By Matthias Bergmann
To make progress in contributing to the solution of complex real-world problems, transdisciplinary research has come to the forefront. By integrating multiple disciplines as well as the expertise of partners from societal practice, transdisciplinary researchers are able to look at a problem from many angles, with the goal of making both societal and scientific advances.
But how can these different types of expertise be integrated into both a better understanding of the problem and more effective ways of addressing it?
Colleagues and I have collected 43 methods from a number of transdisciplinary research projects dealing with a variety of research topics. We have grouped them into seven classes following an epistemological hierarchy. We start with methods in the narrower sense, progressing to integration instruments.
1. Integration through conceptual clarification and theoretical framing
Concepts and theoretical framing are basic elements of scientific work. Cognitive and social integration during a transdisciplinary research process can be furthered by discussing and agreeing on central concepts, terms and theoretical frameworks, especially at the beginning of a research project. For example, agreeing on a common use of the notion ‘space’ from the perspectives of a sociologist, a geographer, a historian and a community administrator can be crucial for a project’s research objective.
2. Integration through research questions and hypothesis formulation
The formulation of problem-oriented (rather than discipline-oriented) research questions is key for integration among disciplines and for transgressing borders between scientific and societal actors. Hypotheses formulated by every research partner from science and praxis on why the issue at stake exists can be formed into a group model. This is an example of a method that supports knowledge integration as well as the team’s social integration.
3. Screening, using, refining, and further developing effective integrative scientific methods
In contrast to disciplinary research, with transdisciplinary research there is always a project-related methodological task embedded in the overall research task. Often the overall research task can only be achieved if new scientific, problem-oriented methods are developed to generate new transdisciplinary knowledge. Thus, the union of methodical elements from different disciplines represents a transdisciplinary integration concept that is both cognitively and practically effective. For example, ‘mobility-style analysis’ combines a method examining transportation behavior from transportation research with life-style analysis from sociology to gain targeted knowledge for interventions to achieve sustainable mobility.
4. Integrative assessment procedures
Success in transdisciplinary projects is hard to measure and expectations vary depending on the scientific or societal actor. These different expectations cannot be fulfilled directly; instead success has to be measured using criteria (eg., such as sustainability and its numerous specific elements) that are investigated and described in the research process. The development of multi-criteria assessment procedures provides a methodical framework for an important integrative process within the research work. For transdisciplinary research the aim of multi-criteria assessment is to merge quality criteria from different perspectives in a prospective assessment procedure.
5. Integration through development and application of models
While theories tend to abstract from concrete problems and their transformation, models function as intermediaries between theoretical and empirical descriptions of the world. Their very purpose is to function as integrating tools. Conceptual models, system models, forecasting models, and computer simulations can all combine information from different scientific fields and the societal field of action.
6. Integration through artifacts, services and products as boundary objects
The concept of “boundary objects” refers to those interfaces where actors from different fields, such as science, politics and business, meet and communicate. Boundary objects have, for all participants, not only a specific meaning but also a shared, communicable meaning. In order to fulfill this bridging function, a boundary object must be weakly structured and described in everyday, non-scientific language. Boundary objects have to be both malleable enough to adapt to the specific needs and constraints of the several participants from science and praxis deploying them, and robust enough to provide a common goal. Artifacts, products, publications, questionnaires and prototypes all serve as integrative tools.
7. Integrative procedures and instruments of research organizations
Procedures and instruments that focus on the process of cooperation within a research project are often used to serve cognitive and social integration. Such procedures include working in transdisciplinary tandems (ie., a scientist and a practitioner collaborating during a whole research process providing for socially robust knowledge), using iterative or recursive processes with stakeholders, and forming interdisciplinary teams and institutions. They aim, above all, at guaranteeing that the various knowledge bases that have been developed in discipline-specific sub-projects, and in response to the demands of societal practice, are connectible.
We do not claim to have developed a comprehensive set of methods and are interested to hear from you. Which methods have you found most useful for transdisciplinary integration?
To find out more:
Bergmann, M., Jahn, T., Knobloch, T., Krohn, W., Pohl, C. and Schramm, E. (2012). Methods for Transdisciplinary Research: A primer for practice, Campus Verlag: Frankfurt, Germany.
(Also available in German: Bergmann, M., Jahn, T., Knobloch, T., Krohn, W., Pohl, C. & Schramm, E. (2010). Methoden transdisziplinärer Forschung. Ein Überblick mit Anwendungsbeispielen, Campus Verlag: Frankfurt, Germany).
As well as describing the 43 methods for integration, the book also provides eleven examples of transdisciplinary research projects that developed, used and combined the methods for knowledge integration described above.
Biography: Matthias Bergmann has worked at the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt, Germany since 2000 and is part of the research unit ‘Transdisciplinary Methods and Concepts’. He was an invited guest scientist at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany from 2011 to 2016. He focuses on the study of quality criteria, the evaluation of transdisciplinary research, methods for integration issues in transdisciplinary research and on transdisciplinarity in higher education.