What makes research transdisciplinary?

By Liz Clarke

Liz Clarke (biography)

What do we mean by transdisciplinarity and when can we say we are doing transdisciplinary research? There is a broad literature with a range of different meanings and perspectives. There is the focus on real-world problems with multiple stakeholders in the “life-world”, and a sense of throwing open the doors of academia to transcend disciplinary boundaries to address and solve complex problems. But when it comes to the practicalities of work in the field, there is often uncertainty and even disagreement about what is and isn’t transdisciplinarity.

Let me give an example. In discussing our collaborations and inquiry in the Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation project case study areas (Transylvania, Romania and Oldenburg, Germany), we were struck by the very different kinds of engagement for various sub-teams and individuals. In some instances, researchers are collaborating closely with a core team of local, community-based partners including nongovernmental organisations, individuals, community groups and associations. In contrast, some of our other researchers are working at the institutional level, engaging in policy and governance in regional or national systems. And then there are others who are working with a broader range of local and regional stakeholders within the region.

Who is “doing” transdisciplinary research and who is not? Are we “in” or “out” of this space? And the discussion gets quite vigorous at this stage, as different definitions and conceptions butt up against each other, which has the potential to create separations or boundaries between the different team members.

Then the penny drops! There IS no one, useful definition, but a series of stipulative meanings (meanings which are useful and accurate for a particular time or application) or lenses through which we can view our research approach but most particularly our practice. It becomes a matter of what is practical and useful for particular inquiry situations.

So rather than seeing transdisciplinarity as an “in” or “out” (or “yes” or “no”) prescriptive set of tick boxes, we start to see some fluctuation in the caste of actors and partners over the life of the project, and we start to use terms like “near” and “far” and think in terms of interlinkages and broader networks, and what is a useful description at the time.

We are focusing on developing a transdisciplinary research practice, which is inclusive of a plurality of worldviews, embraces complexity and uncertainty and where we can work at multiple levels. Conceptual vagueness or plurality can be an asset (Strunz, 2012). And as Joern Fischer (2016) so clearly states:

Deep down, transdisciplinarity is about respecting non-research stakeholders, respecting their knowledge, engaging with them, and helping them do better through one’s research. It’s this moral basis of transdisciplinarity that I believe we can apply to just about all settings, because it’s grounded in something so deep that it makes sense irrespective of context.

And this means we need to be more inclusive about what we regard as knowledge. We need to include the tacit and invisible aspects of what we and others know, including our values, ethical frameworks, rules, customs, assumptions and the things we like (or not). And we need to deal with the inevitable conflicts, dissonances, dichotomies and dualisms that will arise. This is particularly relevant in the reality of our time (the Anthropocene), where we face multiple wicked problems, which require multiple and ongoing solutions and where we are beginning to rethink our rules and institutions, and our relationship to the natural world.

Which leaves us with the questions: How can we best engage in knowledge co-production? How we can be inclusive of the diversity of human inquiry and human justice, and embrace uncertainty and complexity to discover emergent futures?

This blog post is based on “TD or not TD, that is the question (or one of them …)” by Liz Clarke, 2 November 2017, Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation, Online: https://leveragepoints.org/2017/11/02/td-or-not-td-that-is-the-question-or-one-of-them/

Strunz, S. (2012). Is conceptual vagueness an asset? Arguments from philosophy of science applied to the concept of resilience. Ecological Economics, 76: 112–118. Online (DOI): 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2012.02.012

Fischer, J. (2016). Transdisciplinarity in a messy world. 2 January. Ideas for Sustainability, Online: https://ideas4sustainability.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/trandisciplinarity-in-a-messy-world/

Biography: Liz Clarke is a transdisciplinary social-ecological systems researcher at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany, far from her home turf in Australia. She works on knowledge coproduction in the Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation project, focusing on RETHINKing (sustainability-related knowledge creation) as a deep leverage point. With her family background in farming and her previous career in international agricultural research she is passionate about working in rural Southern Transylvania in Romania and Oldenburg in Germany.

19 thoughts on “What makes research transdisciplinary?”

  1. I believe this is an important forum for discussion and that transdisciplinarity merits deeper study and research in its own right.

