Three tasks for transdisciplinary bridge builders

By Roderick J. Lawrence

Roderick J. Lawrence (biography)

Human groups and societies have built many kinds of bridges for centuries. Since the 19th century, engineers have designed complex physical structures that were intended to serve one or more purposes in precise situations. In essence, the construction of a bridge is meant to join two places together. What may appear as a mundane functional structure is built only after numerous decisions have been made about its appearance, cost, functions, location and structure. Will a bridge serve only as a link and passage, or will it serve other functions?

In discussing three things the transdisciplinary research community can do to build bridges, I use “building bridges” as a metaphor. I discuss a bridge as a human-made artefact that is attributed meaningful form. It is created intentionally for one or more purposes. I step along a path I sketched in a recent publication (Lawrence, 2017) in order to explain why bridge building is fundamental for transdisciplinary inquiry, and three tasks that are necessary in order to effectively build bridges across academic, institutional and professional divides.

1. Build cultural bridges

The transdisciplinary research community has given little attention to the culture of transdisciplinary inquiry. I am using the world ’culture’ to denote a multi-dimensional (plural) and evolving (change) concept rather than a monolithic and static one. This interpretation of culture enables us to explain why there has been an increasing division and specialization of disciplinary knowledge and professional know-how since the 19th century.

Today, for example, the word ‘environment’ (which only came into public use from about 1970), has been attributed different meanings by biologists, chemists and geologists, as well as anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists. Beyond these discipline-based groups, there are other trades and professional groups as well as policy decision makers who have specific interpretations too.

This example shows that there are no longer “two cultures” as C.P. Snow (1961) claimed, but multiple cultures, sub-cultures and micro-cultures, in a broad field concerned about the environment. Consequently, a fundamental task for the transdisciplinary research community is to develop capabilities and skills to build cultural bridges, and especially conceptual and linguistic bridges, between key concepts and their meanings used during specific projects. This is not a simple task.

The diversity of coexisting cultures today is only one reason why a trans-anthropo-logic of transdisciplinarity requires a commitment by funders and researchers for more in-depth research. In order to respond effectively to this challenge, a major shift is required from inward looking perspectives common to disciplinary-based education, training and research, to outward looking perspectives with vision beyond disciplinary divides. Today, beyond the walls of universities and professional institutions, there are a growing number of international organizations and foundations that support knowledge networks founded on such outward looking perspectives.

2. Use dialogue and negotiation to build bridges

A second task for the transdisciplinary research community stems from a commitment to the co-definition of the purpose of the bridge. It is worth emphasizing again here that the bridge is not a physical structure, but a cultural artefact with meanings, uses and values. Participants in transdisciplinary projects need to agree on the shared concepts, data, definitions, information, meanings, rules and methods that will be used. Dialogue and negotiation are the means for the construction of a bridge across common divides. These processes can bring together academic and non-academic actors and institutions to tackle real-world concerns and situations that may require change. Building bridges across conceptual divides, institutional borders and social barriers takes time rarely allocated sufficiently in project proposals.

3. Use the bridge to challenge perceptions

The third task is to creatively use the bridge not just as a passage but as an artefact that can challenge the way the transdisciplinary research community and others perceive and interpret real world situations that require some kind of intervention for the common good, especially:

  • to challenge our thinking in terms of dichotomous categories (eg., either disciplinary or interdisciplinary);
  • to replace reductionist and normative interpretations of the challenges we face in the world today by admitting diversity, complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability; and,
  • to remember that the bridge we have co-created expresses the way we act, perhaps not just during a research project but during our daily lives.

In essence, the way we think will influence our decisions about the purposes of building bridges, or whether we construct a bridge at all! Are you a transdisciplinary bridge builder? If so what do you think the next steps should be to bridge over academic, institutional and professional divides? Do you know of positive bridge building by the transdisciplinary research community?

To find out more:
Lawrence, R. (2017). A trans-anthropo-logic of transdisciplinarity. In: D. Fam, J. Palmer, C. Riedy and C. Mitchell (eds.), Transdisciplinary research and practice for sustainability outcomes, Routledge: London, United Kingdom, pp: 253-259.

