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Reflections on the STS conference in Graz 2022

The longer I do research, the more I realize that I do not know anything. Well not anything, but there is much more to explore. I am for sure not an expert. I am aware of how self-defeating this statement is. But given the amount of knowledge out there in each field, it would be presumptuous to state that I am an expert. I guess generally speaking the goal is to become an expert in something. Being an interdisciplinary researcher, however, becoming an expert in one specific field may not be the goal. Working on human behavior in the last year or so and trying to find out how humans change or why humans do not change, one topic reappeared over and over again; the lock-in.

An interdisciplinary researcher is not allowed to get locked in. A lock in would mean the end of interdisciplinary work. Working interdisciplinarily means remaining open and remaining humble. I would say, that being humble is something the ego does not like. So, one constantly needs to keep the ego in check. But well, the competitive life of a researcher provides enough setbacks. I would argue that helps to remain humble. On the other hand, one of the talks in the lobby during the STS conference in Graz touched upon researchers protecting their established ideas. I can imagine once one has achieved something the ego may get big and remaining humble and open might become increasingly difficult. I am not there yet, I will try to report about it if this ever happens to me…

In the opening keynote at the STS conference in Graz the problem of the elitist stance of experts was mentioned. Transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research attempts to overcome this, but I would argue it is still a long way to go. A researcher works hard to become an expert. Then to accept that one does not hold THE truth might be painful. Recently in conversations about interdisciplinary research, the ability of “letting go” was mentioned. Working interdisciplinarily we can only find common ground if we are willing to let go of parts of our convictions. That does not mean that we have to change our worldview completely. Letting go starts with accepting that we do not hold THE truth. We need to be humble enough to allow for this possibility.

I think the mental wrestle among researchers is part of research. Arguments and counterarguments, the acknowledgment that no one holds THE truth, that there is something useful to every approach. And one should not underestimate the power of counterarguments to help one reflect, further develop, and improve one's own ideas. The mental wrestle is the needed friction that fuels creativity and innovation.

Still, I do think that researchers, including myself, can get stuck in their bubbles and in their worldviews. To reflect on some content of the conference, it was interesting to observe that at times the solutions to a problem are born out of the current worldview, where allotting ownership and the subsequent application of market mechanisms are deemed to solve the issue. In our worldview ownership and market-based solutions are understood to be normal and thus we turn to these approaches. We may not even question the validity of these approaches, they may be understood to be natural. But people stemming from a different cultural background and having a different worldview may find the idea of ownership and monetizing nature bizarre. We take our thinking for granted and do not grant alternative views legitimization. The counter-movement may fall into the same trap. When we turn away from what we are used to, we may demonize the current norm. For example, we may state that degrowth is the only way to go and that everything growth is bad. Though at some point, the alternative may also become locked in and that may neither be good.

I do fall in this trap as well. I have my own views that seem to be logical based on the knowledge I have. I try not to dismiss alternative worldviews stating that they are useful in certain circumstances and that my ideas might not be useful in certain circumstances. Though, I definitely am also prone to putting things into boxes. Even if it is uncomfortable and even if at times I wish to be surrounded by pure agreement, I appreciate being challenged. Because of my comments during a session, I was asked in a break on which ecological economics, strong sustainability, or econ growth challenging topic I am working. I had to answer that I never was in an environment where I could fully dedicate my work to these topics. Well, apart from my master's studies maybe. For example, ecological economics even if it has gained relevance is still not mainstream. Hence, there are not many institutes or research groups that fully take on an ecological economics point of view. On the one hand, I think it is necessary to form these supportive groups (like the niches in ecosystems, or socio-technical systems if you will). On the other hand, I think being in such a supportive ecosystem may lead to one losing sight of reality, not realizing that the niche is incongruent with the rest of the ecosystem.

Argument and counterargument, good or bad, right or wrong, black or white, left or right, R or Python, quantitative or qualitative. Putting things into boxes such as good and bad seems to be appealing. I also like to put things into boxes. It makes my life easier. But it also contributes to a lock in.

At the STS conference in Graz there was one talk about queer research, questioning technocratic worldviews. I was puzzled, not understanding what queer research would have to add to other research streams that criticize technocratic worldviews. So, I asked. If I understood correctly, queer research tries to put an end to dichotomous thinking, such as good or bad. It aims to introduce diversity. In that sense, interdisciplinary researchers need to embrace queer research as one should not categorize something as good or bad. That fits well with the conversations I had about our ability to allow democracy, which requires accepting diversity and embracing controversies. If we put an end to dichotomies, then we need to abandon or at least be wary of the dichotomies we are creating. We need to be aware of when we are putting certain normative values on one point of view and other values on the opposing point of view. Growth being bad and degrowth being good irrespective of the context, or changing circumstances.

There was one session about citizen participation where we also discussed that we need to allow conflict rather than suppress it. Conflict can be a sign of democracy. We allow people to protest, to express their diverging views, and we accept that other people are allowed to have diverging views. No need to agree with something we do not agree with. But no need to hold grudges, disrespect, or discredit people for their point of view. At times I feel we have lost our ability to cope with democratic processes. In recent years the debate about conspiracy theories has highlighted this. Alternative views are put into a box and discredited (the weirdo, with the silver hat who cannot be taken seriously). If these alternative views do not hold true, there is no reason to discredit them. If we start with such argumentation, where do we draw the line? That is for sure a difficult ethical question. I have no answer to it. Our educational system should support every human being in learning to accept diversity and to learn to reflect on complex matters to form one’s own opinion.

Maybe this is where the circle closes. Reading a lot about socio-technical transition theory the role of the odd one is mentioned but underexplored. Those who innovate need to dare. The innovator is the weird lateral thinker with ideas that are just insane. Reading for example about double, triple, or multi-loop learning I have understood that innovations need a deep learning process where we challenge the status quo. Otherwise, we remain stuck in adaptation processes.

So, I guess, what I want to say is that the STS Graz conference 2022 made me think about many things and that I potentially at any point in the future I may revise my whole worldview. Or at least I should always be ready and open to do so.

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