    Everyone has a story, and my particular background which supports transdisciplinarity research, started from my an early background in mathematics, maturing to the field of “complexity” in systems and its management. In the book I am “not writing” (but am told I should be), I am seeking to distil essential practical features of managing an endeavour operating in a “complex” environment. My proposals are supported by a long and fortunate career in engineering and management, and by qualifications and reading in sciences, technology, law, economics, philosophy, law, current affairs.

    My shorthand description of “complexity” in this context is “what happens when systems meet people”. The “Complex Adaptive Systems” model of systems is especially helpful – i.e. where a meta-system consists of “conventional” systems (e.g. engineering or technical in a particular field) and is also populated by (or interacts) with many (partially) autonomous agents. A complex infrastructure system (such as railways) that include both (a) employees such as train drivers and train controllers, and (b) the technical, economic, legal characteristics and constraints of the business, is one example. Others include telecommunications, IT, safety, energy systems [and networked industries generally, e.g. health services], the military, and even politics. In the modern era where there is increasing interconnectedness among systems and sub-systems (e.g. with emergence of the Internet of Things, supply chains, social media, IT generally, and information security issues) the need for “complexity” to be well-managed is critical.

    I have postulated elsewhere that while managing complexity is difficult, the essential principles for managing complexity must be straightforward; it requires managers and leaders to embrace what I call “Complex Adaptive Systems Thinking”.

    In my view, Complex Adaptive Systems Thinking involves three core skill areas to be embraced – (1) understanding and interacting with the technical systems (which includes expertise in the various specialist disciplines involved), (2) understanding and interacting with the people affected or interested and their ideological positions, and (3) expression aimed at communication and reconciliation among these two.

    Within my own learned society communities I have sought to reflect these concepts. In the (Australian) Institution of Engineers for example there has been tentative but growing appreciation of engineering as combining the traditional specialist fields (such as the essential civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical engineering specialisms), and the broad area that I describe as “integrative engineering” that also draws in relevant aspects such as law and economics. Engineering projects cannot be successfully completed where either areas are insufficiently addressed.

    In later career where I have had some more generalist involvement in fields other than engineering, these observations still hold.

    • I was lying in a hospital bed, recovering from a six-bypass coronary operation when South Australia was in the midst of its September 2016 power blackouts. Many politician and diverse activists were commentating as to the causes and solutions. Guess what – from a fifty year career in that power industry I knew one thing – they were all wrong, or at the very least the views being expressed were decidedly incomplete. The power industry is a beautiful example of a Complex (Adaptive) System; in this case each politician and other commentator, while a good talker, had at best an incomplete/erroneous knowledge of the technicalities of the power system, and a narrow appreciation of others who want it to develop according to their particular but different ideologies.

      • Politicians and those who work for them seem to be among the least receptive to ideas on complexity and how to deal with it. To suggest holding off premature convergence, trying small moves that might not work but will help us find out what will and maintaining a constant state of revision and course adjustments seems to be political death. I am afraid that this means that we are all doomed, at least as far as rational policy and decision making goes!

        • Thanks Steve. That is my observation in practice, (I am wondering what references(s) you might cite? ). With that then is the whole pretence of issuing forecasts, and the debate that ensues when they are (inevitably unless by good luck) wrong; when I was in that game I always called them projections to imply that they were based on a “model” that I avoided assuming was “right”.

          • No one will say it openly but I have had clear indications and private confirmation that senior people in the public service feel threatened by anything that might allow suggestions for valuable initiatives to emerge. Sometimes it is because they have a fixed idea of how they wish to see their domain operate, possibly constrained by election commitments and deals made with other stakeholders to get their team elected, and sometimes because they fear the idea of someone else exercising influence in their area, fear of a loss of control.

      • Wow Graeme, thanks! This is a great example of the need for complex adaptive thinking (and collective thinking too I should add). And a clear picture of why looking through only one lens or taking a partial view is going to give all the wrong answers. In fact, I would go a step further and advocate Complex Emergent Thinking suggested by Dr Charles Massy in his book “Call of the Reed Warbler” as it allows for and encourages innovative new ideas through drivers such as self-organisation, co-evolution and emergence. I would add to your previous post that what we call the technology is a series of physical expressions of technique and is never neutral. And as you say “understanding and interacting with the people affected or interested and their ideological positions” is critical.

