Transdisciplinary (Humanities/Natural Science) Research Projects and the Cultural Anthropologist: The Case of an Area Study of an Arid Oasis Region in China
OZAKI Takahiro

If I may begin by stating my personal impression, it seems that young cultural anthropologists, including postgraduates doing Ph.D. work, are increasingly conducting their research as members of so-called project studies. Presumably as a result of various social demands on academic circles, large-scale projects such as the so-called "transdisciplinary study projects," among other forms, are being pursued and practiced whenever the opportunity allows. Such projects incorporate a wide variety of disciplines including the natural sciences, unlike traditional "multi-disciplinary" projects, which in the case of cultural anthropology, consisted primarily of close academic disciplines such as history and area studies.

       It is easy to imagine that many of these projects are mere "aggregate studies," where researchers from a variety of fields come together for a project just to get funding, and where each researcher may in reality be conducting his or her own research in total isolation from the other members of the project.
       However, in cases where a cultural anthropologist "has actually taken part" in a "transdisciplinary research project" that seeks not just the traditional accumulation of discourse within a certain discipline, but to establish a higher level of academic discourse based on the mutual understanding of the activities of each participant, he or she faces some difficulties that derive from the very nature of cultural anthropology. Naturally, the difficulties vary in degree depending on the contents of the project, and simple generalization seems difficult. In this essay, I shall introduce, as an example, a project of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN) that I am currently participating in, provide a few examples of difficulties I have encountered therein, and present my own perspective on how to overcome these difficulties.

The Oasis Project

The example transdisciplinary project I will refer to in this essay is a project called "Historical Evolution of the Adaptability in an Oasis Region to Water Resource Changes" (commonly called the "Oasis Project"), which is under the leadership of Prof. Nakao Masayoshi of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature. It is a large-scale project, with a research period running for five years from FY2002 to FY2006, not including the feasibility study. There are 11 core members working under the Project Leader and approximately 50 researchers actually taking part in the study in FY2004. The researchers are from extremely diverse fields including global environmental science, hydrology, climatology, irrigation engineering, geography, Oriental history, and cultural anthropology.

        The Oasis Project aims to reconstruct the history of the interaction between people and nature during the last 2000 years along the Heihe River, located in an arid region of China (Qinghai Province, Gansu Province and Inner Mongolia) by observing and analyzing the elementary processes concerning water resources and demands, and by combining analytical data from primary historical documents and a variety of proxies that have been dug up, thus elucidating the evolution of human culture and seeking the essence of global environmental problems. Specific research activities are largely divided into two categories: research to reconstruct the history of interactions by examining and interpreting historical documents and proxies (glacier cores, tree-ring samples, lake sediment cores and eolian sediments) and research to elucidate the elementary processes in order to allow an interpretation of the historical data.

       Cultural anthropologists are expected to contribute to the latter, i.e., the elucidation of the elementary process. Cultural anthropology is given the role of carrying out research to clarify, through field observations and interviews, the water circulation process, including how temperatures and rainfall have changed under global-scale change and how the water supply has been transformed by the change of glaciers, how the supplied water is discharged into rivers and groundwater, and how the water is used for irrigated agriculture and pastoralism, as well as to assess the volume of water evaporated through these processes. Furthermore, based on differences in environment and the form of livelihood, the participating cultural anthropologists are divided into "upstream" (mountain pastoral), "middle stream" (farming) and "downstream" (plain pastoral) in accordance with the field territory they deal with. For example, I am assigned to the upstream region.

What are the problems?

In other words, cultural anthropologists have been recruited primarily to capitalize on our capability as field workers to understand the real conditions of the livelihood and water usage of the local residents in the immediate past and present. In conducting this research, the relevance of "local people's perception toward nature," an approach that is indeed "characteristic of cultural anthropology" is already acknowledged by the project participants from other disciplines as common understanding. Leaving this aside, cultural anthropologists still confront the following "barriers" in conducting joint research with the goal of reaching a transdisciplenary conclusion.

1. The problem of methodology: One question involves how to integrate the broad area into the scope of examination (discourse). The spatial domain handled by cultural anthropologists is often too small compared to those handled by the natural science discipline. This is obvious considering that in the Oasis Project, no cultural anthropologist working alone could cover the whole region along the Heihe River. Furthermore, even if a division of labor is adopted, it may not be sufficient for each researcher to survey just one village (or micro-area), and therefore, researchers have to adopt a method different from the "long-term and fixed-point" observation, which is the orthodox method of cultural anthropology.

