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Interdisciplinary analysis of the environment: insights from tropical forest research



Tropical forest management is a quintessential interdisciplinary (ID) problem straddling the social-natural divide, and has attracted scholars from many disciplines. This paper is a review of the ID research on tropical forests with a view to understanding the challenges involved in doing ID environmental research in general and the manner in which they might be addressed. Research on two core interdisciplinary questions in tropical forest research, namely causes of tropical forest loss and degradation and its impacts on society, is analysed to illuminate issues facing ID researchers. The challenges stem from differences in implicit values, theories and epistemologies across disciplines, as well as the relationship between individual disciplines, the ID space and the wider applied research audience. Understanding the value-laden nature of terms such as forest loss and degradation leads to a multidimensional and multidisciplinary characterization of the impact of forest change on human well-being. The analysis of causes of change has been enriched by ID research in which forest outcomes are characterized explicitly in terms of their values, measured in terms relevant to these values and linked to chains of socioeconomic variables at the appropriate scale. Explanations from different disciplines may be reconciled to some extent by seeing each as partial and perhaps having context-specific validity, although some core tensions, especially between economists and anthropologists, remain. Insights from ID research have been unevenly internalized in the literature, pointing to the absence of a broadly shared ID space as a consequence of individual social science disciplines appropriating environment as a subject of study. Shifting from theory-driven to problem-driven research and re-engaging self-consciously in this applied ID space will be required to generate more rigorous and relevant ID research on forests.


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*Correspondence: Dr Sharachchandra Lele e-mail:


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