Decentering academia through critical unlearning in transdisciplinary knowledge production

By Gabriela Alonso-Yanez, Lily House-Peters and Martin Garcia Cartagena

Gabriela Alonso-Yanez (biography)

How can academic researchers working in transdisciplinary teams establish genuine collaborations with people who do not work in academia? How can they overcome the limitations of their discipline-based training, especially assigning value and hierarchy to specialized forms of knowledge production that privileges certain methodologies and epistemologies over others?

Lily House-Peters (biography)

We argue that to truly engage in collaborative work, academics need to participate in deliberate processes of critical unlearning that enable the decentering of academia in the processes and politics of transdisciplinary knowledge production and knowledge translation. What we mean by this is that academics have to be willing to acknowledge, reflect upon, and intentionally discard conventional avenues of designing and conducting research activities in order to be authentically open to other ways of exploring questions about the world in collaboration with diverse groups of social actors.

author-martin-garcia -cartagena
Martin Garcia Cartagena (biography)

By using the concept ‘decentering academia’, we are referring to a decentralised and horizontal process through which research decisions are made in a dialogue with research partners from other sectors (eg., non-governmental organisations, policy makers, community leaders), such that no single body of knowledge centralises power over the decisions being made about the research process and associated allocation of resources.

Why are critical unlearning and decentering academia beneficial for transdisciplinary collaborations?

The core of transdisciplinary research is the co-construction of questions, knowledge, and practical solutions in collaboration with partners who hold different and diverse ways of knowing, whether these be academic, traditional, indigenous or experiential. In these settings, the practice of decentering academia is necessary to foster distributive and equitable power relations amongst the project partners and participants. Decentering academia provides a practical means to acknowledge the legitimacy of different ways of knowing beyond traditional scientific disciplines. However, to successfully decenter academia requires academics to engage in a challenging process of ‘unlearning’ disciplinary practices.

The processes and practices involved in unlearning may require academics to acknowledge, confront and grapple with facets of their identity. The use of specific methodologies, specialized instruments and/or computer software, disciplinary language and meanings, bodily gestures and postures, and professional experiences can be deeply embedded in an academic’s identity. These elements, amongst others, contribute to shaping the cultural, symbolic, and linguistic boundaries that separate ways of knowing and being in the world, as well as the types of solutions and interventions that can be imagined by different collaborators.

In collaborative project settings, efforts by academics, whether intentional or not, to reaffirm personal and disciplinary identities and make claims to legitimacy and power over the research, often produce situations that marginalize the role of practitioners within the project’s decision-making spaces. For example, practitioners with access to traditional or experiential ways of knowing may suffer ridicule, or have their legitimacy to knowledge production questioned by academic collaborators.

These team dynamics serve to hinder the power decentralisation process, and instead problematically recrystallize power and influence around the academic actors. In such settings, decentering academia – by unlearning the disciplinary practices that enable asymmetric power relations and serve as the foundation for privileging scientific knowledge claims over other ways of knowing – is essential for conducting open, respectful and equitable transdisciplinary research processes.

How do unlearning and decentering academia play out in transdisciplinary collaborations?

In practice, our experience with decentering academia in our own transdisciplinary collaboration meant unlearning well-established disciplinary, organizational and administrative procedures that we previously took for granted. In one example, early in our transdisciplinary research design process, we experienced a clash in worldviews between academic and practitioner collaborators over the proposed research methodology. Overcoming this inter-team conflict productively and equitably meant engaging in a process of critical self-reflection. Rather than inherently privileging or taking for granted academic ways of knowing, each of us was asked to disclose, question, and openly discuss our own epistemological and ideological values and how these shape the ways we each see and interpret the world.

This practice of deconstruction demonstrated how our individual disciplinary training led us to privilege certain assumptions over others and to consider certain ways of doing research as conventional and accepted. This collective process, while not easy, was necessary to re-negotiate the power dynamics within our collaboration such that actors from other sectors were able to move beyond a token participation role to take key leadership roles in shaping the research design and making decisions regarding resource allocation.

In a second example, we found that strict funding agency budget rules and academic financial guidelines for fund expenditures made it difficult to use funds for cultural practices of reciprocity associated with gift-giving and other offerings to compensate the sharing of indigenous expertise from traditional knowledge-keepers. Thus, our project activities often required us to question and push back against norms and structures within our academic institutions and funding agencies.

What do you think of this idea of decentering academia? Have you used it in your research practice? If so, can you provide examples of unlearning that was required? Can you recommend other strategies to address power imbalance/asymmetries in transdisciplinary collaborations? What are the risks of intentionally discarding disciplinary training within academic settings?

To find out more:
Alonso-Yanez, G., House Peters, L., Garcia-Cartagena, M., Bonelli, S., Lorenzo-Arana, I. and Ohira, M. (2019). Mobilizing transdisciplinary collaborations: Collective reflections on decentering academia in knowledge production. Global Sustainability, 2, e5: 1–6. (Online) (DOI):

Biography: Gabriela Alonso-Yanez PhD is an assistant professor at the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada. Learning in the context of sustainability and global change is the focus of her work. Her current project focuses on understanding the factors and conditions that influence how teams produce integrated, action-oriented socioecological knowledge in networks that include knowledge keepers, local community members and academics.

