Communication and interdisciplinarity

True communication is possible only between equals, because inferiors are more consistently rewarded for telling their superiors pleasant lies than for telling the truth.:” (from the The Jargon File version 4.4.8: SNAFU principle)

Communication is possible only between equals: that’s the first theorem of social cybernetics – and the whole basis of anarchism […].” (Hagbard Celine, in: R.A.W. & Bob Shea, Illuminatus!)

“But a man with a gun is told only that which people assume will not provoke him to pull the trigger. Since all authority and government are based on force, the master class, with its burden of omniscience, faces the servile class, with its burden of nescience, precisely as a highwayman faces his victim. Communication is possible only between equals. The master class never abstracts enough information from the servile class to know what is actually going on in the world where the actual productivity of society occurs. Furthermore, the logogram of any authoritarian society remains fairly inflexible as time passes, but everything else in the universe constantly changes. The result can only be progressive disorientation among the rulers. The end is debacle.

The schizophrenia of authoritarianism exists both in the individual and in the whole society.

I call this the Snafu Principle.” (Hagbard Celine, in: R.A.W. & Bob Shea, Illuminatus!)

There are two kinds of conversation in which I sometimes find myself frustrated and lost in words – for similar reasons in both cases. One is when talking with people about questions of collective and public interest that involve informed opinions and decision making. The other is when talking with specialists from different fields.

The most frustrating thing I find in such discussions is the fact that many times we don’t understand each other. Or rather, I don’t understand the others, and I find that they don’t understand me. Arguably this can be due to my poor communication skills. Another factor, of course, is my lack of knowledge in others’ fields – and vice-versa.

But I would argue that this is not only an effect of lack of individual ability, but also a feature of human communication in general. It is not an extraordinary thing. Mutual understanding is a process that doesn’t happen automatically. It has to be slowly built through sustained interaction and engagement with the interlocutor, even among people who share a common background.

Sometimes the lack of understanding comes from the fact that we don’t really listen to each other. In my case, when I don’t listen properly, I find this is because my ego thinks it already knows all the answers, or cannot stop criticizing the other for a moment, and my internal dialogue or monologue prevents me from listening. Being able to keep (internally and externally) silent and actually listen is a prerequisite for effective dialogue – that is, a dialogue that improves mutual understanding and facilitates better collective action.

But even if I am able to go beyond this stage and actually listen to the other person, I find another difficulty, which is related to the concepts employed. The listener does not necessarily interpret the words of an utterance in the same sense intended by the speaker. In fact, we can assume that the listener never does so, or at best does so only approximately.

This does not mean, however, that all communication is entirely compromised for lack of mutual understanding – although it is possibly always at least partially so. What this means is that we have to take this fact – the lack of mutual understanding – into consideration and base our utterances on its recognition, taking measures to improve communication.

Arne Naess’ philosophy of language seems to be a good starting point for better conversations in this sense. As he observed, “the rules for impartial debate require standpoints on questions of interpretation, definition and clarification” (Naess & Rothenberg, 1989, 73), and it is a good idea to set these standpoints beforehand. Thus, an awareness of the difficulties of mutual understanding can greatly improve a conversation.

In interdisciplinary discussions, a further difficulty is the lack of a shared vocabulary between participants and the different theoretical frameworks involved. This requires an additional effort of knowledge translation on the part of participants, which on its turn requires an understanding of the audience – its story, language needs, and communication abilities (cf. Bennet & Jessani, 2011, 189) – on the part of any speaker.

It is useful to look into knowledge translation methods and theory when devising a communication approach, but these models are mostly related to hierarchical organizations and contexts, or involve at least some kind of institutional entity (see, for example: Estabrooks et al., 2007; Harmswoorth & Turpin, 2000; Sudsawad, 2007). And knowledge translation in hierarchical contexts generates its own sets of problems, as noted by Michael Agar (see: “Whose Knowledge? What Transfer?”).

However, in a grassroots approach to knowledge, we are mainly interested in non-hierarchical interaction – sharing of knowledge among equals, independently of institutional constraints. This is a note to remember that an asymmetry of knowledge should not become a hierarchical structure in itself, although power relations emerge constantly with any discourse. True communication is possible only between equals.

In practice, in an interdisciplinary discussion, there are always multiple knowledge asymmetries in place. These generate multiple – more or less transitory – power relations, and participants have to be aware of them if they want to deconstruct hierarchical formations and by-pass and ultimately dissolve language barriers, constituting a shared vocabulary.

As noted by Ted Toadvine (“Six Myths of Interdisciplinarity“), this does not – and should not – imply a dissolution of disciplinary boundaries. On the contrary, in an interdisciplinary approach to a topic, different disciplines are needed to contribute distinctive methods and approaches to the shared discussion. The problem then is how to get people from different backgrounds to communicate effectively across the boundaries established by their specialized knowledge. As Toadvine observes, this requires a disposition, on the part of those involved, to effectively re-educate themselves and learn some things from other disciplines. This is what allows the emergence of hybrid and richer ideas and approaches.

In an interdisciplinary conversation, I think we can stipulate that the idea of knowledge translation applies multi-directionally, so that all participants simultaneously play multiple roles as teachers and apprentices. In other words, they are all knowledge translators and learners at the same time, both translating knowledge from their specialties to others and acquiring translated knowledge from other specialties while the interaction goes on.

As I noted in the beginning, and as also noted by Toadvine, this is a process that can only happen given some time and good will on the part of those involved. It’s not possible to simply gather some people and start doing stuff. They have to communicate first.


Agar, Michael. n.d. “Whose Knowledge? What Transfer?” (pre-publish). (PDF)

Bennett, Gavin; Jessani, Nasreen. 2011. The Knowledge Translation Toolkit: Bridging the Know-Do Gap: A Resource for Researchers. New Delhi, India; Thousand Oaks, Calif.; Ottawa, ON: Sage Publications; International Development Research Centre. (PDF)

Estabrooks, Carole A.; Thompson, David S.; Lovely, J. Jacque E.; Hofmeyer, Anne. 2006. “A Guide to Knowledge Translation Theory.” Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions 26, no. 1: 25–36. (PDF)

Harmsworth, Sally; Turpin, Sarah. 2000. “Creating an Effective Dissemination Strategy.” TQEF National Co-Ordination Team, July 5 (2000). (PDF)

Næss, Arne; Rothenberg, David. 1989. Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sudsawad, Pimjai. 2007. Knowledge Translation: Introduction to Models, Strategies, and Measures. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, National Center for the Dissemination of Disability Research. (PDF)

Toadvine, Ted. 2011. “Six Myths of Interdisciplinarity”, Thinking Nature 1. (PDF)

See also this.

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