Ellen Hertz

As a specialist in the legal and economic anthropology of China, I came to biology-ethnology out of pure curiosity. When I began teaching at the Anthropology Institute in 2001, the undergraduate program in biology and ethnology was one of the first files to cross my desk. Initiated by students interested in a genuinely interdisciplinary curriculum that would prepare them to address the problems of sustainable development in a holistic way, the program was a hodgepodge of disciplinary courses, administrative problems and good intentions. Students did their best to juggle with conflicting class schedules, contradictory faculty regulations and a generalized lack of interest and knowledge about what they were up to.

The shining exceptions to this generalization were two Philippes: Prof. Philippe Küpfer, from the Biology Institute, who immediately understood the potential that this program had for the Science Faculty and for the University, and Prof. Philippe Geslin, my colleague at the Anthropology Institute, who had developed an approach called “anthropotechnology” that focused on question of knowledge transfer and translation in situations of social, professional or positional interculturality.  With the help of these two Philippes and a couple of fellow travelers, we maintained, willy-nilly, the possibility for students to do a double major in biology and anthropology, strengthened by our conviction that we were helping to prepare students to be thoughtful and skilled citizens in a world where no one can ignore the growing importance of environmental problems and the urgent need for solutions.

Important, too, was the fact that, despite the lack of a coordinated, genuinely interdisciplinary program at the time, these pioneering students did remarkable work. Many of them engaged in long-term biological-anthropological fieldwork for their MA thesis, researching such subjects as anti-deforestation programs (Madagascar), farmers’ perception and use of different species of tree (France), wolf-human interactions (Switzerland), the introduction of new technologies for irrigating corn (France), or scientific missions to study mangrove zones (Guinea Bissau). This work showed that environmental and agricultural problems are never simple natural events, but interact at every juncture with political systems, bureaucratic practices, social stakes and cultural norms. A truly scientific and pragmatic approach to sustainable development requires an ability to understand all of these elements, to talk across disciplines and to work within a variety of professional cultures.

With these encouraging results, in 2008, the University of Neuchâtel decided to develop its interdisciplinary program in biology and anthropology and to recruit new scientists trained both in biology and the social sciences. Today, I have the great pleasure of working with Dr. Alex Aebi, who coordinates the program and gives it a research as well as a teaching profile. We have reformulated the curriculum to provide more courses that bridge the (often significant) differences between disciplinary approaches. And, we are currently building the bases for a number of interdisciplinary doctoral projects in the area of agro-ecology. Last but not least, I am delighted to say that I am learning some basic biology  😀

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