Lessons from “real-world laboratories” about transdisciplinary projects, transformative research and participation

Community member post by Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila

Antonietta Di Giulio (biography)
Rico Defila (biography)

In Germany there has recently been a heated debate about the need for, and the justification of, so-called “transformative research”. At the same time, German funders are increasingly supporting research in “real-world laboratories” and these explicitly aim to bring about social change. We lead an accompanying research project (“Begleitforschung” in German) in a real-world laboratory program of research in Baden-Württemberg (see Schäpke et al., (2015) for more information). This has led us to reflect upon the relationship between transdisciplinary research and transformative research, and how this impacts on how we think about participation in research. We share some preliminary ideas here.

Distinguishing transformative research from transdisciplinary research

Transformative research pursues goals and performs activities in two dimensions, and these dimensions should be distinguished, although they are related: one is knowledge, the other one is transformation.

With regard to the knowledge dimension, such projects aim to produce new knowledge and perform research activities. For transformation, such projects aim to initiate social change and perform activities to achieve such change.

In our previous blog post on transdisciplinary research and social change, we argued that transdisciplinary research is, first and foremost, research and that research has no special legitimacy when it comes to transforming society. Nevertheless, research can aim to be transformative.

Our point is that transdisciplinary research and transformative research should not be conflated. We argue that transdisciplinarity should be used to describe a particular kind of knowledge production. If it also aims to change society it should be referred to as transdisciplinary transformative research or transformative transdisciplinary research.

Transformative research, transdisciplinary research and participation

In that same earlier blog post, we drew on findings from the field of policy advice to suggest that participation in transdisciplinary research serves the purpose of enhancing political legitimacy, practical legitimacy, and scientific legitimacy of knowledge, thus distinguishing three goals of participation which all three serve to improve attributes of knowledge and do not endow a project with the right to transform society.

The two goals and dimensions of transformative research impact how participation is framed, leading to two primary goals of participation, each of them having three sub-goals, as shown in the figure below.

First, participation serves the goals of increasing scientific, political, or practical legitimacy of knowledge.

Second, participation serves the goals of increasing the practical, scientific or political legitimacy of the projects’ transformative goals and activities.

In other words, such projects have to balance two goals (with, in total, six sub-goals) of participation and two reference points ‘knowledge’ and ‘societal intervention’.

(Source: Di Giulio and Defila 2017)

We also argue in an earlier blog post about participation of those outside academia in transdisciplinary projects, that such participants should be referred to as “non-certified experts” rather than stakeholders or practitioners, because this reinforces the role of transdisciplinary research as knowledge production and not as social transformation.

When it comes to the transformative goals and activities of transformative research, “expertise” might not be an appropriate criterion for choosing participants, and consequently “non-certified experts” might not be the right term to denote them. In other words, terms such as “practitioners” or “stakeholders” might be more appropriate for this purpose.

In other words, the terminology of participation should correspond to the goals of participation, and a differentiated (and precise) terminology would account for different goals of participation.

Reflections on the use of Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation

Sherry Arnstein’s (1969) purpose in developing her ladder of citizen participation was to describe how ‘have-not’ citizen groups were exploited in government decision-making processes, as well as how much power stakeholders had in determining the final product. It is now widely used to describe participation in research. Based on our discussion above, it should be clear that this implicit conflation of knowledge production and transformation is problematic.

To discuss this further, let us concentrate on the top rung in Arnstein’s ladder: ‘empowerment’.

Empowering people in a political sense cannot be the primary goal of participation in research projects with regard to the dimension of knowledge. We know from our own empirical research that this actually happens (Di Giulio et al. 2016, 225), but this nevertheless cannot be the primary intention.

Consequently, the ladder is not suitable for describing participation serving the goals of increasing scientific, political, or practical legitimacy of knowledge. But it may be appropriate for describing participation serving the practical, scientific or political legitimacy of a project’s transformative goals and activities.

But even for transformation, Arnstein’s ladder needs modification because the goal of participation refers to the goals and activities of the project and not to the people involved.


We are very interested to hear what you think about our reflections on conceptualizing the relationship between transdisciplinary research, transformative research and participation. And what you think about our perception of the use of Arnstein’s ladder to describe participation in research.

To find out more:
Defila R. and Di Giulio A. (in press): Eine Reflexion über Legitimation, Partizipation und Intervention im Kontext transdisziplinärer Forschung. In: Ukowitz M. and Hübner R. (eds.): Partizipation und Intervention. Wege der Vermittlung in der transdisziplinären Forschung. Interventionsforschung Band 3. Wiesbaden: Springer VS Verlag.

Arnstein, S. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35, 4: 216-224.

