Is it legitimate for transdisciplinary research to set out to change society?

By Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila

Antonietta Di Giulio (biography)
Rico Defila (biography)

An unspoken and unchallenged assumption underpinning much discourse about transdisciplinary research is that it must change society.

The assumption goes beyond whether research should contribute to change, or whether research impacts developments in society, or whether research should investigate societal problems and provide solutions, or anything similar – it is that research should actively and intentionally be transformative. This generally goes hand-in-hand with a deep conviction that researchers are entitled to actually change society according to what they believe to be right. For many this conviction allows researchers to impose their interventions and solutions on other societal actors by, if necessary, being manipulative.

We argue that such a ‘right to transform society’ does not exist, because researchers are not politically mandated and legitimised to do that. Furthermore, if such a right existed it would apply to every researcher and not only to the ‘good guys’. It could not be allowed for some and refused to others.

At the same time, we acknowledge that transdisciplinary research most often is conducted and funded to solve societal problems. How, then, should we conceptualize the relationship between transdisciplinary research and societal transformation?

Our earlier blog post explored how the definition of participants impacts the framing of the relationship between transdisciplinary projects and societal change. We argued that the primary goal of transdisciplinary research is the production of new knowledge (for academic and non-academic audiences) and that participants should be referred to as “non-certified experts”.

But this is only part of the story: Transdisciplinary research investigating societal problems wants, of course, to contribute to social change. Therefore, we have to find a way to capture the relationship between transdisciplinary research and social change based on the assumption that the primary goal of such research is the production of new knowledge.

In looking for an appropriate approach we ended up in the field of scientific policy advice. Here the question of how to relate research to social change and of how to optimize the societal impact of research are crucial issues.

Key concepts

There are two sets of findings in the field of policy advice that we found to be promising points of departure.

First, in the process of socio-political decision-making, academia is only one of the actors. In the Roberts (2011) “Policy Wheel”, academia belongs to what he calls “secondary influencers”. Academia competes with other actors. It is neither more nor less legitimised to influence decision-making than any other actor. Academic actors distinguish themselves by a “cognitive authority” giving them a special discursive power. This power accrues from the trustworthiness and impartiality of the knowledge they provide. This in turn is safeguarded by specific processes aimed at securing the scientific quality of the knowledge produced. Providing scientifically valid knowledge is the unique feature offered by academia, and preserving this feature is indispensable to maintaining its specific power. Consequently, although it is permeable, the boundary between academia and politics should not be blurred, but maintained.

Second, whether scientific knowledge impacts socio-political decision-making depends on three decisive attributes of this knowledge (Cash et al., 2003):

  • “Salience” (practical legitimacy): The relevance to the needs of decision makers.
  • “Credibility” (scientific legitimacy): The scientific adequacy of the evidence and arguments.
  • “Legitimacy” (political legitimacy): The perception that the production of the knowledge has been respectful of stakeholders’ divergent values and beliefs, unbiased in its conduct, and fair in its treatment of opposing views and interests.

Political legitimacy, practical legitimacy, and scientific legitimacy are tightly coupled. That is, efforts to enhance one of them normally incur a cost to the others. In other words, they have to be clearly distinguished and carefully balanced. Participation serves both practical legitimacy and political legitimacy. Hence, participation serves two different goals, each with different criteria of how to identify those that should participate (ie., those with practical needs or those with socio-political interests).

How do we transfer these concepts to transdisciplinary research?

If transdisciplinarity is understood to be research first and foremost, participation is primarily about scientific legitimacy and not about political and practical legitimacy. Accordingly, expertise is the number one criterion to apply in identifying the ‘non-researchers’ who should be invited to participate.

Nevertheless, the importance of both political and practical legitimacy should not be neglected if a project is to have the potential to actually impact societal development.

Even so, all three goals of participation serve to attain and improve attributes of knowledge – they do not endow a research-oriented project with the right to transform society. This does not necessarily impair a project’s societal impact. On the contrary: refraining from claiming a special transformative role and from socio-political engineering of social change might enhance the actual societal impact of a transdisciplinary project.

In our next blog post we address transformative transdisciplinary research. In the meantime: What do you think about the relationship between transdisciplinary research and social change?

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).

Cash D. W., Clark, W. C., Alcock, F., Dickson, N. M., Eckley, N., Guston, D. H., Jäger, J. and Mitchell, R. B. (2003). Knowledge systems for sustainable development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the Untied States of America, 100, 14: 8086-8091.

Roberts L. (2011). Engaging with policy-makers: Influencing sustainability policy through academic research. In, A. Franklin and P. Blyton (eds.), Researching Sustainability: A Guide to Social Science Methods, Practice and Engagement. Earthscan: London, New York: 242-259.