    • Thank you to everybody for the great comments, insights, and conversation. I think that there are several themes emerging, but the one that strikes me is the need for “big tent” inclusive conversations. Evidence holders, data wranglers, communicators, stakeholders, and interested parties of many types should attempt to talk and keep an open mind. I do see one tricky undercurrent in this approach and I wonder if anyone else has thoughts on this. Is everyone a valid participant? If you perceive that big tent conversations and complex adaptive systems approaches may lead to insights that threaten the systems that have generated massive wealth or power for you, can you use the openness of these approaches to derail them before they destroy your profit? In other words, is the fox a valid participant in hen house security discussions? If not, how can you identify a fox and justify excluding them? Would this selective exclusion process also destroy the open and inclusive discussions that we need? Exclusion seems problematic, and many participants may have “fox-like” characteristics, but how can this tricky scenario be handled?

      • My response to the question of inclusion is that the widest possible inclusion is invaluable for developing an understanding of a system, subject only to constraints on time and operating costs.

        When it comes to action, it is a different matter. People will ally themselves with one another according to what they feel is in their best interests. This might include acknowledging conflicts of interest and exploring how they can be bridged or, as an evolutionary process, what topics can be addressed collaboratively to build relationships that might one day provide the means to bring together parties with divergent or conflicting objectives.

  2. Thank you to Liz Clarke for writing this, Gabriele Bammer for forum, and everybody else for their contributions. I think that perhaps it is natural that we aspire to methodological consistency because it has worked in simple systems. However, I think that this perspective can sometimes cause us to use the language of “assembly lines” in the context of “gardening”. Perhaps we need to be careful not to overestimate our ability to control unpredictable processes.

    In simple systems (that we have roughly characterized) we can build assembly lines and get the exact products that we want. However in complex systems we often don’t know enough to attempt that level of control. Sure we can prepare the soil, provide water, pull the weeds, and thin the crops as we go, but the outcome can be quite uncertain at the start. We may discover that we really didn’t know what the seeds were in the first place, and if we are not too rigid, we can adapt our stewardship of their growth. Furthermore, there are all kinds of unknowns beyond the nature of the seed that should influence the way we nurture the growth (soil-type, available water, the farmer’s behavior and tools, the weather, the surrounding environment etc.), so we should be prepared to adapt our language, methods, and frames to some extent.

    What works in one complex setting, may not work in another. I think this suggests that broad input, open minds, adaptable approaches, and stipulative meanings can help. Thus I have generally resisted the use of rigid constructs or protocols and I have tried to simply prepare the soil and steward growth (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27893987). In some cases this has led to the development of papers with glossaries, so a wide array of readers could follow the conversation (I’m not sure if that is ideal, but it seemed to help with some readers). Thus for me it is nice to have this cogent overview of the benefits of diversity/flexibility. If a critical mass of people follow Liz Clarke’s logic, it should make it harder for us to accidentally confuse or offend people with terminology. I certainly aspire to be thoughtful with my terms, but it is nice to see these words in defense of messiness!

    • I love the gardening metaphor! And the acknowledgment that we are not “in control” in complex self-organising systems and need to be adaptive. My experience is primarily in rural development and agriculture, and am just reading a powerful new book by Dr Charles Massy “Call of the Reed Warbler: A new Agriculture — A new earth” where Charlie repeatedly hears this refrain from regenerative farmers: “My job is to get out of the way of Mother Nature”. In complex self-organising systems can we learn to adapt to the systems rather than always trying to mould systems to suit us?

  3. Perhaps I can add a further perspective, in response to the calls for rigour.

    Rigour generally suggests compliance with an established set of methods and standards. When approaching a complex emergent system, which encompasses most human systems or challenges within which human interactions are influential, there is an argument for setting aside hypotheses and allowing the people in the system to set the direction in which to move. In this view of the world, expert analysis and conclusions are regarded as being a single view that does not deserve to be privileged over what might emerge from the system itself and in fact, if care is not taken to avoid it, can put blinkers on processes that might allow valuable insights to emerge.

