Transforming transdisciplinarity: Interweaving the philosophical with the pragmatic to move beyond either/or thinking

Community member post by Katie Ross and Cynthia Mitchell

Katie Ross (biography)

Can a dive into the philosophical depths of transdisciplinarity provide an orientation to the fundamental purpose and need for transdisciplinarity?

The earlier philosophers of transdisciplinarity – such as Erich Jantsch (1980), Basarab Nicolescu (2002), and Edgar Morin (2008) – all aim to stretch or transcend the dominant Western paradigm, which arises in part from Aristotle’s rules of good thought. Aristotle’s rules of good thought, or his epistemology, state essentially that to make meaning in the world, we must see in terms of difference; we must make sense in terms of black and white, or dualistic and reductive thinking.

Cynthia Mitchell (biography)

Everywhere we look in Western society, we can see dualisms. Dualisms can be easily communicated in metaphor as the common Boolean “either/or” representation of two overlapping circles, where one is black and the other is white, and the middle grey section is ignored, as shown in the figure below. We see difference and separateness. The figure invokes common hard and fast dualisms often used to make sense of the world, where we view those in the black circle as distinct from and separate to those in the white circle. It is common to be less familiar with the relationships, co-existence, or mutual-causality between these entities or processes in the grey area.

However, this simple circular representation belies the profundity of the influence of this view within the dominant paradigms. The early transdisciplinary philosophers shared a sharp critique about the dualistic nature of Western society. Jantsch, Nicolescu and Morin all reflect on how this “either/or” logic runs straight through the heart of the dominant cultural paradigms and embeds within many individual worldviews. “Dualistic meaning-making” manifests when we see humans only as separate from nature; or we see ourselves and our disciplines only as separate from others; or when we believe values have no place in objective knowing.

Each philosopher offered their own guidance on how we can transcend dualism, prioritise process, see relationality, and perceive a radical interconnected unity of reality. For Nicolescu, this is his notion of the ‘Included Middle’ (see the figure below), which is in direct response to Aristotle’s excluded middle in his separatist rules of good thinking. The included middle refers to recognising the validity in paradoxes and contradictions, and the deeper insights they afford.

Common dualisms found deeply embedded within Western ways of knowing and being (conceived of and designed by Katie Ross)

Why does this critique of the Western paradigm matter? These deeply embedded dualistic norms and assumptions – according to these philosophers – are the seeds which create and drive the “wicked”, complex problems that many transdisciplinarians are dealing with today. For example, separatist thinking allows us to:

  • simplify problems to focus on weak but tangible interventions
  • justify inequitable treatment of nature or our fellow humans
  • prioritise efficiency and techno-scientific solutions.

Their philosophical provocations strongly suggest that if we do not transcend or stretch beyond dualistic ways of being, even our transdisciplinary efforts run the risk of escalating the “wickedness” of the situations we engage with.

Transdisciplinary research and learning is a step towards transcending the manifestations of dualistic being and thinking. Transdisciplinarity breaks down silos of previously segregated disciplines. Transdisciplinarity finds connection between previously separated spheres of society (academia, business, government) and ways of knowing (rational, intuitive, emotional, subjective, embodied).

But do our transdisciplinary approaches shine far enough into our beliefs to uncover how these deeply embedded dualistic ways of thinking influence all of our beliefs, and help improve our reflection on how we structure and engage in transdisciplinarity? If not, how can we strengthen our reflection and deepen our learning about ourselves?

One entry point into a reflection with our deepest assumptions is through exploration of six meaning systems. These meaning systems are categories of our most fundamental views, for example:

  • our beliefs about reality (ontology)
  • our beliefs about knowledge and knowing (epistemology)
  • our guiding values (axiology)
  • our beliefs in how best to organise society (social vision)
  • our underlying assumptions about what it means to be human (anthropology)
  • our views about the origin and existence of the cosmos and why are we here (cosmology).

Paradoxically and ironically, the selection and definition of these meaning-systems is deeply influenced by what one thinks is important. Perhaps you might choose other categories. For example, you might include spirituality or theology as another important category of our most fundamental views.

For transdisciplinarity to be truly transformative, collaborative transdisciplinary researchers must make space to reflect on the beliefs within – and the power and influence of – these six meaning-making systems, as well as the presence of duality within them, in their own personal and professional practice (Ross and Mitchell 2018).

