic, social, political and even psychological concepts (such as for instance excessive greed). This ‘standard use’, which we avoid, creates quite a bit of confusion insofar as the difference between inter and multi-disciplinarity is concerned.

The project includes: a) workshops that will bring together specialists to discuss the above-mentioned arguments and suggest ways to apply them to the study of multi-culturality in general; b). lectures and seminars; c). long-term research on complexity.