Di Giulio A., Defila R. and Brückmann Th. (2016). Das ist halt das eine … Praxis, das andere ist Theorie – Prinzipien transdisziplinärer Zusammenarbeit im Forschungsalltag. In, R. Defila and A. Di Giulio (Hrsg.), Transdisziplinär forschen – zwischen Ideal und gelebter Praxis. Hotspots, Geschichten, Wirkungen. Campus Verlag: Frankfurt, Germany: 189-286.

Schäpke N., Singer-Brodowski M., Stelzer F., Bergmann M. and Lang D. J. (2015). Creating space for change: Real-world laboratories for sustainability transformations. The case of Baden-Württemberg. GAIA, 24, 4: 281-283. Online (DOI): 10.14512/gaia.24.4.17

Biography: Antonietta Di Giulio PhD is leader of the Research Group Inter-/Transdisciplinarity and senior researcher at the Program Man-Society-Environment (MGU), Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Basel, Switzerland. Her areas of interest in inter-/transdisciplinarity are in theory of inter- and transdisciplinary research and teaching, methodology, knowledge integration and evaluation.

Biography: Rico Defila is deputy leader of the Research Group Inter-/Transdisciplinarity and senior researcher at the Program Man-Society-Environment (MGU), Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Basel, Switzerland. His areas of interest in inter-/transdisciplinarity are in theory of inter- and transdisciplinary research and teaching, methodology, knowledge integration and evaluation.

This blog post is based on a paper presented by the authors at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017 at Leuphana University, Luneburg, Germany in September 2017.

Doing a transdisciplinary PhD? Four tips to convince the examiners about your data

Community member post by Jane Palmer, Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Jenny Kent

How can research writing best be crafted to present transdisciplinarity? How can doctoral candidates effectively communicate to examiners a clear understanding of ‘data’, what it is and how the thesis uses it convincingly?

The authors have all recently completed transdisciplinary doctorates in the field of sustainable futures and use this experience to highlight the challenges of crafting a convincing piece of research writing that also makes claims of transdisciplinarity (Palmer et al., 2018). We propose four strategies for working with data convincingly when undertaking transdisciplinary doctoral research.

1. Make the data visible and argue for the unique or special way in which the data will be used

Some of the comments received from our examiners reflected a sense of being provided with insufficient data, or that it was not convincing as data.

It is important that the nature of data for the purposes of the research is clearly defined, and presented in a way that demonstrates its value in the research process. Richer contextualization of the data can help to make clear its value. This can include drawing attention to the remoteness of the field location, the rare access gained to the participants, and/or the unusual or special qualities of the data that make an original contribution to knowledge.

In these and other cases, it may be important to explain how a particular kind of data can valuably inform an argument qualitatively without reference to minimum quantitative thresholds. This is particularly relevant where a transdisciplinary doctoral candidate is crossing between physical/natural science, humanities and social science disciplines.

2. Be creative and explore the possibilities enabled by a broad interpretation of ‘data’

The advantage conferred on the candidate in taking a transdisciplinary approach needs to be made evident to the examiners, especially where there may appear to have been an absorption of the ‘data’ in the wider synthesizing narratives that are typical of transdisciplinary writing.

Adopting more creative writing techniques may help the examiner both to see the data, and to see the research as valuable. Transdisciplinary doctoral candidates may, given the complex feat of communication this requires, find it useful to seek training in creative writing or science communication skills.

Jane Palmer (biography)


Dena Fam (biography)


Tanzi Smith (biography)


Jenny Kent (biography)


3. Make clear the quality criteria against which you expect the work to be judged

The examiners’ critiques sometimes reflected a lack of clarity on the part of the candidate, but also a range of particular discipline-based interests in ‘data’ and the interpretation of source material. As most examiners in the foreseeable future are likely to be discipline based, transdisciplinary theses are likely to continue to raise issues about fair assessment.

It is therefore important for transdisciplinary doctoral candidates that a discussion take place between them and their supervisors about the appointment and briefing of examiners. It may be helpful for the candidate to specify for examiners, and also journal editors and reviewers, which quality criteria they are aiming to satisfy. This will also assist the candidate in identifying any potential weaknesses in their research writing, and in responding to examiners’ comments.

4. Transdisciplinary research is transformative. Communicate this to your examiner

Where examiners were clear that the thesis had made an important contribution to knowledge, apparent ‘flaws’ in data presentation or analysis became less important. The power of transdisciplinary research to afford the examiner such insights, through synthesizing data from a range of sources and interpreting the data through theoretical frameworks from diverse disciplines, needs to be evident and celebrated in the thesis writing. In addition, given the importance of reflexivity and openness in enabling transdisciplinary research, it will be useful if the research writing also enables an examiner to accompany the candidate on their research journey.


We would be interested in hearing from readers about the strategies described above: What has your experience been of transdisciplinary thesis examination as a candidate, supervisor or examiner? Do our lessons resonate? Do you have additional tips to share? Do you think these strategies could be deployed in other contexts, eg., interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary team research, mixed methodologies research?

