Work in an sDiv group – more than the sum of all parts

What is so special about participating in a sDiv group? What makes different researchers or stakeholders leave their comfort zone and work together in the first place? And what makes these heterogeneous groups stick together afterwards and continue working together? Have you thought about it? If not, follow us just for a few minutes.

We were part of the ‘sLandServ’ group, a working group focused on understanding how landscape structure influences the provision of ecosystem services; i.e., the benefits people receive from nature. This problem is unique, because it requires a strong social-ecological perspective and so bringing together researchers from diverse disciplines is crucial. The sDiv working group allowed us exactly this. To discuss and develop new knowledge about social and ecological processes that generate ecosystem services benefits we met twice for a whole week each time in Leipzig during 2017/18. The meetings allowed environmental, social and economic scientists to come together to study how nature benefits humans in human-modified landscapes and jointly develop new theoretical and methodological approaches to deal with environmental governance at landscape scales (Metzger et al. 2021).

In the end, we were not only interested in our interdisciplinary results, but we were also curious on how we worked together as a group. In particular, we were interested in understanding how the dynamics of synthesis operated as boundary work (Schröter et al. 2023), that is as an active process to connect across the boundaries of the separated domains. So we chose to reflect on this after the workshops and developed a short self-evaluation survey on our interdisciplinary group work and how we were able to bridge separate disciplinary domains.

Diversity, common knowledge & comfort zones

The diversity of our group varied across disciplinary, methodological, and experiential backgrounds. We were 16 invited researchers from seven countries on five different continents. We had been trained in different scientific disciplines, including natural and social sciences, and used different methods for our research. We also were in different stages of our career (a mix of PhD students, Postdocs, and senior scientists). Although English was our working language, it was not the mother tongue of all of us. However, we had something in common. All of us were already working with the ecosystem service concept before participating in the workshop so it supported communication between natural and social scientists. Further, we focused on a method called Social-Ecological Network Analysis (SENA) which was easy to understand for everyone and therefore not only useful for communication amongst us, but which also allowed us to integrate the work of social and natural sciences. SENA thus functioned as a connecting tool, which we call a boundary object and concept (Schröter et al. 2023).

The sDiv workshops were a vital collaborative setting which enabled us to meet in person, apply SENA to our work and discuss new ideas at the interfaces of our knowledge. The ‘sLandServ’ group and workshops operated as a boundary setting, allowing people from different disciplines to work collaboratively together (Schröter et al. 2023). Particularly, it was a suitable setting due to the interdisciplinary and intergenerational composition of the group, as well as the free format which gave enough time and space for open discussions. From the beginning of the process sDiv, the iDiv events team and the workshop organisers were outstanding in providing a conducive environment to bring participants together. But success was also achieved because the participants were willing to leave their comfort zones, and cross their disciplinary and methodological boundaries. Group composition and meeting format, choosing participants strategically and allowing equal contribution from each group member, switching between plenum discussions and smaller breakout groups, were essential to foster collaborative work within our scientific synthesis, making possible creative and associative thinking as well as interdisciplinary scientific collaboration. As we spent a whole week together, all staying in the same hotel, enjoying a well designed excursion programme, not having to worry about organisational stuff such as where to get food and drinks (sDiv and the events team did it all), there was also enough ‘social time’ to really get to know each other as private individuals, creating the necessary ‘glue’ for making us real team mates. We did not only work together, but also had fun with each other.

For future work in research and practice, we identified two important aspects to consider. First, there is a need for more knowledge on how boundary elements (e.g., objects, concepts, settings) can be used to catalyse synthesis initiatives, particularly for social-ecological research. Second, we call for a more formal and explicit consideration of boundary work in the development of synthesis working groups since this approach has great potential to improve the success of these groups.


From our experiences we recommend to take advantage of the concepts of boundary work right from the conception of the synthesis working groups. By explicitly and purposefully incorporating the so-called ‘boundary elements’ – especially a good setting and scientific concepts and objects that foster communication and integration – into the workshop design, the collaborative potential of working groups can be enhanced (if you want to know more, please read our paper: Schröter et al. 2023):

  • Boundary setting: Have a good proportion of people from different disciplines of origin, more or less balanced in numbers, to guarantee the integration of ideas (A big imbalance in the number of participants, between social and natural scientists may make it more difficult to cross disciplinary boundaries due to bias towards a particular discipline area. This may be considered at the very beginning of the group formation by paying careful attention to the invited participants’ skills, and by specifically integrating social scientists).
  • Boundary concepts: Being familiar with joint concepts, like ecosystem services, before starting the working group helps to start communication among people and makes it easier to find objects for knowledge integration.
  • Boundary objects: Developing ‘objects’ (again: please read our paper!) together before organising an event may lower the risk of bringing objects that are specific to only a few disciplines (However, deciding about this aspect before the event is an approach that still needs to be tested).

We hope that the reflection on our work in the ‘sLandServ’ synthesis group will inspire you in further research on how to ensure that synthesis initiatives maximise successful integration across disciplines!


Barbara Schröter, Jean Paul Metzger, Jonathan Rhodes and Claudia Sattler


Cited literature

Metzger, J.P., Fidelman, P., Sattler, C., Schröter, B., Maron, M., Eigenbrod, F., Fortin, M.-J., Hohlenwerger, C., and Rhodes, J.R. (2021). Connecting governance interventions to ecosystem services provision: a social-ecological network approach. People and Nature 3(2):266–280.

Schröter, B., Sattler, C., Metzger, J., Rhodes, J. R., Fortin, M.-J., Hohlenwerger, C., Carrasco, L.R., and Bodin, Ö. (2023). Exploring the role of boundary work in a social-ecological synthesis initiative. J Environ Stud Sci 13, 330–343.

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