Learning from interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research ‘failures’

By Dena Fam and Michael O’Rourke

1. Dena Fam (biography)
2. Michael O’Rourke (biography)

What makes interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research challenging? What can go wrong and lead to failure? What has your experience been?

Modes of research that involve the integration of different perspectives, such as interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, are notoriously challenging for a host of reasons. Interdisciplinary research requires the combination of insights from different academic disciplines and it is common that these:

  • bear the stamp of different epistemologies; and,
  • involve different types of data collected using different methods in the service of different explanations.

Transdisciplinary research involves not only disciplinary integration, but also the integration of non-academic stakeholder perspectives, such as non-governmental organisations, policymakers, and community members. These projects confront large differences in the values, priorities, and cultures of the participants.

Failure in interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research can manifest in a variety of ways, including projects that:

  • don’t get off the ground
  • don’t have the correct personnel
  • don’t meet their original objectives
  • fail to anticipate important differences among collaborators
  • don’t integrate the perspectives of the collaborators; and,
  • produce results that don’t support their hypotheses.

Failures like these could be major and catastrophic, resulting in the end of a project, or they could be more minor, forcing revision in project plans. They can also happen at any point in a project, from the initial planning stage to the final, dissemination stage.

Of course, all projects require adjustments on the fly, and not all adjustments should be understood as failures. Modification in response to a failure, as opposed to a normal adjustment, occurs when the project team attempts to execute a substantive project plan (eg., write a proposal together, collect data together, collaboratively write a paper) and fails to execute it, resulting in a fundamental change to the plan.

Documenting the detail of project failure matters, for three reasons:

  1. it supplies an instructive illustration of specific challenges that should be on the minds of interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary scholars
  2. it highlights ways in which projects can depart from step-by-step protocols or preconceived and theorized processes; and,
  3. it provides a scholarly space for conversations about the difficulty of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches.

What has your experience been?

If you have engaged in collaborative interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research, we’d love to learn about your impressions of project failure. We invite you to take part in our brief survey at:

The survey closes on September 5th, 2019.

Preliminary results will be presented at the “International Transdisciplinary Conference 2019: Joining Forces for Change”, Gothenburg, Sweden, 10-13 September 2019, in the workshop, “Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary ‘Failures’: Lessons learned”.

Biography: Dena Fam PhD is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Over the last decade she has worked with industry, government and community actors to collaboratively manage, design, research and trial alternative water and sanitation systems with the aim of sustainably managing sewage and reducing its environmental impact on the water cycle. Her consulting/research experience has spanned socio-cultural (learning for sustainability), institutional (policy analysis), and technological aspects of environmental management. With experience in transdisciplinary project development, she has been involved in developing processes for transdisciplinary teaching and learning, in particular methods/techniques supporting the development of transdisciplinary educational programs and projects.

Biography: Michael O’Rourke PhD is Professor of Philosophy and faculty in AgBioResearch and Environmental Science & Policy at Michigan State University (MSU), East Lansing, Michigan, USA. He is Director of the MSU Center for Interdisciplinarity and Director of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative, a National Science Foundation-sponsored research initiative that investigates philosophical approaches to facilitating interdisciplinary research. His research interests include epistemology, communication and integration in collaborative, cross-disciplinary research, and linguistic communication between intelligent agents.

6 thoughts on “Learning from interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research ‘failures’”

  1. My early work was an entirely sociological critique of psychiatry in diagnosis and treatment of “mental illness.”
    It was well received both in sociology and in a larger area since it was used to change the mental health laws in California: (the Lanterman-Petris-Short Law in 1970.)
    However, in 1969, when I turned to research and writing about emotions, the mood changed.
    My emotion work involved four: anger, fear, grief, and shame. However, most of it was centered on shame. It was exciting work for me, but extremely difficult to get it published or even noticed.
    I thought I understood why, because I think of shame as the “s-word” of emotions, like fuck is the “f-word” of sex: it’s not something one talks about in polite conversation.
    This comparison helped in my head, but I still have found it difficult to call attention to shame and its many functions in daily life and in larger areas, such as its role in personal and national violence.

    • I prefer “safe to succeed” 😉 Using IPA (the methodology – integrative propositional analysis – not the beer) we’ve been quite successful with interdisciplinary research. Step-by-step instructions here: https://practicalmapping.com/ recent example here from multiple disciplines and multiple perspectives across the political spectrum here: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/K-03-2018-0136/full/html

      The only “real” problem we’ve had is getting getting published by interdisciplinary journals (systems journals, in contrast, seem to “understand”). One reviewer, for example, actually complained that a manuscript contained too many disciplinary perspectives.

      • Thank you for the comment, Steve (if I may). The book looks very interesting. What has counted as success in your interdisciplinary experience? Have you found any limitations to the mapping approach, e.g., disciplinary combinations where it isn’t as effective, collaborative contexts where mapping doesn’t work for a team?

        A quick review of the paper suggests that IPA privileges causal connections — does this limit its applicability in cross-disciplinary contexts where not all of the disciplinary inputs can be modeled causally? Very interesting stuff — thank you for the links! I look forward to learning more about your work.

    • Thank you for your comment, Chris. The idea of harnessing failure in small scale ways to advance thinking about a complex problem is very interesting, and in line with how we think about the value of failure for cross-disciplinary researchers. How have you used these safe-to-fail techniques? Have you used them in the classroom, or in research projects? The website suggests that they can be the focus of workshops, but I am guessing that is not necessary. If you have a minute, it would be great to learn more about an example of these techniques.


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