What is the role of theory in transdisciplinary research?

By Workshop Group on Theory at 2015 Basel International Transdisciplinary Conference

Workshop Group on Theory at 2015 Basel International Transdisciplinary Conference (biography)

Theory makes clear what transdisciplinary researchers value and stand for; we therefore have a responsibility to build and articulate it.

If we think about transdisciplinary research as a space situated between different epistemic cultures and practices, as well as being culturally contextualised, we can expect different theories of transdisciplinary research, as well as different significance and functions of theory, and different ways of working with theories, in transdisciplinary research.

Theory can contribute to the identity and development of transdisciplinary research. Theory or conceptual models can provide practical guidance to the challenging problems transdisciplinary research tackles. These can help guide the transdisciplinary research process.

Theory can make certain research fields visible, giving them a place in the landscape of knowledge. It can also make transdisciplinary research more ‘approachable’ for scientists and decision makers for whom transdisciplinarity is not a major interest.

It is important to hold theory lightly and to approach and use it pragmatically. The aim is to produce effective action rather than ideas in books.

Some functions of theory in transdisciplinary research:

  • Theory can be a framework, a way to provide a scaffolding for ideas that may not be well entrenched, and a conceptual model to build bridges between concepts.
  • Theory can be used to understand the situation or problem, to test relationships among components of a problem or among stakeholders, and to help explain dynamics in co-operative undertakings.
  • Theory can help identify which knowledge is important and how it connects to other knowledge.
  • Theory provides a signal to others about how a problem is being viewed.

Key questions for building a theory of transdisciplinary research:

  • Is there are a universal theory of transdisciplinary research or only context bounded theories?
  • How can theory-building be kept open and defended against those who would “close the paradigm shift” that transdisciplinary research represents?
  • Is a pluralist approach to epistemologies an aspect of theory?
  • To what extent does transdisciplinary research theory draw on already tested theories from disciplines, field, problems or groups? How can such existing theories be integrated in transdisciplinary research?

We welcome your responses to these comments and questions and look forward to a lively ongoing discussion.

Biography: These comments and questions were developed by participants at a workshop on “Significance and relevance of theory and theory building in transdisciplinary research. A discursive, praxeological approach” at the [LINK REMOVED as no longer functional – International Transdisciplinary Conference 2015] (8 – 10 September 2015 Basel, Switzerland).

The workshop organisers were:

  • Martina Ukowitz, Institute of Organizational Development, Group Dynamics and Intervention Research, University of Klagenfurt, Klagenfurt, Austria
  • Ulli Vilsmaier, Methodenzentrum, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany
  • Christian Pohl, ETH Zürich, Transdisciplinary Laboratory at the Department of Environmental Systems Science, Zürich, Switzerland

The other participants were:

  • Alexandra Lux, ISOE, Frankfurt, Germany;
  • Kara Hall, National Cancer Institute, USA;
  • Dorothy Olsen, NIFU, Norway;
  • Tobias Krüger, Humboldt-Uni, Berlin, Germany;
  • Cynthia Mitchell, Institute of Sustainable Futures, Australia;
  • Lisa Pettibone, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, Germany;
  • Annika Frahsa, Fiedrich Alexander Universität, Germany;
  • Vibeke Nenseth, CIENS/TOI, Norway;
  • Merritt Polk, University of Gothenburg, Sweden;
  • Judith Kahle, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Germany;
  • Vareilles Gaelle
  • Alejandro Guevara, Universidad Autonoma de Queretano, Mexico;
  • Esther Meyer, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Germany;
  • Peter Sandell, SAMK, Finland;
  • Juanita Schlaepfer, ZHdk, University of Plymouth, Switzerland;
  • Flurina Schneider, University of Bern, Switzerland;
  • Gabriele Bammer, Australian National University;
  • Ari Lindeman, Kymenlaakso University, Finland;
  • Moritz Engbers, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Germany.

Moritz Engbers (Leuphana Lüneburg) transcribed the audio-recording of the workshop and Gabriele Bammer wrote this post from the workshop summary produced by the organisers.

2 thoughts on “What is the role of theory in transdisciplinary research?”

  1. Peter –
    This contribution is using the opening in your last sentence on places to start. I became a transdisciplinarian as I delved deeper into my two decade effort of resolving agriculture sustainability issues. The transdisciplinary approach became my tool to address what I had recently accepted as a wicked problem [landscape sustainability].

    Elinor Ostrom’s work on socio-ecological system and her observation that “if these self-governance models worked in practice, then they must work in theory” was supportive of my observations as well.

    By using the new business model of multi-sided platforms I began to twine some of these concepts together to create a version of sustainability science. In a nutshell, I came to accept that resolving wicked problems require a transdisciplinary approach that is supported by a shared governance model housed within an index-based engagement platform. I have not been able to apply it to other sector wicked problems, but I can certainly envision the logic.

    Tim Gieseke

  2. A challenge in discussing theory are that conflations and mis-understandings around theory are common and, granting that the blog post is a translation of a group discussion, there are signs of such confusion in the post.

    So a fundamental problem in talking about theory is in determining, for example: (a) what is theory and what is not theory; (b) what the word ‘theory’ means in differing contexts and is usage consistent; and, (c) what the different kinds of theory being discussed are. Some of what is written above disguise more than clarify these questions.

    The larger challenge in getting a grip on this is that these questions (around what theory is) trend into the territory of meta-theory, which is to say ‘theory on theory’. This is not an easy area to approach, as meta-theory involves philosophy (notably epistemology, but also metaphysics (notably ontology), logic, ethics and methodology), and to some extents it is more effective to look at how other disciplines that face rich and complex lived (researched) realities have dealt with theory (on theory) – sociology comes to mind, but also in works that cover research design and strategy.

    This is perhaps the more vital discussion for transdisciplinarians, and that is to develop a common language to discuss theory on theory, which in turn starts to feed into the longer term building of an explanation (theory!) for what transdisciplinary knowledge is. All in all, and staying focused on the blog post, it perhaps suggests a more basic ‘building block’ approach, focusing on sub-parts of some of the issues raised in the blog post – an example is defining what theory is or identifying where theories have been used in transdisciplinary research and then analysing the underlying assumptions in the use of the theories. There is certainly no shortage of places to start in order to build understanding.


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