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On the sidelines: Social sciences and interdisciplinarity in an international research centre

Jean-Philippe Venot
IRD, UMR G-EAU, Montpellier, France; Water Resources Management Group, Wageningen University; jean-philippe.venot@ird.fr

Mark Giordano
Georgetown’s University School of Foreign Service, Washington, DC, USA; mark.giordano@georgetown.edu

Douglas J. Merrey
Independent Consultant, Pittsboro, North Carolina, USA; dougmerrey@gmail.com

ABSTRACT: This paper reflects on the notion of interdisciplinarity in the research for development sector from a specific vantage point, that of social science researchers at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Drawing from first-hand experiences of doing research at IWMI, a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, and a series of interviews with former and current staff, we highlight the disputed nature of social science research within the institute and link it to major challenges to interdisciplinary research practice. For research managers and non-social science researchers, social science research has always been, and still is, central to IWMI’s mission and current activities. Social science researchers, on the other hand, tend to think their work has progressively been sidelined from a core to a peripheral concern; they feel they are underrepresented in management and hence have little influence on strategic orientation. This reinforces a tendency to work in isolation and not engage in the unavoidable negotiations that characterise the workings of an organisation. The uneasiness felt by IWMI social science researchers is largely grounded in the fact that many do not share the view that IWMI’s objectives and research practices are value-neutral and that the purpose of social science research is to add human dimensions to natural science projects rather than lead to knowledge creation.

KEYWORDS: Social sciences, interdisciplinary research, international agriculture research organization, IWMI-International Water Management Institute, coupled human-natural systems, water resources management