Engaging in collaborative research and crossing disciplinary boundaries

4 October 2022
SEI 2022 Collaborative Fellows James Dunk and Paul Rhodes reflect on the value of multidisciplinary research for their project exploring youth-led participatory action on climate distress.

By James Dunk and Paul Rhodes, University of Sydney

Our Collaborative Fellowship project is a youth-led participatory action project on climate distress. In collaboration with a group of youth advisors we are developing an innovative, community-based approach to responding to earth emotions, based on the principles of Open Dialogue, a Scandinavian network therapy drawn from Bateson’s systems theory and the dialogic theory of Mikhail Bakhtin (which in turn draws upon Dostoyevsky’s novels). We’re working to adapt Open Dialogue for intergenerational encounters around climate change – a crucial flashpoint of affective tension – and for Australian settings.

Each of us – researchers and youth advisors alike – seem to be arriving at new realisations around climate distress, not only about our own individual experiences but about the different experience of climate change across different generations, and other categories. We already have one paper accepted in Australian Psychologist, which calls on clinical psychologists to re-consider the epistemological challenges posed by ecopsychology.

We’re also working with the third member of our research team, Jordan Koder, on a review of climate psychology. Jordan is a young occupational therapist who specialises in mental health occupational therapy, and the first mover in the project. It was he who first approached Paul with a concern that mental health clinicians seemed poorly equipped to talk about climate distress.

With the help of Margarete Horstmann, a master’s student in Psychology, we’ve been coding and interpreting the data from our meetings and we’re excited to write up our findings in the months to come. This will include some writing with the young participant leaders with whom we’ve been working.

We’re also moving to secure funding for a substantial project which would see the Sydney Environment Institute partnered with Relationships Australia and Psychologists for a Safe Climate to further refine and test these innovative and effective methods of navigating individual and collective climate distress, and generate an evidence base to establish them on a sure footing. Our hope is that this research will help turn despair into hope and paralysis into activism.  

Our hope is that this research will help turn despair into hope and paralysis into activism.

Paul Rhodes: Being a Collaborative Research Fellow at SEI has been a career changing experience so far – a welcome respite from being the outsider in Science, and the beginning of many lifelong collaborations. It has meant taking a break from teaching family therapy live to my students in the Brain and Mind Centre, something I love, but after running 35 consecutive clinics over 17 years I was getting burned out. My research is narrative, dialogical, and arts-based, but I have few colleagues in my own discipline in the University who are like-minded. Crossing into the post-disciplinary space of SEI has been liberating, reminding me of my deep relationships with humanities scholars I have developed as a co-Convenor (Psychology) of the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry held annually in Illinois. Who knew that all of these New Materialists were thriving right under my nose at The University of Sydney? It seems I now have a local tribe. I am very grateful to Dany Celermajer for bringing me in, in the first place, generously spending time with me and hearing my dissatisfaction as an outsider in Science. I have also been heavily influenced by my research partner, Jamie, who reminds me of the importance of literary scholarship, deep reading and our place in the legacy of ecopsychology.

On a personal level the fellowship has helped me find my own activist voice, one that I have been pursuing, not only through academia but through my own art practice. I have found this year that I have gone from a hobbyist to an exhibiting art practitioner, and the confidence and affirmation that SEI has given me has made a big contribution. Here is a very silly painting of me and Jamie meeting by the water hole to discuss our next moves.  

Neighbours2, acrylic and inks, by Paul Rhodes.

James Dunk: The fellowship was something of a life-saver for me in a different way. Although the scheme was intended to release full-time scholars in continuing positions to dedicate themselves to collaborative projects, the SEI was able to instead augment my part-time, fixed term contract. So after successive fixed term contracts led by other researchers, the scheme provided much-needed time, funds, and institutional support for me to co-lead my own project. The collaboration itself has been incredibly rewarding. Paul is a wonderfully undisciplined researcher, in all the best ways, and a font of energy and inspiration. Whether we’re figuring out aims and impacts, struggling through ethics applications, meeting with philanthropists, psychotherapists, artists, or talking freely about climate emotion, I’ve learned an enormous amount from how he thinks and speaks. And it’s liberating to see him translate academic thinking into art (like the painting above) in real-time.

The Collaborative Fellowship Scheme is an exceptionally strong model of interdisciplinary collaboration. Many of us talk about interdisciplinarity and try to achieve it through seminars and workshops and reading groups – but this a rare investment in sustained, close collaborations across disciplinary boundaries. For us it’s allowed us to imagine and drive a project that is interdisciplinary from the start. It's also enabled us to draw other SEI scholars into the fascinating and revealing interdisciplinary conversation we’ve been having with the youth advisors on the project, and to produce together creative forms of dialogue. We hope that these methods will continue to enhance these cross-disciplinary encounters at SEI into the future, in addition to the broader hopes for better dealing with climate distress and other ecological emotions far beyond the limits of the University.

Learn more about the SEI Collaborative Grants Scheme and apply.

Dr James Dunk is a Research Fellow in the School of Humanities. Trained as a historian, his current research focus is the way the physical environment has figured in mental health and psychology. He works with scholars in psychology, medicine and public health to understand how ideas of health are becoming more ecological. His book, Bedlam at Botany Baywon the Australian History Prize at the New South Wales Premier’s History Awards in 2020. His articles have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine and a range of historical journals. He writes essays and reviews for Griffith Review and Australian Book Review.

Paul Rhodes is an Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology at the University of Sydney and Research Fellow in Earth Emotions at the Sydney Environment Institute. His teaching and research relates to cultural responsiveness and decolonisation in psychology, family and community-based forms of therapy, the cultural basis of psychopathology, art-based and narrative methods and others. He is a practicing artist specialising in climate art and the representation of internal landscapes. 

Header image: by George Nash via Shutterstock, ID: 698517502.

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