    It’s a big conceptual leap that took me a couple of years to internalise so I do not expect to sum it up quickly here but it suggests that increasingly intensive attention to the application of rigorous disciplined methods, whether drawn from a single discipline or from several of them, may well not be the most useful way to approach some of the most interesting challenges in human society.

    This video gives a few hints as to the distinction between analytical and emergent approaches and how accepting complexity and its implications from the outset can be put into practice. It was filmed informally at the conclusion of an assignment as Tony Quinlan, one of the leading exponents of these ideas, was summing up key points for the people with whom he had been working. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDTQNzxiXFA

  4. Am so happy with this write up. In another sense we must embrace indigenous knowledge which often forms the basis of bringing diverse fields together

    • Thanks for your response @baa ojong! yes, I completely agree! It is exciting to finally see recognition of the importance of including indigenous and local knowledge — and the importance of local/contextual knowledge.

  5. Two points come to mind here.

    1. Why are people arguing about whether research is transdisciplinary or not? It suggests a preoccupation with method over the objectives of the research, an intellectual process that starts with a theoretical framework (transdisciplinary or discipline based) and only then turns its attention to the subject of the research. My more or less instinctive approach to any work I do has always been to look at what we are seeking to achieve and then figure out how to do that. I might not always have been successful but it seems like a sound approach. It might lead to using methods I have in my existing repertoire or picking up new ideas and collaborators where I find it is useful or necessary.

    2. My colleagues and I are often frustrated that, even with post graduate and other research backgrounds, some decades ago, and subsequent decades of constantly refining and developing our ideas and methods, in our case mainly relating to the management of uncertainty and decision making, our insights are dismissed by even mediocre peer reviewed journals. They explain that this is because we have not taken the time to dredge up anything ever written on the subject and show how we either build upon it or dismiss it before setting out what we have found. In a world where information is transferred more or less as soon as it is conceptualised, rather than over the course of months or years taken by peer reviewed material, it seems to me that the academic field will become progressively less relevant to the real world except in high stakes endeavours such as medical research.

    I have little patience for methodological navel gazing. When our understanding of the world and social systems is racing ahead at an ever increasing rate, my method is to start with the actual context, now, and what we are seeking to achieve then work back to what we need to know or do. I will use any method and work with a specialist or a transdisciplinary team, whatever seems useful.

    Perhaps I am missing the point here but, as I think I have said before on this forum, it is hard to see what the fuss is about. If it works, do it!

    • In my opinion transdisciplinarity and peer review are important for community and trust building. Transferred information needs some vetting before it is used. A community shares the cognitive burden, and fitting new knowledge within the existing helps check it is consistent (as well as giving credit for new contributions).

      Admittedly, integration and implementation science provides a more practical focus around which to build a community than transdisciplinarity (that’s why I’m here), and current peer review processes need substantial improvement.

      • This is exactly why a forum like this is so important.

        Tackling complex social-ecological problems requires a series of balancing acts – including between methodological rigour and practical application; between theoretical knowledge and practical wisdom; and between complexity of problems and simplicity of approach.

        None of this is easy, and requires forums like this to “throw open the doors of academia” and help us take a more reflective AND reflexive approach to our work. And as @josephguillaume rightly says – both transdisciplinarity and peer review matter. And I personally do not necessarily see any need to consider either transdisciplinarity and integration and implementation science. Are they not just two ways of exploring the challenges I outlined above in slightly different ways in a world where plurality matters.

        • I am not clear then why the original question “What do we mean by transdisciplinarity and when can we say we are doing transdisciplinary research?” was posed. Does it arise from tension in academic circles?

          • I hope I made that clear in the post – these are questions that I am hearing researchers ask. And they are important questions if we are being serious about research rigour. And I also made a typo in my reply – I meant to say that I don’t think it is a choice between transdisciplinarity or integration and implementation sciences – rather they are two ways of talking about similar practices. It is not one or the other – both conceptualisations are important, we just shouldn’t get too hung up on what we call them but instead focus on how we practice research.


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