By Chris Riedy
What materials are needed to support the conduct of transdisciplinary research?
Transdisciplinary research is a bundle of interwoven social practices taking different forms in different contexts. As highlighted in one prominent version of social practice theory (Shove et al., 2012: 14), social practice has three elements:
- Materials – ‘including things, technologies, tangible physical entities, and the stuff of which objects are made’
- Competences – ‘which encompasses skill, know-how and technique’
- Meanings – ‘in which we include symbolic meanings, ideas and aspirations’.
The materials – the tangible physical entities – that make up a bundle of transdisciplinary research practices include:
- the people engaged in the practice,
- the locations they inhabit,
- the tools and technologies and resources they use to do the research,
- the physical contexts in which the research takes place,
- the data that emerge from the research practice
- time and funding
- information, including disciplinary knowledge.
Time and funding for undertaking research both tend to be in short supply. In contrast, information is now available in surplus. Once, transdisciplinary research was materially constrained by the difficulty of physically accessing relevant knowledge from other fields. In the information age, Google Scholar can deliver thousands of relevant articles on a particular research problem from myriad disciplinary perspectives. The material accessibility of disciplinary knowledge is a key factor in the rise of transdisciplinary research.
Space can also shape how a practice develops. I work in an open plan space occupying a single floor. Researchers from diverse disciplines sit in ‘pods’ of four to six people, separated from other pods by partitions. Meeting rooms and the kitchen act as hubs at different ends of the office that attract people throughout the day. In this environment, there are many opportunities for serendipitous meetings and ‘corridor chats’ with people from very different disciplinary backgrounds, which enables the emergence of cross-disciplinary understanding. In more traditional office environments, researchers may have their own office behind a closed door, and are typically grouped by discipline, making serendipitous meetings with researchers from other disciplines less frequent.
Relationships are another critical resource for transdisciplinary research. Ledford (2015: 310, citing Laura Meagher) writes that ‘the most common mistake is underestimating the depth of commitment and personal relationships needed for a successful interdisciplinary project’. These relationships take a lot of time to develop. Research participants need to build up trust, find common ground and resolve differences in worldview, perspective and language over multiple engagements. As a recent editorial in Nature put it, ‘true interdisciplinary science cannot be rushed, not least because the best course of investigation is rarely clear at the outset’ (Anon. 2015: 290).
In the first consciously transdisciplinary research project I participated in, a group of researchers from across my university met fortnightly for a year to co-design a research project. In that time, we barely made it beyond co-design and into doing actual research. It took a lot of time and dialogue to break down disciplinary barriers created by our different ways of seeing the world and the different jargon that had meaning in our disciplinary worlds.
The kind of intense dialogue needed to co-design transdisciplinary research is currently easier to do face-to-face than using virtual collaboration tools. Thus, physical proximity becomes an important material resource for transdisciplinary research; while not essential, it makes for a smoother process.
Time and travel both require funding. While funding opportunities for transdisciplinary research are improving, there are still structural barriers to securing funding. For example, the Australian Research Council uses discipline-based panels drawn from its College of Experts to assess grant funding applications. There may be good intentions to support transdisciplinary research but a lack of familiarity amongst assessors and bureaucratic inertia can undermine these intentions. Outside traditional research funding channels, organisations considering the funding of contract research may hesitate at supporting the relatively open-ended processes that characterise transdisciplinary research due to uncertainty as to what may emerge and the perceived risk of failure.
As a consequence of these material and structural barriers, it can be difficult for a community of practice to achieve its ideal vision of transdisciplinary research. Compromises are inevitable, but some steps can be taken to overcome material barriers by cultivating relationships with stakeholder organisations that can support the research through both participation and funding.
What has your experience been? What material institutional supports and barriers to transdisciplinary research have you experienced?
To find out more:
Riedy, C. J. (2016). Seeding a new transdisciplinary community of practice. In, Fam, D., Palmer, J., Riedy, C. and Mitchell, C. (Eds), Transdisciplinary Research and Practice for Sustainability Outcomes, Routledge: London, United Kingdom: 93-106.
Anon. (2015). Mind Meld. Nature, 525, 7569: 289–290
Ledford, H. (2015). Team Science. Nature, 525, (17 September 2015): 308–311
Shove, E., Pantzar, M., and Watson, M. (2012). The Dynamics of Social Practice. Sage: London, United Kingdom
Biography: Chris Riedy is an Associate Professor and Director of Higher Degree Research at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney. Chris applies futures thinking, participatory processes and social theory to practical experiments in transformative change for sustainability. Between 2014 and 2016, he assisted Wintec in New Zealand with establishment of a new Master of Transdisciplinary Research and Innovation. He has designed and facilitated several workshops to help research students and supervisors learn how to do transdisciplinary research. Chris is a Senior Research Fellow of the Earth System Governance project and a member of the Editorial Boards for Futures and the Journal of Futures Studies. He writes a blog on thriving within planetary boundaries called PlanetCentric [Moderator note – as of October 2021, the following link has ceased working and has been disabled: chrisriedy[dot]me].