2. The problem of narrative: This question involves how to interact with the narratives of other researchers from other fields, especially from the natural sciences. I do not deny that the elucidation of the logic of local residents, which is the strong point of cultural anthropological-style discourse, is indispensable as long as we are involved in the project as cultural anthropologists. And yet, it is a fact that it is not practical to combine the local people's view of the universe with hydrological research without changing our traditional way of narrative. We need some kind of "bridge" to combine the two.

3. The problem of the field: When a research field is established for a certain field-oriented project, it is not necessarily possible to find a sufficient number of cultural anthropologists who have been conducting research in that particular field. It goes without saying that in the case of the Chinese arid region, where there are few researchers, such a coincidence would be most unlikely. Therefore, cultural anthropologists taking part in such a project generally need to cultivate new fields. However, as the training of researchers in cultural anthropology is a time-consuming process, it is likely that there will be a shortage of researchers, especially able young ones, capable of conducting field research. This in turn feeds back as a remote cause into the "methodological problem" mentioned in section 1.

   By listing these "barriers," I do not have any intention, however, to look at these problems negatively, or to express regret at having stepped into a realm that I should not have entered. Therefore, as a next step, I will present my perspective for overcoming those barriers, based on my perception that the participation of cultural anthropologists in these research projects is an unavoidable phenomenon considering social demands. These perspectives are still in a process of development, and I do not know whether they will be effective in practice in overcoming the problems. Critics may well ask, "Is this cultural anthropology at all?" I will be more than happy if the readers understand the nature of the recommendations and appreciate them as a positive challenge.

Perspectives for overcoming the problems

First, let us look at the problem of methodology raised in section 1. One possible option for a solution would be to rely on "overwhelming material superiority." In other words, a large number of cultural anthropologists could be mobilized, with each researcher conducting surveys in an area and with a number of samples that can be covered using conventional fieldwork methods, with the result being an aggregation of individual researches, covering a broad area. However, considering the cost performance of research projects, which are usually conducted with limited funds, and the "shortage of able researchers," this option does not seem very feasible.

     Then, the most realistic solution would seem to be a strategy to maintain the basic stance of cultural anthropology, by highlighting the merits of its strategy of qualitative research, which is different from quantitative surveys using massive numbers of survey forms and statistical procedures. However, it is not necessary to entirely reject quantitative surveys as a means to plot individual cases in a broad area. Needless to say, since the "commonsense" of the cultural anthropological community is not necessarily common elsewhere, a full explanation (or persuasion) for other members will be necessary.
     The next problem is that of "narrative." It is probably not possible to completely draw researchers from other fields, especially within the natural sciences, into the closed discourse system of cultural anthropology. As such, it seems that cultural anthropologists themselves must make a leap or transformation of their mindset. What I have in mind specifically is to introduce some kind of quantitative measurement (or quantitative data) into the narrative of cultural anthropologists. In this context, such measurements might include statistical measurements based on a large number of samples, as mentioned above, but more importantly, in my view, should signify an exploration of quantitative expressions in our qualitative surveys. This would make it relatively easy for researchers in the natural sciences (or at least hydrologists, who are nearest to us in the Oasis Project), who rely heavily on quantitative expressions and mathematical models, to use the results of cultural anthropologists. It would also contribute, through this process, to developing the insight among cultural anthropologists, which would allow us to utilize research results from other fields.

In conclusion

I have to recognize that the direction I have presented here lacks in concreteness, but my basic stance derives from the realization that the methods used by cultural anthropologists are, just like the scientific method, not necessarily versatile in clarifying or interpreting things. If a transdisciplinary integrated project, recognizing this, is to seek a more reasonable understanding or interpretation of a certain phenomenon, the researchers participating in the project need to pursue a higher level of consistency across fields, filling in the "gaps" between their own disciplines and others by approaching things from a different angle, with the recognition that they might come under criticism for being eclectic. It also seems to me that this is a prerequisite for allowing a project study to attain results that go beyond what individual researches can accomplish.
(Associate Professor, Kagoshima University)