Pandemics and transdisciplinarity
Recently, I came across the article of Cielito F. Habito that cited the observations of Dr. Emil Q. Javier when he was conferred the Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa, by UP Los Baños. Dr. Javier is one of the most accomplished men in the country, being a National Scientist and holder of many top positions in society. In his acceptance speech, he bewailed the lackluster performance of the country’s agicultural sector which was pushed to many directions by its leaders. He noted that a major cause of this was the long-standing undervaluation by the University of the Philippines Los Baños of the social sciences such as economics, psychology, sociology and anthropology. He said that the greater challenges in our agricultural sector lie not so much in the agricultural part as in the cultural dimension or, more specifically, in such fields as “governance and social conflict.”
This discernment of Dr. Javier brings us to the not-so-popular research approach of transdisciplinarity, which tended to be shunned by intellectuals after the Industrial Age when they pursued knowledge specialization to unprecedented levels in an increasingly complex and technical world. Yet paradoxically today, it is the world’s increasingly intractable problems that are forcing intellectuals to construct conceptual bridges between disciplines that have become strangers to each other.
Transdisciplinarity, however, should not be construed as synonymous with multidisciplinarity, which is described as involving the participation of two or more disciplines but bereft of the process of integration of their vocabulary and their findings.
In transdisciplinary research, there is a participation of the natural and social sciences, the humanities and even the life-world of community participants themselves. The process involves a deeper mode of integration of the theoretical and methodological approaches of the different branches of human knowledge with the end in view of solving complicated problems. It is a challenging process, of course, as it involves transgressive dislocation and reconciliation of disciplinary conventions, not to mention the need for delicate handling of some bloated egos and low emotional quotients.
In our current fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, UP faculty researchers Benjamin Vallejo and Rodrigo Angelo Ong as well as UP economists have pointed out that the pandemic has revealed the weaknesses in our country’s medical fabrication and logistics capabilities, health research and development programs, social safety nets and capacity planning, and policy implementation capacity. Professors Vallejo and Ong have proposed the setting up of a more efficient and responsive institution that will collate and synthesize information from different sources and subsequently provide focused and rapid advice in crisis situations, based not only on the analyses of participating medical and natural scientists but also of social scientists.
The above observations lead us to the results of studies on the pandemic that show that even during ECQ and lockdown periods, there are many places that still experience surges in infections. Observers point out that the dynamics of the pandemic curve depend not only on factors such as health care capacities but also on the complacent behavior of Filipinos. Social scientists explain this behavior as having to do with Filipinos’ attitude of “bahala na” or leaving things to fate or to God, as well as to their fatalistic belief that illness is destined or inevitable, thus rendering health care directives pointless.
Behavioral scientists point out many more components of the Philippine value system that need to be restructured and modernized as we deal with disasters and economic development. Thus, the proposed institution that is inclusive of the participation of social scientists, humanists, and stakeholders can provide strategic insights into fighting the pandemic with its deeper understanding of Filipino culture. It can provide services like monitoring quaint food-sourcing and other cultural practices, intensive multisectoral information campaigns, organizing village-based lockdown activities, integrating disaster management into formal education, and spatial planning of mixed-use neighborhoods.
Meliton B. Juanico is a retired professor of geography at UP Diliman and a licensed environmental planner.
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