To find out more:
Palmer, J., Fam, D., Smith T. and Kent, J. (2018). Where’s the data? Using data convincingly in transdisciplinary doctoral research. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 13: 9-29. Online (DOI): 10.28945/3941

Biography: Jane Palmer PhD is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Resilient Regions, University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Her interest in the power of transdisciplinary problem-solving emerged during her work as an architect coordinating technical consultants to meet diverse climatic conditions and cultural requirements in northern Australia. Her doctoral research was based on ethnographic fieldwork in post-conflict, post-tsunami Aceh, Indonesia, and she has since been appointed to research fellowships at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and the University of Southern Queensland to undertake ethnographic projects in regional and remote Australia. Her research interests include the use of storytelling methods as a way of conducting transdisciplinary research into the processes of trauma, grief, resilience and adaptation.

Biography: Dena Fam PhD is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Over the last decade she has worked with industry, government and community actors to collaboratively manage, design, research and trial alternative water and sanitation systems with the aim of sustainably managing sewage and reducing its environmental impact on the water cycle. Her consulting/research experience has spanned socio-cultural (learning for sustainability) institutional (policy analysis), and technological aspects of environmental management. With experience in transdisciplinary project development, she has been involved in developing processes for transdisciplinary teaching and learning, in particular methods/techniques supporting the development of transdisciplinary educational programs and projects.

Biography: Tanzi Smith PhD is a current Director of the Burnett Mary Regional Group for Natural Resource Management in Queensland, Australia and special projects officer at the Mary River Catchment Coordinating Committee. Her research interests include community engagement, natural resource management policy and practice and the application of systems approaches to achieve sustainable outcomes for people and the environment. She holds an Honorary Associate position in the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is a Fellow of the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust and a recipient of the Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop Fellowship.

Biography: Jennifer Kent PhD is a Senior Research Consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, Australia, as well as a sessional academic there in environmental management, environmental communication and sustainability. Her research interests span the areas of sustainability transitions, grassroots social innovations and deliberative democracy. In particular she is interested in understanding how grassroots collective voluntary action that addresses the wicked challenge of climate change and continued fossil fuel extraction can contribute to better climate change governance. Her PhD research is published in ‘Community Action and Climate Change’, Routledge, 2015.

Is it legitimate for transdisciplinary research to set out to change society?

Community member post by Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila

Antonietta Di Giulio (biography)
Rico Defila (biography)

An unspoken and unchallenged assumption underpinning much discourse about transdisciplinary research is that it must change society.

The assumption goes beyond whether research should contribute to change, or whether research impacts developments in society, or whether research should investigate societal problems and provide solutions, or anything similar – it is that research should actively and intentionally be transformative. This generally goes hand-in-hand with a deep conviction that researchers are entitled to actually change society according to what they believe to be right. For many this conviction allows researchers to impose their interventions and solutions on other societal actors by, if necessary, being manipulative. Continue reading

Non-certified experts, stakeholders, practitioners… What participants are called defines transdisciplinarity

Community member post by Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila

Rico Defila (biography)
Antonietta Di Giulio (biography)

In an actor-oriented understanding of transdisciplinary research, there are basically two types of actors: those in the academic system who ensure scientific rigor and who are responsible for project outcomes, usually called ‘researchers’ – and ‘the others’. ‘The others’ lacks precision and even a superficial review of the literature reveals multiple ways of describing them. We highlight a selection of these below (the emphasis in the quotations is ours). Continue reading

Using the concept of risk for transdisciplinary assessment

Community member post by Greg Schreiner

Greg Schreiner (biography)

Global development aspirations, such as those endorsed within the Sustainable Development Goals, are complex. Sometimes the science is contested, the values are divergent, and the solutions are unclear. How can researchers help stakeholders and policy-makers use credible knowledge for decision-making, which accounts for the full range of trade-off implications?

‘Assessments’ are now commonly used. Following their formal adoption by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in the early 1990s, they have been used at the science-society-policy interface to tackle global questions relating to biodiversity and ecosystems services, human well-being, ozone depletion, water management, agricultural production, and many more. Continue reading

Ten essentials for more impactful and integrated research on transformations

Community member post by Ioan Fazey

Ioan Fazey (biography)

What can we learn when we bring together different insights from the rich and diverse traditions of action-oriented research? Will this help us more effectively understand and navigate our way through a world of change to ensure knowledge production contributes more directly to societal needs?

In a recent publication (Fazey et al., 2018), we explored the critical question of how to develop innovative, transformative solutions and knowledge about how to implement them. Addressing these questions requires much more engagement with more practical forms of knowledge, as well as learning from action and change in much more direct ways than currently occurs in academia. It is like learning to ride a bicycle, which can’t be done just by watching a powerpoint presentation, and which requires learning by “getting hands dirty” and by falling off and starting again. Continue reading