“So a philosopher, a psychologist, and a political scientist walk into a bar…”

Although it sounds like a bad joke, our interdisciplinary analysis of cultural evolutionary theory and normative motivations for sustainability did emerge from an informal reading group that took place at The Pint, a lovely brewpub near Purdue University, where we all work.
“So a philosopher, a psychologist, and a political scientist walk into a bar…”

This is not to suggest that the best academic interactions happen in bars or other locations outside the formal halls of a department or seminar room (although that is a good rule of thumb for many academic conferences). But it does suggest the kind of untraditional thinking required to write a paper that combines three disciplinary perspectives on a complex topic: using norms to shape sustainability behavior. Fortunately, Purdue has recently launched a “Building Sustainable Communities” faculty cluster to facilitate these kinds of conversations outside the confines of a single department or discipline.

In the paper, we combine our understanding of norms and human behavior from three substantially different viewpoints: (1) a philosopher with a deep interest in cultural evolutionary theory, (2) a psychologist with experience in theories of motivation and motivated reasoning, and (3) a political scientist who studies the role of norms in the political process. Although we all approached the topic from a grounding in the social sciences and humanities, it was immediately clear that we still had very different initial perspectives. There were vocabulary issues: What is a norm? What is a motivation? What is framing? There were stylistic issues: philosophers, psychologists, and political scientists all express their ideas in different ways and pulling the text into a single voice was surprisingly difficult in this regard. And there were, of course, substantive issues: How could we reconcile the surprisingly divergent perspectives on norms, motivations, and behaviors from the literatures we were each individually engaging? Although we think that the resulting “Perspective” article brings a diverse but unified blend of those disciplinary insights to the topic of changing sustainability behavior, the effort required to synthesize our viewpoints was notable. 

Our sense is that this kind of effort is at the heart of a successful interdisciplinary analysis that brings new ways of thinking about familiar problems. But it is also a good reminder that it is just as challenging, or even more so, to cross disciplinary boundaries within the social sciences and humanities as it is between social and physical and natural sciences. And that all of these types of collaborations are vital to creating new insights on difficult sustainability challenges, inside or outside the classroom.  Although we don’t think our combined perspective answers all the questions we brought to this topic, we do all feel that it raised new and productive ways to consider the issue for all of us, and we hope for readers of Nature Sustainability.

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