Methods for integration in transdisciplinary research

By Matthias Bergmann

Matthias Bergmann (biography)

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.

7 thoughts on “Methods for integration in transdisciplinary research”

    • Bethany, I make the distinction like this:
      The communicative dimension concerns the (differentiating and) linking of different linguistic expressions and communicative practices, with the aim of developing something like a common discursive practice in which mutual understanding and communication is possible, as well as clarifying common terms and constructing new ones.
      In the social dimension it is a matter of differentiating and correlating the participating researchers’ and practitioners’ different interests and activities – at eye level. This dimension also includes the conscious leadership of teams composed of scientists and practitioners, mutual understanding and the willingness to learn.

      • That is interesting, Matthias. At the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative, most of us recognize the epistemic & social dimensions with communication not being a third dimension but the dynamic driving and connecting both of the other dimensions. But I can see how calling out communication as a third dimension forces people to pay attention to it. Was that your thinking in making it a third dimension, or something else?

        • At ISOE – Institute for Social-ecological Research we call the entirety of integration tasks in TDR [transdisciplinary research] the tasks of ‘cognitive integration’.

          Cognitive integration processes are not only about knowledge (epistemologies, concepts, categories, theories, methods and metaphors), but also about interactions and communications between persons and about social positions in organizations. This applies both on the level of real society and on the level of science and research.

          The three dimensions of cognitive integration are not separate, but arranged in parallel – albeit with different weightings depending on the case. The interaction between the integration dimensions is usually not trivial. As a rule, specific forms of cooperation across scientific cultural boundaries are required, but specific forms of cooperation are also needed between the different fields of knowledge of society and science itself, in order to address in an integrative way the research tasks related to this understanding of cognitive integration. In all this, communication, i.e. common understanding, is very central. Therefore, a separate dimension seems to be important for this.

  1. This blog post generated the following discussion on the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies listserv (INTERDIS@LISTSERV.UA.EDU). Selected excerpts below.

    Steve Fiore: If anyone on the list is interested in the boundary objects aspect of this, I had an article come out last fall where my student and I discuss how these kinds of artifacts (loosely labeled “external cognition”) play a role in collaborative cognition.

    Fiore, S.M. & Wiltshire, T.J. (2016). Technology as Teammate: Examining the Role of External Cognition in Support of Team Cognitive Processes. Frontiers in Psychology: Cognitive Science. 7:1531. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01531.

    Response by Matthias Bergmann: Thank you for drawing attention to your very interesting article – especially because it shows in how many completely different fields of study (cognitive science or sustainability studies) aspects of integration and team cognition play an important role.

    In our work on the scientific foundations of transdisciplinarity we developed a scheme of three dimensions of integration to better understand what is needed for knowledge integration in a participatory research setting with scientists from a number of disciplines and practitioners from the societal field of study:

    – A cognitive-epistemic dimension: Here it is a question of the differentiation and linkage of expert/disciplinary knowledge bases, as well of scientific and practical real-world knowledge. More concretely: it is a matter of understanding the methods and terms of other disciplines; clarifying
    the limits of one’s own knowledge; and developing methods and building theories together.

    – A social and organizational dimension: Here it is a matter of differentiating and correlating the participating researchers’ different interests and activities, as well as of the sub-projects or organizational units. This dimension also includes the conscious leadership of (not only scientific)
    teams, mutual understanding and the willingness to learn.

    – A communicative dimension: This is the (differentiating and) linking of different linguistic expressions and communicative practices, with the aim of developing something like a common discursive practice in which mutual understanding and communication is possible, as well as clarifying common terms and constructing new ones.
    (Bergmann et al. 2012: 45)

    All these dimensions and needs can be supported tremendously by formulating a common boundary object in the very beginning of a research process – be it an artifact or a concept or a common vision.
    Maybe this could be of interest for your studies.

  2. Tim, thank you for posting this. Indeed, most of the times a combination of methods is used to provide a research team with a successful integration-‘story’. And it is always interesting to find out in which phases of a research project (project/problem constitution, integrative knowledge generation, implementation of results) which method can be most helpful. This is another feature of the book: it is indicated for each of the methods, when best to be used during the research process. Would be interesting to know about your combination of methods.

  3. Thank you for your research, Matthias, it is very helpful. I have had success with using outcome-based metrics to achieve agricultural sustainability objectives. As I analyze the project in hindsight, I, if I am applying your descriptions correctly, used #1, #2, #4, #5, #6, and #7 to various degrees, or in some cases they describe multiple facets of a component used. I will give it some further thought.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.