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.

9 thoughts on “Is it legitimate for transdisciplinary research to set out to change society?”

  1. While the aim of transdisciplinary researchers has been claimed to be transformative or to create change (Mitchell, Cordell, & Fam, 2016), I would suggest that this is couched more in terms of responding to, and working with, the needs and aspirations of communities rather than as a ‘right’ of the researcher or a form of ‘social engineering’. Moreover the legitimacy, or rather the integrity of transdisciplinary research is based in an ongoing responsiveness to the ‘real world’ context it is conducted within (hence ‘evolving methodologies’ are an important feature of transdisciplinary research (Carew & Wickson, 2010)). This context can, and often does, include community knowledges and traditional knowledges, in an exchange that enables mutual learning (Wickson, Carew, & Russell, 2006, p. 1147) – hence the transformative impact claimed for transdisciplinary research on both researchers and participants. In sum, the terms ‘right’ and ‘social engineering’ may have been conflated here with ‘purposivity’ and ‘responsiveness,’ and the intention to create change through ‘deep collaboration, networking and mutual learning’ (Mitchell et al., 2016).
    Carew, A. L., & Wickson, F. (2010). The TD Wheel: A heuristic to shape, support and evaluate transdisciplinary research. Futures, 42, 1146-1155. doi:DOI:10.1016/j.futures.2010.04.025
    Mitchell, C., Cordell, D., & Fam, D. (2016). Beginning at the end: The outcomes spaces framework to guide purposive transdisciplinary research. In D. Fam, J. Palmer, C. Riedy, & C. Mitchell (Eds.), Transdisciplinary Research and Practice for Sustainability Outcomes (pp. 25-38). London: Routledge.
    Wickson, F., Carew, A. L., & Russell, A. W. (2006). Transdisciplinary research: characteristics, quandaries and quality. Futures, 38, 1046-1059.

  2. Thanks to the authors of this post for raising a very important issue. I have two broad comments to make:

    First, what matters very much is how the research is conducted, such as whether the ‘research’ starts from the premise that it is about knowledge production or starts from the premise of action or impact. Many interventions, for example, are already occurring, from which it could be argued that it is an important ethical imperative to learn as best as we can from those interventions for the benefit of people and the planet. This then raises the challenge of how best to learn (e.g. by being embedded within the process or to be external observers) and how best to help facilitate the process in the most ethically appropriate way (e.g. in participatory ways which give a high degree of flexibility to those involved in terms of driving the project.). By considering the issues around process, greater attention is likely to be given to thinking about ethical issues and possibly issues of social power. Clearly, this is not easy, and as anyone with some experience of doing participatory projects, they are usually messy and challenging (albeit often very rewarding too).

    The second point is about how research itself is perceived. As carefully argued in ‘Systemic Intervention’ by Gerald Midgley, all research is a kind of intervention. Even if a scholar is working in a closed room to produce a book, the content of the book becomes the pathway for intervening in the thinking of other scholars. Thus if all research is an intervention, all researchers have an ethical obligation to be clear about the kind of intervention they seek to engage in. For issues like climate change, which are urgent and will have a very significant impact on humanity, what then matters is the choice one makes about how they will intervene. While writing a research paper in the hope that it will achieve impact may be laudable, it may not have the greatest impact compared to working in practice in a way that also enhances learning and actions of others. This then raises the critical question of whether given a choice about the nature of the intervention, which of the diverse options should you choose? Again, this places much greater onus on the researcher to be clear about the ethical issues associated with their research, irrespective of whether it is conducted as if from the outside looking in or from within the system being studied. These and other issues have been discussed in a recent open access paper called ‘Ten essentials for action-oriented research: See also the blog post at

    Despite this response, I struggle very much with navigating the ethical issues about what is the best thing I can do given my skills, position and resources that are available to me. In my mind, much of the delivery of science and research is a long way off from being able to have the kinds of impact we need. Knowledge systems, which are derived from the last three hundred years have in fact led to many of the contemporary challenges facing society (as well as benefits). But these systems have largely been set up to produce knowledge rather than ethically based societal impact. Given the scale of the looming challenges of the planet, we will probably need very different systems oriented towards learning wisdom not just the production of knowledge, to help us decide what is a good action to take as well as what those different actions might be. So ethical considerations are at the heart of humanity’s challenge, and the more these can be made explicit (e.g. through transdisciplinary research) the better. Right? It would be good to hear your thoughts…

    • Dear Ioan

      In reading your blog post and your comment to our blog post we were thinking whether we proceed from a similar basis but take different pathways and finally end up in different places. We basically agree with what you write, both with regard to the importance of considering ethical issues and issues of social power in conducting research and with regard to the fact that all research is some kind of intervention, because everything someone does potentially impacts someone or something. And, as BinBin Pearce wrote, researchers are not human beings devoid of values and of feelings of engagement and in transdisciplinary research the line is thin in distinguishing being between embedded and being an external observer.

