Embracing tension for energy and creativity in interdisciplinary research

By Liz Clarke and Rebecca Freeth

1. Liz Clarke (biography)
2. Rebecca Freeth (biography)

Tensions inevitably arise in inter- and transdisciplinary research. Dealing with these tensions and resulting conflicts is one of the hardest things to do. We are meant to avoid or get rid of conflict and tension, right? Wrong!

Tension and conflict are not only inevitable; they can be a source of positivity, emergence, creativity and deep learning. By tension we mean the pull between the seemingly contradictory parts of a paradox, such as parts and wholes, stability and chaos, and rationality and creativity. These tensions can foster interpersonal conflict, particularly when team members treat the apparent contradictions as if only one was ‘right’.

The growth of collaborative interdisciplinary research (tackling increasingly complex challenges) requires that researchers are able to collaborate across greater levels of complexity and diversity in teams, including broader disciplinary, social, political, institutional and personal backgrounds.

This challenges the boundaries of traditional modes of research, where researchers are guided and bound by the socially constructed knowledge of a community of practice of like-minded scholars. In this more traditional mode, shared understanding and coherence are relatively easy to achieve. In contrast, in collaborative interdisciplinary research, researchers find themselves in highly heterogeneous teams, where coherence becomes more challenging. These two examples are the extremes in a continuum, shown on the x-axis in the figure below.

Figure 1: Navigating the tensions between individual scholarship and collaboration and collective coherence (Clarke, Freeth and Fam, forthcoming)

In tackling increasingly complex and intractable problems (the central arrow in the figure), there is increasing pressure for inter- and transdisciplinary approaches, and for coproduction across broader skill sets and hence more diverse teams (represented on the x-axis). At the same time, individuals are challenged to operate as independent, creative thinkers, rather than conforming to the rules of scholarship for a single discipline. These two points, also on a continuum, are illustrated on the y-axis of the figure.

The combination of heterogeneous teams plus independent and creative scholarship sets up and increases the tension between the individual “I” and the team “we”. For example, there may be very different expectations about how much of the research should be done alone and how much together, and tension around the adoption of methodologies and analytical frameworks.

We have two choices for dealing with this tension:

  1. We can avoid or dissipate tension through a siloed or “additive” multidisciplinary approach, where individuals continue with their scholarship and connect with their disciplinary community, creating a fragmented approach. This potentially limits our ability to solve problems or create change and can (paradoxically) create even more tension (as we outline below).
  2. Team members can exercise individual agency through independent creative thinking (“I”), as well as engaging with the interdisciplinary team through collective thinking (“we”), which requires a greater engagement with difference. Here, the emphasis is on integrating, linking, focusing, blending, transcending, transgressing and transforming.

In the first option, the consequences of not embracing tension are paradoxically more tension and potentially more conflict (as flagged above). If we retreat back to the safety of what we know (individual scholarship) with those who share our approaches (in homogeneous teams), the pressure to simplify and decrease heterogeneity reduces our ability to tackle complexity (see the figure below). But the complexity does not go away and the most likely outcome is more tension creating negative energy generally through an adversarial approach to resolving differences, which is represented by the red arrow in the figure below.

Figure 2 Trying to dissipate tension paradoxically produces more tension (Clarke, Freeth and Fam, forthcoming)

In the second option, where team members exercise individual agency and engage with interdisciplinary teams, framing tension as a positive source of energy, creativity and learning, challenges us to stay committed to the collective whole. At the same time it challenges us to reflect on our own deeply held approaches, assumptions, beliefs and onto-epistemological framings, which Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge (2016) refer to, collectively, as the “blind spot”. Ignoring these can slow our learning and blind us to possible emergent futures. Alternatively, reflecting on the source of our thoughts, perceptions, communication and actions can be truly transformational and hence drive and enable system change.

How can we reflect on the “blind spot”? The figure below outlines a series of indicative questions that we can ask as we progress from the practical and instrumental questions towards the “blind spot” of onto-epistemological assumptions, beliefs, experience, etc.