How have you engaged with the early philosophers of transdisciplinarity? What are your thoughts or reactions to them? Who else would you suggest is relevant? How do your transdisciplinary projects and teams create space to explore the deeper assumptions and beliefs within? What are the benefits and challenges of doing so?

To find out more:
Ross, K. and Mitchell, C. (2018). Transforming transdisciplinarity: An expansion of strong transdisciplinarity and its centrality in enabling effective collaboration. In: D. Fam, L. Neuhauser, and P. Gibbs (Eds.), Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice and Education: The art of collaborative research and collective learning. Springer International Publishing. Online:

Jantsch, E. (1980). The Self-Organising Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution. Pergamon Press: New York, United States of America

Morin, E. (2008). On Complexity. Hampton Press: New Jersey, United States of America

Nicolescu, B. (2002). Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity. State University of New York Press: New York, United States of America

Biography: Katie Ross is curious about ways to create change towards sustainable futures. She wonders what types of strategies and approaches work well in certain situations, and what ‘palette’ of processes lead to the most meaningful and well directed change. Luckily, she is a Research Principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures within the University of Technology Sydney, Australia, where she can explore this daily. She specializes in transdisciplinary action research and learning that agitates for change in social, technical and governance systems. She brings almost two decades of experience in the sustainability sector and is currently a doctoral candidate, exploring processes of transformative learning for sustainability.

Biography: Cynthia Mitchell is Deputy Director and Professor of Sustainability at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, where she has been pioneering transdisciplinary research since 2001, principally in learning, water services and international development. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. Her passion for improving our collective ability to articulate, do, and value transdisciplinary research began when an engineering professor said of her research student’s work, ‘I just can’t see a PhD in this’, and an education professor said ‘I can see three’.

Skilful conversations for integration

Community member post by Rebecca Freeth and Liz Clarke

Rebecca Freeth (biography)

Interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle complex problems is challenging! In particular, interdisciplinary communication can be very difficult – how do we bridge the gulf of mutual incomprehension when we are working with people who think and talk so very differently from us? What skills are required when mutual incomprehension escalates into conflict, or thwarts decision making on important issues?

It is often at this point that collaborations lose momentum. In the absence of constructive or productive exchange, working relationships stagnate and people retreat to the places where they feel safest: their own disciplines, their offices, or the colleagues who are on their ‘side’. As a consequence, prospects for meaningful collaboration and integration dwindle.

Liz Clarke (biography)

One of the difficulties of interdisciplinary collaboration is being able to express the brilliant ideas swimming around in our own heads so that they can (a) be understood by others and (b) contribute to mutual insights and integration.

The table below outlines four ways of engaging in constructive communication. Each kind of exchange has its role to play, but the full spectrum is necessary for meaningful collaboration and integration. In other words, skilful conversation spans a range from serial monologue to generative dialogue.

While all four approaches have their place and function, reflective and generative dialogue represent constructive approaches when incomprehension escalates into conflict or hardens into paralysis. Reflective dialogue involves curiosity about others’ perspectives, with an interest in understanding what makes them different from one’s own.

The fourth option, generative dialogue, is sometimes possible. In generative dialogue, members of a research team stay engaged with high levels of tension and hence open up windows onto new insights, revealing sources of incomprehension and holding potential for deep collective coherence and transformational learning.

Spectrum of four ways to engage in interdisciplinary conversations (Freeth, Clarke and Fam, forthcoming, adapted from: Scharmer (2008); Kahane (2008); Ashhurst (pers. Comm.))

Each way of engaging requires particular skills and experience, including the capacity to express ideas clearly, to listen in a way that seeks to understand the ideas of others, as well as the capacity (and stomach) to maintain engagement even when the dialogue becomes confusing or frustrating. It also requires being comfortable with what we don’t know. As nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford is reported to have said: “I’m fascinated by my own ignorance; what does it look like to you?”

In our experience, these skills are best acquired in practice. It can be worth starting with a facilitator, or someone who has significant experience of sustained conversation in groups and who can point out when it would be useful to slow down and seek more clarity, or when to stop trying so hard and do something else for a while. But we all bring useful life experience to such conversations and it is worth also valuing the combination of skills, or what Rhoten et al., (2009) call “collaborative dispositions”, whether it is playfulness, conscientiousness, care, introspection or extroversion.