      The question now is what kind of consequences we should draw from that. While you struggle, if we understand you correctly, with the issue of how to increase the societal impact of research and of how to define contributions that are both ethically justified and leading to more sustainability, we struggle with the issue of how to define the specific societal role of research and of how to define its contribution in a way that remains true to the character and strength of research.

      Though acknowledging that each and every action (and inaction as well) of researchers is a potential cause of impact, we would nevertheless distinguish this from engineering (a specific) change. And though acknowledging that researchers actually do feel responsible and engaged and that they are entitled to seek influence, we would nevertheless distinguish the individual researchers’ feeling of wanting to change things from him/her having a special transformative role that is societally legitimised.

      We do not claim having the final answers to what these distinctions might entail, but we think they are of crucial importance if we take the idea of democracy seriously and acknowledge that academia is just one voice among others, even though being a voice with specific power (and thus also with a specific responsibility of humility). In our next blog post (to be published on Thurs Mar 22), we will share some thoughts about how we conceive legitimacy of transformative research – it would be great to hear your thoughts!

  3. Thanks for bringing an important topic to the fore. I learned a lot from reading the post. We discussed the topic of this blogpost during our lunchtime seminar, which brought out interesting points of tension.

    It seems to me that a core assumption made in the blogpost is that the boundary between the “production of new knowledge” and the implementation of that knowledge can be seen clearly, so that a Td researcher always purposefully steps into the role of a “transformer” with clear intent. Reflecting on past experience, this perhaps is not always the case. What might actually happen is that one has the intention of wanting to understand a complex problem with disinterested attitude, but the process of understanding means to engage with the problem, it means to talk with people affected by the problem, it means to know the implications of one’s actions within the realm of the problem, and it means that at some point, one realises that in order to understand deeply, one has to have interest in the problem. Disinterest disappears.

    While I agree with the authors’ point of view that research should not be carried out with the sole intention of societal transformation, I would argue that sometimes our involvement is not always a matter of the head, but also of the heart and soul. I would also argue, however, that we should strive to make our interest transparent to others, to try and conscientiously recognise the consequences of that interest for how we interpret the work we are doing, to be able to be self-reflective and modest about our “expert” efforts. We try and strike a balance: strive to produce new knowledge while allowing ourselves the recognition that we are whole human beings, not research robots.

    • Dear BinBin

      We would have loved to attend your lunchtime seminar and learn more about the points of tension you identified! Thanks for your comment. We quite simply agree. We could, maybe, add, that what you describe can also lead to high feeling of responsibility on the side of the researchers (to express that the burden of responsibility can, at moments, be too high, one colleague once used the exclamation “Too much social reality!”) and/or to a feeling of disappointment on the side of the ‘other’ actors when at the end of a project they realise that the researchers will move off to other projects and topics. We should, in our discussions about what researchers and research are entitled to do, consider the latter as well, that is, we should not forget to think about what we actually effect in implementing interventions or similar. This is nothing new, of course. Did you talk about such issues as well?

  4. Dear colleagues,

    “We argue that such a ‘right to transform society’ does not exist, because researchers are not politically mandated and legitimised to do that.”

    In the last 6 years we have seen the development of calls for research that can demonstrate impact. The BiodiERsA / Belmont call 2018 for example will assess projects on the basis of their “(i) scientific excellence, (ii) policy relevance and societal impact (which includes stakeholder engagement)” (See ). Similarly, the Swiss funding agency SNF has an entire program called R4D ( research for development).

    Are these not equivalent to mandates by public bodies?

    But maybe more importantly, aren’t we all entitled to seek to change the world? The statement of the author suggests otherwise, and I find this surprising.

    To live is to change and to create change. A love letter, a protest song, a paper on livelihood changes due to the development of oil palm industry, a blog on transdisciplinarity are all ways by which not politically mandated people seek to change the world, don’t you agree?

    I personnally struggle with the following:

    1- We write and maintain transparency and trust are essential elements of the scientific narrative, the basis on which its legitimacy is built.

    2 – To change the world requires we develop and apply strategies – as the final outcome depends on the decisions of actors other than ourselves.

    3 – And one of the essential lessons of strategy is that “All warfare is based on deception”. (Sun Tzu, the Art of War).

    This leads to a paradox. I wonder what you guys think of this.