Figure 3: Questions to encourage reflection and reflexivity in inter- and trans- disciplinary research (Clarke 2016)

In our previous blog post on skilful conversations for integration, we outlined that embracing tension through reflective and generative dialogue is a constructive way to stay engaged and to learn, as well as opening up the possibilities of deep change and novel futures.

So how are you engaging with tension? And how can you make it a source of positive energy, and strength and creativity?

To find out more:
Freeth, R., Clarke, E. A. and Fam, D. (In press). Engaging creatively with tension in collaborative research: Harnessing the ‘I’ and ‘we’ through dialogue. In: V. Brown, J. Harris and D. Waltner-Toews. (eds.), Independent thinking in an uncertain world. Routledge: London, United Kingdom.

Clarke, E. A. (2016). The synergies of difference: Strengthening transdisciplinary research practice through a relational methodology. PhD thesis, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Online: http://hdl.handle.net/1885/109821

Scharmer, C. O. and Senge, P. (2016). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. Berrett-Koehler Publishers: Oakland, California, United States of America.

Biography: Liz Clarke PhD is a systems thinker and transdisciplinary researcher, educator and practitioner, specialising in design thinking, social innovation and change, and participatory action approaches to coproduction of knowledge and learning. Her interests span natural resource management, disaster risk management, sustainable food systems, climate adaptation, rural development and livelihoods, and environmental management. She is a research fellow in the Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation project at Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany.

Biography: Rebecca Freeth is completing her PhD at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany where she is studying the interdisciplinary team of which she is also a member. Rebecca researches, writes about and facilitates collaboration. She does this with an eye on sustainability; supporting communities that will sustain even though they are wildly diverse, supporting collective decisions that will sustain because they take seriously the concerns of the outnumbered, and supporting social ecological systems that will sustain because everyone’s knowledge counts. Always a nomad, Rebecca moves between the worlds of practice, teaching and academia, and between Germany and South Africa.

14 thoughts on “Embracing tension for energy and creativity in interdisciplinary research”

  1. Much appreciation for this expanded perspective on managing the tensions that arise in multi-perspective collaborative problem-solving efforts. Liz and Rebecca, you’ve peeled back the curtain to show us the nature of the work that’s required to actually get to a deeply shared understanding of the “common good.”

    I’ve been reading Nancy Klein’s “Time to Think” recently and am thinking that her 10 Components of a Thinking Environment might be useful as process recommendations to get to where you’re taking us. A few highlights from her analysis:
    – Attention (listening without interruption) is an act of creation
    – The mind works best in the presence of reality, and reality is diverse
    – Assumptions drive everything – the good and the bad
    – Right inside an Incisive Question lies the liberation of the human mind

    I also want to point out that the dynamics you are describing here pertain not only to the co-creation of new knowledge (e.g., transdiciplinary science), but also how to collaborate effectively in the context of community-based problem-solving efforts, especially when the effort includes participants with a range of experience and backgrounds. In a 2012 article I published with Judy Millesen in National Civic Review (“Diversifying Civic Leadership: What it Takes to Move from ‘New Faces’ to Adaptive Problem-Solving”), we highlight a leadership development approach that brings together established and emerging leaders in a community to find shared language for collaborative work and to learn tools that help groups move past their unstated assumptions and biases. I’m thinking that this form of leadership development would be helpful in the personal and inter-personal transformation that the two of you are calling for in your blog.

    In any event, nice work. I look forward to seeing more of your thinking.

