Too many cities in the city? Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary city research methods and the challenge of integration

In Nanke Verloo & Luca Bertolini (eds.), Seeing the City. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Study of the Urban. Amsterdam, Nederland: pp. 226-242 (2020)
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Introduction: Interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and action research of a city in lockdown. As we write this chapter, most cities across the world are subject to a similar set of measures due to the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus, which is now a global pandemic. Independent of city size, location, or history, an observer would note that almost all cities have now ground to a halt, with their citizens being confined to their private dwellings, social and public gatherings being almost entirely forbidden, and commercial areas being nearly devoid of visitors. Striking as these apparent similarities are, closer scrutiny would reveal important differences between cities and within cities – differences that can be highly relevant to consider when scholars are assessing the responses of cities to this pandemic or trying to predict the consequences of those responses. For example, the public health systems in some cities are better prepared than in others for coping with the increasing number of patients in life threatening conditions. Multigenerational households, which are associated with a greater risk for elderly members, are not equally common in all cities. Tourist destinations have taken a more severe economic hit from the lockdown than those cities which are economically less dependent upon this particular source of income. Communal celebrations in one city will result in a higher number of contagions and perhaps even deaths in this situation, whereas that same social fabric generally does contribute to a population’s health. The pandemic has also had unprecedented effects on differences and inequalities within cities. In cities in the United States, neighborhoods primarily inhabited by African Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to living and health conditions, yet also due to the fact they disproportionately perform vital jobs. Parks and green spaces are crowded, while city centers like Amsterdam’s Red Light District have suddenly lost the bustle of tourism, providing opportunities for citizens to reoccupy scarce public spaces and reclaim ownership. Clearly, such differences between cities are in many cases only discernible to the eye of an expert, possessing the necessary background knowledge to interpret the perceptible local changes caused by the global pandemic. Typically, drawing upon his or her disciplinary training, the expert also knows how to further probe the impact of the pandemic in an appropriate way. However, compared to the usual application of expertise, this crisis situation might, in an unusual way, test even experts. For the pandemic has created a unique situation, imposing unfamiliar constraints on the health, economic, social, and other conditions of cities, constraints that interact in sometimes unexpected ways with each other. Such interactions in turn force experts to collaborate across the boundaries commonly associated with disciplines, their concepts, theories, methods, and assumptions (Klein, 1996). These brief observations of how a virus pandemic can have differential impacts upon various cities, and what this exceptional situation might mean for the application of city methods, allow us to draw a few consequences for the current context of this chapter on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. First, whenever we are investigating a complex and dynamic phenomenon it is by no means easy to determine which disciplinary perspectives are required to do justice to it. Indeed, the choice of useful disciplines can only be made after an initial overview of the situation and a preliminary selection of what appear to be the most important features of the situation. Relevance is key in guiding this selection process and scholars must remain open to the possibility that they may need to revise their earlier assessments of what is relevant and what is not. Second, if scholars from different disciplines were to study different features of a city in isolation, their ‘multidisciplinary’ account would miss important dynamic and complex interactions, such as those between a city’s demographics and geographical situation, its governance and economy. In other words, it is the integration of the perspectives of different disciplines that is crucial, as only then are such interactions taken into account. Indeed, this integration between disciplinary perspectives is what distinguishes an interdisciplinary from a multidisciplinary account. Thirdly, in addition to checking the relevance of disciplines and aiming for their integration, the outcome of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research has typically limited generalizability. Since a city is sensitive to a multitude of internal and external dynamical factors, in ways that partly rest upon its socio-cultural history, its investigation will often have the nature of a case study rather than be capable of leading to law-like insights (Krohn, 2010; Menken & Keestra, 2016). As can be seen from these three characteristics of ascertaining the relevance of different disciplinary contributions, the challenge of their integration, and the limited generalizability of their results owing to the specificity of interdisciplinary (ID) and transdisciplinary (TD) research, such research into ‘real world problems’ is clearly distinct from most monodisciplinary research. A consequence of this distinction is the absence of a general ID/TD methodology that can guide specific case studies. By contrast, the collaboration implied in such research requires researchers – and stakeholders, if they are involved – to reflect upon their potential contribution and the implicit assumptions associated with that. We will elaborate on this in the next section. Next, we offer several typologies of integration that urban scholars could employ for their research projects, after which we will offer a few brief analyses of initial collaborations of urban research. Finally, we discuss in more detail the process of the interdisciplinary research project. This will include a brief reflection upon the decision-making process that is implied in such projects. In sum, we aim to provide some guidance in conducting an ID/TD project, albeit not in the form of a definite methodology.

Author's Profile

Machiel Keestra
University of Amsterdam


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