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

Community member post 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 (to be published next Thursday, March 22) we will address transformative transdisciplinary research. In the meantime: What do you think about the relationship between transdisciplinary research and social change?

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.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.


  3. 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.

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