    • Hello Doug, many thanks for your insightful comment. You are absolutely right! Managing tensions applies way beyond the realm of research and is highly applicable to the context you are talking about. Having worked in community development and with volunteer organisations for many years – diversity is a blessing and a curse!
      I would also add to your comment that it is not only researchers who are co-creating new knowledge – i would strongly assert that we pay insufficient attention to the learning and knowledge coproduction that goes on outside academe and outside formal institutions for that matter. Which ties in nicely with your civic leadership theme.
      I also work with change agents and innovation systems in Asia and in eastern Europe, and will read your paper with great interest, and would be happy to discuss further offline.
      warm regards, Liz

  2. Thanks. I found that a very helpful and clear way of conceptualising the challenge of inter-disciplinarity and dealing with tension. There is something profoundly attractive about staying in the safety of our disciplinary boundaries, and deeply threatening to venture out and be exposed to the complexity of other worlds. But, you have powerfully shown the potential and value of taking that journey. Thanks. In my rather random mind you reminded me of the framework by Dreyfus and Dreyfus on levels of expertise, in which it is the novice that stays close to the orthodoxy of the discipline, and the ‘master’ who exercises judgement and agency in the situation.

    • Hello Graeme, many thanks for your feedback. very interested in your comment on Dreyfus and Dreyfus (which I know very little about). I wonder if the tensions framework might challenge Dreyfus, in that both ‘novices’ and ‘masters’ struggle with these tensions? While I think this may be a nice addition to the y-axis (in figures 1 and 2) in terms of individual agency, independent thinking and creativity, it doesn’t necessarily provide much guidance when it comes to the x-axis of navigating heterogeneity and coping with the tensions of collective coherence, where ‘masters’ may suddenly find themselves back in the ‘novice’ state?
      best regards, Liz

  3. Dear Liz and Rebecca!

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I really like how you’ve conceptualised and explained the value and importance of tensions.

    Interestingly we have experienced and described these tensions in a large transdisciplinary programme I am involved in South Africa, and drew on Roy Bhaskar’s notion of the ‘dialectic as the pulse of freedom’ to argue for these tensions as sources of learning and change. Here is a link to the paper which you might like to take a look at: https://www.mdpi.com/2073-445X/7/4/129 *

    I am in touch with Rebecca via email, and Liz I look forward to meeting you and hopefully chatting at the up-coming Leverage Points conference.

    I am keen to begin a clearer focus on multi-stakeholder engagement processes through the lens of ‘relationality’ in my Postdoc work this year and will be drawing on your work for that.

    See you soon!


    *Cockburn, J.; Palmer, C.T.G.; Biggs, H.; Rosenberg, E. Navigating Multiple Tensions for Engaged Praxis in a Complex Social-Ecological System. Land 2018, 7, 129.

    • Fantastic Jessica, thanks for the feedback and the link to the paper. So great to see such a nice example of constructive and reflexive engagement with tensions. I think the first step is to overcome our fear and guilt in relation to tensions. Any transdisciplinary or multi-stakeholder work will bring such tensions to the surface. They are inevitable. Avoiding them or subduing them simply makes them worse. look forward to talking offline.
      cheers, Liz

      • Absolutely Liz!
        I think by naming the tensions in this way in our paper, and finding an academic/philosophical way of describing and understanding them has helped our teams come to grips with them. It has also helped to shift the conversation away from just grumbling about interpersonal differences and conflict to realising we are involved in a potentially transformative endeavour and that the tensions are a potential source of something new and different. Well that’s what we hope to support the team to begin to see anyway 🙂

  4. Dear Liz and Rebecca,

    you cast into distinct concepts some vague, loosely connected perceptions and ideas that had cluttered my thoughts for a while. Thank you also for the great graphics.

    Do you know the empirical and theoretical framework on personality development founded by Jane Loevinger, a 20th century US psychologist, and, among others, expanded by Susanne Cook-Greuter?

    Your descriptions of the different approaches to reflection/reflexivity (fig.3) remind me of their descriptions of the cognitive-emotional capacities of different developmental stages of consciousness (“ego”). Thereby, psychological development extends what we are able to consciously perceive and reflect. At the same time, the achievements of earlier stages remain accessible and are employed, when appropriate or as fall-back options.