Snow, C. (1961). The two cultures and the scientific revolution: The Rede Lecture, 1959. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Biography: Roderick Lawrence is Honorary Professor at the Geneva School of Social Sciences, in Switzerland, Honorary Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture and the Built Environment, University of Adelaide, Australia, and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Environment and Development (LESTARI) at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, in Malaysia. He is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research at the Swiss Academy of Sciences. His current research is about transdiciplinary planning of the built environment in the context of global, regional and local changes in order to promote and maintain health and well-being of all.

15 thoughts on “Three tasks for transdisciplinary bridge builders”

  1. Rethinking the metaphor of scaffolding for transdisciplinary bridge building

    Transdisciplinary bridge builders can use scaffolding in order to build bridges between people educated in different disciplines, others trained for different professions, as well as the general public. The metaphor of scaffolding has been used over many decades in linguistics, pedagogy and psychology but I am not aware of its application by transdisciplinary researchers. I think it is a useful metaphor, not just because constructing large bridges requires scaffolding in the real world. I also think scaffolding is necessary if it is interpreted as different kinds of supportive systems to achieve transdisciplinary projects.

    This use of the metaphor of scaffolding is an extension of the seminal contribution of the Russian psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934). He argued that an individual’s ability is not limited by his intellect because it is potentially enriched by the quality of social interaction with others. Therefore, I posit that the organization of interpersonal communication during transdisciplinary projects is fundamentally important for their outcomes. This implies that the project coordinator (or project manager) should be capable of moderating, and if necessary, mediating dialogue during all phases of a project.

    The first tier of scaffolding for transdisciplinary projects should support the diversity of knowledge cultures and know-how assembled for collaboration. A key task for the project coordinator is to ensure that all requisite data, knowledge and know how about a situation or problem is accessible to, and understood by, all the participants. Scaffolding such as knowledge arenas can support the sharing of data, information and diverse kinds of knowledge across disciplinary borders and sectoral boundaries. A second tier of scaffolding is necessary in order to bridge the knowledge gaps between what is known about the situation or problem and what missing data, information and knowledge is necessary before decisions are taken about actions that are feasible and desirable. Today, it is often no longer tenable to claim that more data and information are necessary before actions are taken to counteract societal challenges such as the increasing incidence of obesity, loss of biodiversity, and extreme weather events. Last but not least, a third tier of scaffolding is necessary to support transformative change. This scaffolding includes financial, institutional and political supports provided by both the public and private sectors. Today we know that transformative change is no simply grounded in empirical evidence, because it is also fundamentally founded on human attitudes, perceptions, values and world views.

    Do you think that the metaphor of scaffolding is useful? Have you considered the supportive systems that could be used during your research project? Do you know of positive bridge building with scaffolding by the transdisciplinary research community?

    Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

  2. A tremendous resource for anyone working on sustainable development issues. This blog has helped me to understand a struggle we are having to partner across three universities located in the Caribbean/West Indies, Texas and Norway. Partners come from the hard sciences and social sciences as well and we have struggled to communicate our project ideas and activities within the team and to external stakeholders. This blog has clarified things for me in terms of the challenge and more importantly on the way forward to a successful project proposal and its execution. I shall be sharing this with the team and getting your book as well. Ideas from the American philosophical tradition of Pragmatism seem to be relevant to this discourse as well. I used the neopragmatist social theory of Cornel West, Prophetic Pragmatism, to guide my doctoral studies in Social and Environmental Accounting in the English Caribbean (University of Dundee Scotland, 2000). The following statement from your blog captures fully the conceptualising and outcome in my dissertation using West’s way of thinking about social problems like environmental sustainability:
    “The diversity of coexisting cultures today is only one reason why a trans-anthropo-logic of transdisciplinarity requires a commitment by funders and researchers for more in-depth research. In order to respond effectively to this challenge, a major shift is required from inward looking perspectives common to disciplinary-based education, training and research, to outward looking perspectives with vision beyond disciplinary divides.”