    • Dear Claude

      A nicely put paradox! Before commenting on the paradox, we want to react to the first part of your comment. You are right in pointing out that we did say nothing about the role of funding agencies and about how research programs calling for research addressing societal issues come into the equation. Firstly, we should say that we welcome such research programs, because we are convinced that research is a societal endeavour and that it should play a part in the development of society (leading, of course, to the difficulty of defining what is of societal use and who decides upon that). We might even say that this conviction led us to the questions we address(ed) in our blog posts!

      This having been said, we would distinguish between funding research that addresses specific topics or problems and mandating researchers to transform society (funding, for instance, research inquiring whether smart metering, prompts or taxes are effective in changing individual behaviour towards sustainable consumption, is not the same as mandating researchers to establish smart metering, prompts or taxes – irrespectively of whether such research is disciplinary, interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary). It would be interesting to know how funding agencies perceive themselves – to our knowledge there is no research inquiring into this.

      We might add something we left out in our blog post: Requiring from research projects to have societal impact is too high a burden for researchers, because, as many publications dealing with this issue show, it is not in the hand of researchers to make sure their research impacts society in a given way. But, and we want to emphasize this, what we said does neither imply that researches do not actually, by choosing their topics or by providing knowledge, influence societal perceptions or actions, nor that researchers are not equally entitled, like any other societal actor, to seek to change the world – we completely agree with regard to this point. But in doing so, researchers are one actor among others.

      Now, finally, the paradox you present: Looked at it from our perspective, what you perceive to be a paradox reinforces our point of view. What you describe shows that doing research is a different kind of activity than influencing decisions, that is, it asks for different actions, follows other rules, and is subjected to other criteria of success. And, importantly, how researchers influence decisions must be distinguished from how politicians and other societal actors influence decisions. In other words: There are different, actor-specific ways of influencing decisions – that is what we can learn from the field of scientific policy advice.

  5. Congratulations to the authors for raising this important discussion on research and social change. I agreed with the authors that sometimes researchers may not be adequately sensitive to “the boundary between academia and politics.” While raising such sensitivity is important (and it should be part of the education and development of researchers), there are some simplifications involved in this article, which call for further critical discussion.
    Let me indicate an important simplification, where the authors assume that “the primary goal of such research is the production of new knowledge.” Well, the label “new knowledge” includes various things, some of which may be quite dissimilar to each other (especially from the standpoint of research philosophy). The new knowledge produced in astronomy (or in fields where it is more possible to specify exhaustively that which is being studied) is quite different from the new knowledge produced in information systems, communication design, paramedicine, or environmental health (i.e., fields which must contend with the problem of openness of the research object).
    In the latter type of fields, where research objects in the closed form are difficult to identify, a creative alternative for research could be to strive to achieve some special type of closure by orchestrating some processes (actions, interactions, communications, etc.) which have that effect (a topic I discussed in my PhD thesis, “Vocabulary of agency: Development and assessment of a generic conceptual framework to guide action-oriented research in multiple domains,”, see Chapter 5). In effect, this type of closure amounts to creating new collective resources.
    Here we have a philosophical challenge. How to understand the boundary between research and politics if research involves the creation of new collective resources? I am sure the authors will have something more to say on this, based on their ongoing study of the boundary issues between research and social change.

    • Dear Debiprasad Dash

      We completely agree that we are simplifying things by looking only at single aspects and neglecting others that surely are equally important. You are drawing attention to the fact, that in domains of application, the issue gets more complicated (or complex, if you prefer). We have, of course, no final answers to the issues you raised, but might underscore that the notion of new knowledge is much trickier than what we stated.

      You point out that defining knowledge depends on the field it relates to. While consenting to that, we might add that it also depends on the actors: Depending on how we define what knowledge is, something can be new knowledge to some although it is, from a scientific point of view, not new knowledge at all. Transdisciplinary research is research involving not only different non-academic perspectives, but also different academic perspectives – and respective bodies of knowledge and criteria of how to define knowledge. We would certainly need a more in-depth discussion about that, but we would question that engaging in processes of closure, as you suggest, would be an appropriate solution to this challenge (while acknowledging, of course, that reduction is inherent to all research), but we may not have understood your proposal right (unfortunately, in the short time frame it was not possible to thoroughly read your PhD thesis).

      The last point we wanted to address is how your calling for researchers to provide new collective resources affects the boundary between research and politics. We think this touches an important issue that has not yet been appropriately addressed (but you might know more about that than we do): The different roles that scholars have to (or can) adopt in societal processes. In our experience, researchers often have the role of moderating processes between other societal actors because they are perceived to be a ‘neutral’ authority – and this in turn requires to respect the boundaries, but at the same time it requires from scholars to engage in other roles than only the role of doing research. There is much more to discuss here, but we stop at this point, looking forward to your reaction.


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