    What I really liked about your approach is that it provides a view for setting the postconventional individuals, described by Loevinger et al. from an individual-based developmental perspective, back into their, now by them realized as complex and wicked, social context and environment. You seem to ask, what happens then? How to realize such an expanded, (self-)reflective perception of the world in a way that it contributes to solving complex real-world problems?

    Thanks for both of your blogs (also the one from November last year).

    • Dear Jutta,
      many thanks for your interesting comments. I am fascinated to hear about Loevinger’s work which really resonates with this issue of transforming our own understanding of the world (including our deeper and often unconscious understandings of the world) and psychological development which extends what we are able to consciously perceive and reflect.

      The upside down triangle in Figure 3 is applied in my thesis to transcdisciplinary researchers, but it is applicable to all of us in our various inquiry processes and in knowing and acting in the world.

      The framework you outline above is a key intersection with my work and i would very much like to continue our conversation offline if you were interested. you can reach me at my leuphana.de email address.

      Warm regards, Liz

  5. Dear Liz and Rebecca,

    Thank you very much for this blog, it was very well written and an important topic! It reminds me of how emotions can signal that our worldviews are being triggered, or the discomfort of tensions, and thus the benefits of being able to recognise these tensions in a felt, embodied, affective way, perhaps even before we can rationally explain what the tension is or why we are feeling it, and then creating the space where colleagues feel comfortable pausing a meeting, activity, workshop to voice or check in on any emotions that people might be experiencing, and provide space to recognise these emotions. I am curious about your thoughts on if or when or how emotions should come into the reflection/reflexivity?

    Warmest regards,


    • Dear Katie

      Yes. You’ve put this so clearly. I think very similarly about the embodied and affective response to a worldview being disturbed and I have lots of thoughts in response to your question. I’ll try to be brief …

      Firstly, I think we are each responsible for honing as much self-awareness as possible, so that we notice the discomfort in our bodies (such as a change in breathing, or a hot flash of irritation, or finding it hard to maintain eye contact with the person speaking) and ask ourselves what might be precipitating that physical response. Preferably before we react out loud. For this, it helps to have some very simple practices in a work team that allow for a pause when it’s obvious that something is going on underneath the conversation. I think it helps to start that pause in silence so that people can look inwards first.

      And then I think that there are some blind spots that only become visible to us once we have blundered out loud. When we say something and get a reaction that enables us to think more deeply about our assumptions. Here, it’s useful to ask people to not only defend what they said, but to also be curious about why it got the response it did. This is where I find David Bohm’s approach to dialogue very useful – i.e. sometimes we only find out what we really think when we say it out loud and get a response from people who are committed to giving direct feedback.

      With regard to the expression of emotion in work teams: My own take on this is that we humans have a powerful capacity to think and a powerful capacity to feel. Both represent ways of knowing and are carriers of information. If we leave feelings out of the conversation, we miss out on a lot of information. Some expression of emotion also creates a very positive release of energy in a group when these have been kept below the surface for too long. But for this you need good facilitation, enough sense of safety and some agreements in place – for example, that the primary purpose of emotional expression is to help realise the purpose of working together. In this way, emotional expression is available to professional groups, but remains in balance with other forms of expression.


  6. Hi Chris, thanks! Actually the article is takes quite a different perspective to the Richard Stirzaker article you have posted. Our article includes us — researchers and other partners — as part of the complex system, and the tensions and controversies that arise our interactions with the system including each other. We frame this as being a crucial discomfort for engaging with complexity from a very broad array of knowledge cultures.
    I like the way Richard describes “requisite simplicity”, that uncertainty is not an excuse, that there are no simple answers to complex problems but crucially the need for humility and the ability to learn. I see our positive spin on tensions as one of the sources of energy for learning and emergence of new ideas.

  7. Very nice. The blog reminds me of the article below. There seem to be synergies

    Stirzaker, R., Biggs, H., Roux, D. & Cilliers, P. (2010). Requisite simplicities to help negotiate complex problems. Ambio, 39(8), 600-607. doi:10.1007/s13280-010-0075-7


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