Non-certified experts, stakeholders, practitioners… What participants are called defines transdisciplinarity

By Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila

Rico Defila (biography)
Antonietta Di Giulio (biography)

In an actor-oriented understanding of transdisciplinary research, there are basically two types of actors: those in the academic system who ensure scientific rigor and who are responsible for project outcomes, usually called ‘researchers’ – and ‘the others’. ‘The others’ lacks precision and even a superficial review of the literature reveals multiple ways of describing them. We highlight a selection of these below (the emphasis in the quotations is ours).

  • “Transdisciplinarity (TD), in turn, is linked with new frameworks for health and wellness that transcend disciplinary and interdisciplinary inputs, involvement of stakeholders outside the academy in team-based research” (Klein 2014: 2).
  • “We conceive transdisciplinarity (…) as a special format of interdisciplinarity, where, in addition to scholars from different academic disciplines, (future) users contribute substantially to the research (…) (future) users are (…) “experience-based experts” (or “non-certified experts”)” (Di Giulio, Defila (2017) and (2015)).
  • “(…) transdisciplinarity is the highest form of integrated project, involving not only multiple disciplines, but also multiple non-academic participants (e.g. land managers, user groups, the general public) in a manner that combines interdisciplinarity with participatory approaches” (Burton et al., 2008: 27).
  • “TdR is characterized by a process of collaboration between scientists and non-scientists on a specific real-world problem” (Walter et al., 2007: 325).
  • “The core idea of transdisciplinarity is different academic disciplines working jointly with practitioners to solve a real-world problem. It can be applied in a great variety of fields” (Klein et al., 2001: 4).
  • “Transdisciplinarity is a reflexive research approach that addresses societal problems by means of interdisciplinary collaboration as well as the collaboration between researchers and extra-scientific actors” (Jahn et al., 2012: 4).
  • “and actors from different scientific disciplines (interdisciplinarity) and from civil society and the private and public sectors (participation) collaborate in the production of (…) knowledge” (Krueger et al., 2016: 371).
  • “Joint problem solving (involving researchers, practitioners, policy makers, stakeholders, social groups, and individual citizens in the design and implementation of research and leading to a solution that is greater than the sum of its parts)” (Martin 2017: 21).
  • “Secondly, the transdisciplinary approach treats ordinary citizens who experience forms of social exclusion as valuable actors and sources for problem identification, analysis and the implementation of negotiated solutions” (Haddock 2013: 427).
  • “By harnessing contributions from each of research experts, laymen and the public, TDR challenges fundamental principles of scientific research” (Rudhumbu et al., 2017: 14) and “Algebraically TDR is defined as interdisciplinary research + interested groups (stakeholder, problem owners) who are involved in all phases of the research process” (ibid., 16).

We argue that this diversity mirrors a heterogeneity of conceptions concerning what transdisciplinarity is ultimately about. And this in turn impacts the criteria for identifying the actors to involve in projects, as well as how the projects’ relationship to societal change is framed.

We provide three examples to demonstrate the point:

Stakeholders” is, broadly speaking, a socio-political term. Defining transdisciplinary research participants as stakeholders suggests that transdisciplinarity is primarily about involving different interest groups. Thus, a transdisciplinary project is at least implicitly perceived to be a socio-political activity integrating different interests. Only those with socio-political interests are eligible to participate.

Practitioners” provides a particular link to the topic investigated in a project. Defining transdisciplinary research participants as practitioners presupposes that the topic investigated relates to a discernible field of praxis and that working in this field makes individuals or organisations eligible to participate in the research.

Non-certified experts” refers to individuals and their expertise in the topic investigated in a project. Defining transdisciplinary research participants as non-certified experts implies that those participating are selected because they have an experience-based expertise complementing the (academically) certified expertise of researchers. Thus, a transdisciplinary project is perceived to be an activity integrating the worldviews, approaches and knowledge of different experts and producing new knowledge.

We adopt the last term. In our conception of transdisciplinarity, the group of people involved in a transdisciplinary project does not, and does not have to, represent society. Nor does it have to represent a specific professional field or an area of practice. It is not about integrating interests but about integrating specialised knowledge.

Further, we conceive transdisciplinarity first and foremost as research and not as a socio-political activity to engineer social change. Its primary goal is to produce new knowledge (answering a scientific or societal question) addressing both academic and non-academic audiences. Actual social change can be a goal of a transdisciplinary project, and the members of a project team might do a lot to achieve it, but it is a subsidiary goal.

What transdisciplinarity is about and the criteria applied to identify those who should participate impact on how the relationship between transdisciplinary projects and societal change is framed. We argue that transdisciplinary projects are not per se entitled to be transformative.

