Written by Veronica Strang
I would like to begin with a very warm welcome to Transformations, the Institute of Advanced Study’s brand new newsletter. Its name reflects the IAS’s primary goal of ‘Transforming the Way We Think’ through creative interdisciplinary approaches to the major research questions of our time.
‘Our time’ is certainly challenging at present, as Covid-19 further destabilises societies already confronting critical social and environmental problems. The IAS’s priority has therefore been try to ensure that the benefits of interdisciplinary thinking can be applied to this most pressing issue. This required us, first of all, to maintain an intellectual base to support such endeavours, which raised some very immediate questions about how to keep a small research institute afloat amid a financial storm that threatens the very existence of Universities; and how to continue to bring leading international researchers to Durham, when it is barely safe for people to emerge from their houses, let alone embark upon international travel.
Those of us who work on environmental issues, however, know that resilience is fundamentally a capacity to adapt quickly to new realities. We therefore faced up straight away to the likelihood that travel will remain risky and sometimes impossible for many months to come, and have reorganised our Fellowship programme radically, to postpone some work, and to rely on virtual collaboration for the time being, instituting a suite of interactive online events, so that IAS public lectures, seminars and workshops continue to facilitate interdisciplinary discussions. We aim to bring our international Fellows to Durham for more intensive collaborative activities later, in 2021 when – hopefully – it will be safe to do so.
Having charted a way forward for the next two years, we then asked ourselves what particular strengths the IAS could bring to bear on a global pandemic. The major contribution of the Institute lies in its capacities to enable genuinely interdisciplinary exchanges of knowledge, and to tackle complex topics in depth. This means paying attention to the conceptual frameworks and analytic approaches that might usefully be shared across disciplinary boundaries to enable new thinking and more effective policy and practice.
While epidemics present urgent problems which require rapid practical decisions, they also have a long history and well-documented patterns of social responses that can inform current decision-making. An interdisciplinary approach reveals the broader research areas in which pandemics may be located: themes such as contagion, pollution, transmission, flow, and connection; ideas about permeability and physical and social boundary transgression; systems thinking describing dynamic social and material relations; and concepts about crisis and emergence/emergency. In diverse forms, these themes are already established, with the potential to inform ideas about epidemics, in many disciplinary contexts.
Understandably, the current focus of funding agencies is on finding immediate solutions to the medical, social and economic problems created by Covid-19. But there is a need for a deeper and longer view, in part because this will strengthen even short-term measures in a crisis that may pertain for some time, but also because Covid-19 is not the first and will certainly not be the last such pandemic. It is vital to ensure that societies are more resilient in their capacities to respond to such events. The IAS has therefore initiated a project on Covid-19, Contagion and Resilience which focuses on resilience in the face of the systemic social and ecological pressures that both cause and exacerbate the effects of viral outbreaks.
The project also seeks to draw more fully on the currently under-represented contributions of disciplines within the Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences. As the principal investigators, Gerald Moore and Nicholas Saul, observe:
The specific focus on Covid-19 now needs to be supplemented by an emphasis on historical contextualisation and a more expansive array of intellectual approaches, both empirical and theoretical, pulling in adjacent questions of cultural ecology, communication and transmission, and treating Covid as just one instance of life in an age of multiple modes of (viral, informational, market) contagion and environmental instability. The IAS seeks in response to bring together all angles on contagion and its wider horizons within the Durham community and beyond, with a view to discussing broader yet also deeper questions of biological, social, cultural, economic and political vitality and resilience. One chief goal will be an intellectually coherent framework for the strategic co-ordination of funding bids.
Thus, this first edition of Transformations comes at a time when there is a great deal of transformation going on. But with our response to Covid-19, and other major projects, we hope that the IAS will continue to ensure that the multiple challenges facing all of us today are well informed by the creative interdisciplinarity thinking that they require.