    Thanks again. Emily

    • Thank you Emily for your feedback and introducing the team work you have completed in the English Caribbean. Your application of the neo-pragmatic social theory of Cornel West (which I did not know) in the study of people-environment relations in the Caribbean region is an interesting case for others, and not only those committed to sustainable development issues. In my opinion cases such as yours need to be published to develop and share understanding on bridge building. I hope your work will be soon published in an article or book chapter that you can share with other researchers who seek to bridge between theory and practice, between the natural and social sciences, and between academic and extra-academic actors and institutions.

  3. The metaphor of building a bridge between disciplines is a powerful one, and in itself frames the discussion. But perhaps a “building” metaphor is made of the same stuff that builds barriers between disciplines.

    I wonder if a “destruction” metaphor is more useful. We need trans-disciplinary bridges because our endeavours to develop a disciplinary framework to explain the world, which in equal parts explains and isolates us from the world. i.e. a concept about the world is not the actual world. Maybe we need to destroy our disciplines from the bottom up until there is nothing left to bridge – but I guess this will only be initiated by the “bridge builders”.

    • Thanks Craig for you comments which raise issues that are being debated among transdisciplinary researchers, and indeed have been discussed in terms of the merits and shortcomings of disciplinary and interdisciplinary research over a longer period. (See Julie Thompson Klein, ‘ Discourses of transdisciplinarity: looking back to the future’, Futures, vol. 65, pp.10-16.). I prefer not to use negative metaphors even though I recognize these are commonly used to convince others. When I read your ‘destruction metaphor’ I recalled the images of Mostar Bridge destroyed in 1993; then I thought positively that the bridge was also reconstructed. The dismantling of disciplines has been proposed for decades, and some authors propose they are replaced by a meta-knowledge domain. Other authors stress that real-world challenges (such as climate change, non-communicable diseases and poverty) cannot be solved by applying knowledge from only one discipline. This point-of-view should not be interpreted as the negation of disciplines, but the need to combine and coordinate disciplinary competences, knowledge and know-how creatively to deal with these challenges. Other authors defend the need for disciplinary competences and knowledge in order to tackle in-depth problems in precise situations. Others writing about transdisciplinarity use concepts including transgression rather than destruction.

  4. Rod, Just read your short blog on transdisciplinary bridge building… fascinating!

    Could you send me a link to your chapter in the Fam et al book?

    We’re dealing with the issue in a project in China and its a real challenge. And its also relevant to our sustainability work here at the Univ of Michigan Regards, Bob

  5. And perhaps the culture and positioning of some organisations within a collaborative system enable them to be more readily used as bridge builders towards differing cultures and professions, etc. (whilst others may be more of a challenge dependent upon the mix and context). I explore this here: Click on the links at the top of the post to fill in some helpful background.

    • Charles, your proposition of an institutional framework grounded in an organizational culture triangle is an interesting one that should be known to transdisciplinary researchers. I appreciate your plural interpretation of extant cultures, and especially the fact that political culture of power and influence is at the pinacle.

  6. Thank you so much professor Roderick Lawrence. Your seminar on the Sustain-talk series in University of Malaya is an eye opener to me on the issues of sustainability and the roles of Universities in SDG (Sustainable Development Goals). My name is Anyanwu Chimaobi Emeka. A postgraduate student in University of Malaya, faculty of Science. I am studying for my Masters degree in Science, Technology & Sustainability.

  7. Please find below some my work of trans-disciplinary directions.

    Toward resolving the controversy over “thick description”. Current Anthropology, (Aug-Oct, 1986) 27 (4), 408-9

    Is accurate cross-cultural translation possible?. Current Anthropology, 28 (June, 1987). 365 (Letter)

    “Thick Description: Basic Issues in Interpretive Science” Communication and Social Structure, David Maines and Carl Couch, Editors. (1988)

    tom scheff

    • Thanks Tom for sharing these publications. Its fascinating that you acknowledge the seminal contribution of George Steiner who was a professor at the University of Cambridge when I had my postgraduate scholarship at St. John’s College; and he was also a Professor at the University of Geneva, where I spent most of my academic career in the Interfaculty Centre for Human Ecology and Environmental Sciences.


Leave a Reply

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