We explore the relationship between transdisciplinary research and social transformation further in two companion blog posts, one on whether it is legitimate for transdisciplinary research to set out to change society and one on transformative transdisciplinary research.

Our message here is not that others should adopt our approach, but that all those speaking and writing about transdisciplinarity should be aware of the underlying implications linked to how they conceptualize participation.

How do you define transdisciplinary research participants and conceptualize participation?

To find out more:
Defila R. and Di Giulio A. (2019): Eine Reflexion über Legitimation, Partizipation und Intervention im Kontext transdisziplinärer Forschung. In: Ukowitz M. and Hübner R. (eds.): Interventionsforschung Band 3. Wege der Vermittlung. Intervention – Partizipation. Springer VS Verlag: Wiesbaden, Germany, pp. 85-108. (updated November 2021).

Burton R., Ronningen K. and Wedderburn L. (2008). Conducting integrated research. A critical literature review of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. Report 12/08, Centre for Rural Research, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway.

Defila R.and Di Giulio A. (2015). Integrating knowledge: Challenges raised by the “Inventory of Synthesis”. Futures, 65: 123-135. Online (DOI): 10.1016/j.futures.2014.10.013

Di Giulio A. and Defila R. (2017). Enabling university educators to equip students with inter- and transdisciplinary competencies. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 18, 5: 630-647. Online (DOI): 10.1108/IJSHE-02-2016-0030

Haddock S. V. (2013). Introduction: The pillars of social innovation research and practice. In, F. Moulaert, D. MacCallum, A. Mehmood and A. Hamdouch (eds.), The International Handbook on Social Innovation – Collective Action, Social Learning and Transdisciplinary Research. Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, United Kingdom: 427-429.

Jahn T., Bergmann M. and Keil F. (2012). Transdisciplinarity. Ecological Economics, 79: 1-10.

Klein J., Grossenbacher-Mansuy W., Häberli R., Bill A., Scholz R., Welti M. (Eds.) (2001). Transdisciplinarity: Joint Problem Solving among Science, Technology, and Society. Birkhäuser Verlag: Basel, Germany.

Klein J. (2014). Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity: Keyword meanings for collaboration science and translational medicine. Journal of Translational Medicine & Epidemiology, 2, 2: 1024.

Krueger T., Maynard C., Carr G., Bruns A., Mueller E. N. and Lane S. (2016). A transdisciplinary account of water research. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water3: 369-389. Online (DOI): 10.1002/wat2.1132

Martin V. (2017). Transdisciplinarity Revealed. What Librarians Need to Know. Libraries Unlimited: Santa Barbara, California, United States of America.

Rudhumbu N., Zhou L. and Nhundu K. (2017). Transdisciplinary research in higher education: Towards a paradigm for sustainable development. IOSR Journal of Business and Management, 19, 1: 13-19.

Walter A., Helgenberger S., Wiek A., and Scholz R. (2007). Measuring societal effects of transdisciplinary research projects: Design and application of an evaluation method. Evaluation and Program Planning, 30: 325-338.

Biography: Antonietta Di Giulio PhD is leader of the Research Group Inter-/Transdisciplinarity and senior researcher at the Program Man-Society-Environment (MGU), Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Basel, Switzerland. Her areas of interest in inter-/transdisciplinarity are in theory of inter- and transdisciplinary research and teaching, methodology, knowledge integration and evaluation.

Biography: Rico Defila is deputy leader of the Research Group Inter-/Transdisciplinarity and senior researcher at the Program Man-Society-Environment (MGU), Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Basel, Switzerland. His areas of interest in inter-/transdisciplinarity are in theory of inter- and transdisciplinary research and teaching, methodology, knowledge integration and evaluation.

This blog post is based on a paper presented by the authors at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017 at Leuphana University, Luneburg, Germany in September 2017.

2 thoughts on “Non-certified experts, stakeholders, practitioners… What participants are called defines transdisciplinarity”

  1. Useful to state roles out loud and encourage an understanding of a more, dare I say neutral role, of non certified experts. I look forward to reading the 2 coming articles as I have to say I found some relief with the idea that research doesn’t have to be aiming for transformative change but at the same time, I don’t see how it would not be about… transformative change, political.

    • Dear Bill

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. We are looking forward to your reaction to our further blogs. You raise an interesting question though, that we are not going to address but which deserves a more in-depth discussion: How do we deal with our responsibility as researchers with a view to the fact that we most probably do influence things even we do not aim to do so. The question of responsibility is, of course, not a new one, but it might be more pressing in transdisciplinary research. What do you think? Or did we get your comment wrong?


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