What has your experience been in reaching common ground across different disciplines? How have you built your skills for conversation? What strategies have you used when collaborators lack one or more of the necessary skills?

To find out more:
Freeth, R., Clarke, E. A. and Fam, D. (In press). Engaging creatively with tension in collaborative research: Harnessing the ‘I’ and ‘we’ through dialogue. In: Brown V, Harris, J. and Waltner-Toews, D. (eds), Independent thinking in an uncertain world. Routledge: London, United Kingdom

Kahane, A. (2008). The potential of talking and the challenge of listening. The Systems Thinker, 14. (Online):

Rhoten, D., O’Connor, E. and Hackett, E. J. (2009). The act of collaborative creation and the art of integrative creativity: Originality, disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. Thesis Eleven, 96, 1: 83–108. (Online – DOI): 10.1177/0725513608099121

Scharmer, C. O. (2008). Uncovering the blind spot of leadership. Leader to Leader, 47: 52–59. (Online – DOI): 10.1002/ltl.269

Biography: Rebecca Freeth is completing her PhD at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany where she is studying the interdisciplinary team of which she is also a member. Rebecca researches, writes about and facilitates collaboration. She does this with an eye on sustainability; supporting communities that will sustain even though they are wildly diverse, supporting collective decisions that will sustain because they take seriously the concerns of the outnumbered, and supporting social ecological systems that will sustain because everyone’s knowledge counts. Always a nomad, Rebecca moves between the worlds of practice, teaching and academia, and between Germany and South Africa.

Biography: Liz Clarke is a transdisciplinary social-ecological systems researcher at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany, far from her home turf in Australia. She works on knowledge coproduction in the Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation project, focusing on RETHINKing (sustainability-related knowledge creation) as a deep leverage point. With her family background in farming and her previous career in international agricultural research she is passionate about working in rural Southern Transylvania in Romania and Oldenburg in Germany.

Six strategies to ensure policies are backed by evidence

Community member post by Danielle Campbell and Gabriel Moore

Danielle Campbell (biography)

What is the best way to ensure that policies are informed by the most relevant research evidence?

Six promising strategies emerged from a rapid review of the literature (Campbell and Moore 2018). Although our focus was on health policies, the findings are likely to be more broadly applicable. An important caveat is that the number of studies to investigate these issues is small and most are descriptive rather than testing strategies. Continue reading

A flexible framework for stakeholder engagement

Community member post by Michelle Banfield

Michelle Banfield (biography)

How can stakeholder engagement in research be effectively planned? What parameters need to be taken into account? How can flexibility be built in to accommodate different levels of researcher and stakeholder experience?

The framework presented here was developed for health services research, but is more broadly applicable. The framework has three separate dimensions.

  1. The stakeholders to involve
  2. The stages of the research at which they will be involved
  3. The level of involvement for each stakeholder group at each stage.

Continue reading

Four strategies for improving knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers

Community member post by Chris Cvitanovic

Chris Cvitanovic (biography)

How can we improve knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers to facilitate evidence informed decision-making? Of course there is no one size fits all approach, but here I outline four strategies that could be adapted and implemented across different contexts: (i) knowledge co-production, (ii) embedding, (iii) knowledge brokers, and (iv) boundary organisations. These are illustrated in the figure below.

Knowledge co-production

Perhaps the most widely advocated approach to achieving improved knowledge exchange, knowledge co-production refers to the process whereby decision-makers actively participate in scientific research programs from the onset, collaborating with researchers throughout every aspect of the study including design, implementation and analysis. Continue reading

Conditions for co-creation

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

This is part of a series of occasional “synthesis blog posts” drawing together insights across blog posts on related topics.

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What is required for effective co-creation, especially between researchers and stakeholders? In particular, what contributes to a productive environment for co-creation? And what considerations are relevant for deciding who to involve?

Twelve blog posts which have addressed these issues are discussed. Bringing those insights together provides a richer picture of how to achieve effective co-creation.

What makes a productive environment for co-creation?

A good starting point is to be working in an environment and organizational culture that support co-creation and to have sufficient financial, personnel and other resources, as pointed out by Kit Macleod and Arnim Wiek.

Dialogue-based processes are often an important part of co-creation and they need to be established as a generative space, focused on synergy, not conflict. Continue reading