Lessons from “real-world laboratories” about transdisciplinary projects, transformative research and participation

Community member post by Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila

antonietta-di-giulio
Antonietta Di Giulio (biography)
rico-defila
Rico Defila (biography)

In Germany there has recently been a heated debate about the need for, and the justification of, so-called “transformative research”. At the same time, German funders are increasingly supporting research in “real-world laboratories” and these explicitly aim to bring about social change. We lead an accompanying research project (“Begleitforschung” in German) in a real-world laboratory program of research in Baden-Württemberg (see Schäpke et al., (2015) for more information). This has led us to reflect upon the relationship between transdisciplinary research and transformative research, and how this impacts on how we think about participation in research. We share some preliminary ideas here.

Distinguishing transformative research from transdisciplinary research

Transformative research pursues goals and performs activities in two dimensions, and these dimensions should be distinguished, although they are related: one is knowledge, the other one is transformation.

With regard to the knowledge dimension, such projects aim to produce new knowledge and perform research activities. For transformation, such projects aim to initiate social change and perform activities to achieve such change.

In our previous blog post on transdisciplinary research and social change, we argued that transdisciplinary research is, first and foremost, research and that research has no special legitimacy when it comes to transforming society. Nevertheless, research can aim to be transformative.

Our point is that transdisciplinary research and transformative research should not be conflated. We argue that transdisciplinarity should be used to describe a particular kind of knowledge production. If it also aims to change society it should be referred to as transdisciplinary transformative research or transformative transdisciplinary research.

Transformative research, transdisciplinary research and participation

In that same earlier blog post, we drew on findings from the field of policy advice to suggest that participation in transdisciplinary research serves the purpose of enhancing political legitimacy, practical legitimacy, and scientific legitimacy of knowledge, thus distinguishing three goals of participation which all three serve to improve attributes of knowledge and do not endow a project with the right to transform society.

The two goals and dimensions of transformative research impact how participation is framed, leading to two primary goals of participation, each of them having three sub-goals, as shown in the figure below.

First, participation serves the goals of increasing scientific, political, or practical legitimacy of knowledge.

Second, participation serves the goals of increasing the practical, scientific or political legitimacy of the projects’ transformative goals and activities.

In other words, such projects have to balance two goals (with, in total, six sub-goals) of participation and two reference points ‘knowledge’ and ‘societal intervention’.

(Source: Di Giulio and Defila 2017)

We also argue in an earlier blog post about participation of those outside academia in transdisciplinary projects, that such participants should be referred to as “non-certified experts” rather than stakeholders or practitioners, because this reinforces the role of transdisciplinary research as knowledge production and not as social transformation.

When it comes to the transformative goals and activities of transformative research, “expertise” might not be an appropriate criterion for choosing participants, and consequently “non-certified experts” might not be the right term to denote them. In other words, terms such as “practitioners” or “stakeholders” might be more appropriate for this purpose.

In other words, the terminology of participation should correspond to the goals of participation, and a differentiated (and precise) terminology would account for different goals of participation.

Reflections on the use of Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation

Sherry Arnstein’s (1969) purpose in developing her ladder of citizen participation was to describe how ‘have-not’ citizen groups were exploited in government decision-making processes, as well as how much power stakeholders had in determining the final product. It is now widely used to describe participation in research. Based on our discussion above, it should be clear that this implicit conflation of knowledge production and transformation is problematic.

To discuss this further, let us concentrate on the top rung in Arnstein’s ladder: ‘empowerment’.

Empowering people in a political sense cannot be the primary goal of participation in research projects with regard to the dimension of knowledge. We know from our own empirical research that this actually happens (Di Giulio et al., 2016: 225), but this nevertheless cannot be the primary intention.

Consequently, the ladder is not suitable for describing participation serving the goals of increasing scientific, political, or practical legitimacy of knowledge. But it may be appropriate for describing participation serving the practical, scientific or political legitimacy of a project’s transformative goals and activities.

But even for transformation, Arnstein’s ladder needs modification because the goal of participation refers to the goals and activities of the project and not to the people involved.

Conclusion

We are very interested to hear what you think about our reflections on conceptualizing the relationship between transdisciplinary research, transformative research and participation. And what you think about our perception of the use of Arnstein’s ladder to describe participation in research.

To find out more:
Defila R. and Di Giulio A. (in press): Eine Reflexion über Legitimation, Partizipation und Intervention im Kontext transdisziplinärer Forschung. In: Ukowitz M. and Hübner R. (eds.): Partizipation und Intervention. Wege der Vermittlung in der transdisziplinären Forschung. Interventionsforschung Band 3. Wiesbaden: Springer VS Verlag.

References:
Arnstein, S. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35, 4: 216-224.

Di Giulio A., Defila R. and Brückmann Th. (2016). Das ist halt das eine … Praxis, das andere ist Theorie – Prinzipien transdisziplinärer Zusammenarbeit im Forschungsalltag. In, R. Defila and A. Di Giulio (Hrsg.), Transdisziplinär forschen – zwischen Ideal und gelebter Praxis. Hotspots, Geschichten, Wirkungen. Campus Verlag: Frankfurt, Germany: 189-286.

Schäpke N., Singer-Brodowski M., Stelzer F., Bergmann M. and Lang D. J. (2015). Creating space for change: Real-world laboratories for sustainability transformations. The case of Baden-Württemberg. GAIA, 24, 4: 281-283. Online (DOI): 10.14512/gaia.24.4.17

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.

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