Biography: Lily House-Peters PhD is Assistant Professor of Sustainability Science in the Department of Geography at California State University, Long Beach, USA. Her research and teaching focus on the human dimensions of environmental change and shifting conditions of natural resource governance in the Anthropocene. She has expertise in designing, training, and implementing transdisciplinary action research projects. In particular, her interests focus on solving complex environmental problems through a convergence research approach based on the integration and synthesis of diverse worldviews and epistemologies.

Biography: Martin Garcia Cartagena is finalising his Ph.D. in Environmental Planning in the School of People, Environment and Planning at Massey University, Aotearoa-New Zealand. His research interests are in climate change, integrated coastal zone management, community resilience, disasters, and inter & trans-disciplinary approaches to knowledge production processes in the context of global change. Through his work in these fields he aims to contribute to shaping community-based, equitable and transformative pathways towards sustainability based on collaborative and participatory approaches.

15 thoughts on “Decentering academia through critical unlearning in transdisciplinary knowledge production

  1. Thanks for your valuable plea for unlearning and decentering by academics in a transdisciplinary context and for referring to them as such. I completely concur with your observation that in order to collaborate with others and integrate perspectives, this is an important step. (It is actually related to metacognition, the topic of a blogpost of mine in this series: As there are various ways to unlearn and decenter one’s perspective, it reminds me of two psychological strategies employed to avoid stereotyping and discrminating: self-categorization which helps to decenter by articulating and foregrounding one’s own identity, and perspective taking which implies articulating one’s ideas about the other person’s perspective. What specific strategies or methods have you used for unlearning and decentering, similar to the ones ascribed here or different?

    • Thank you for commenting on our post, Machiel. We agree that metacognition here is key. Individual behaviour and psychological traits are central to engage in collaborative work. Here, however, we also wanted to stressed the centrality of the politics of collaborative work which is better captured when zooming out of the individual. We are interested in considering the larger socio-political and institutional factors that shape individual work. Our paper, see link at the bottom of the blog-post describes a few of the strategies that we used to identify the broader institutional factors that we needed to consider in order to engage in a more politically engaged collaboration.

      • Thanks for your response and reminder of the original article, which I’ve now read with interest. The latter usefully emphasizes the social nature of these unlearning and decentering processes, which both complement and strengthen these processes as they are more commonly individually performed – a valuable addition, I agree. Although it is not uncommon to employ metacognition not just as an individual but also as a team, I appreciate your insistence on adding the institutional and political to these. In a way, it confronts us in an important way with the remarkable individual-social-institutional nature of most academic work nowadays.

        • That is a really good point. In fact, it would be interesting to look at process of metacognition at a team level when considering the larger political and institutional factors that we are referring to. Metacognition of embodied ideologies, perhaps? Thank you again, Machiel for your insights!

  2. Dear Lily, Gabriela and Martín,
    thank you very much for your post. I wonder if you have some practical hints on how to “decenter academia” according to your experience? Where did you apply this and what were the constrains you found? From reading your contribution, I got curious on how “decentering” can mean and imply different practices in different countries, regions, settings – because academic contexts are heterogenous as well. Is there a way to systematise these experiences then?
    Thanks in advance!

    • Hello Bianca, thank you so much for acknowledging the post and bringing forth your questions, it means a lot to us. In regards to the questions you pose, I would suggest browsing through the paper ( in which we develop the ideas reflected in this post and showcase some examples of decentering and unlearning processes.

      In short, in the paper we describe two occasions in which to decenter power relations in the research academics had to be flexible enough to unlearn claims to methodological legitimacy to give way to practitioners alternative methodological suggestions.

      Another example we develop in the paper has to do with University’s centralized and highly structured funding rules and regulations which limited the ability of the team to contemplate practices of reciprocity (gift-giving) with first nations research partners. In this last case, it was necessary to actively challenge the institutional structure through personal dialogue with administrative staff to change the way in which funding allocation was permitted.

      And finally, in terms of systematizing these experiences, this is a hard question to answer and an active debate we have. As you well put, trans-disciplinary practices are context dependent and situational, thus making it hard to systematize a set of ‘best practices’. In fact, if anything, the idea of ‘best practices’ should also be challenged to give way to ‘locally-based’ sets of communal relational formal and informal rules and regulations that foster equitable power relations across research partners. Having said this, rather than systematize, perhaps it is worth thinking of possible ways to describe and share these unique experiences in a way that they inspire people to learn and create their own trans-disciplinary research pathways.

      I am not sure if this answers your questions but I do hope they trigger further thoughts and discussions, which we deeply appreciate. Perhaps you could also share some examples of decentering and unlearning based on your own experience at the Espacio Interdisciplinario from Universidad de la República which to date (and after over 10 years of work and experiences is it?) has done exceptional theoretical and practical work in this field! We would love to hear about your experiences! Thanks again Bianca!

      • Hello Martín and colleagues,
        Thanks for your comments. I think our approaches to this topic can be complementary. Indeed, we have tried to analysed how transdisciplinarity is institutionalised in a German university, by considering two levels. Here are the details of such study:
        What makes me think that if we consider your approach on how to “decenter” academia together with the two levels we have defined (policy and practice), we could not only provide empirical data but an alternative perspective on how to promote “in-between” spaces for ID and TD. Just an idea 🙂
        Thank you very much again for a fascinating discussion!

  3. Great blog! And I’m very interested in reading the paper in Global Sustainability. I reiterate comments from other respondents, that institutions and fixed structures supporting disciplinary work are very challenging to change. In my view that’s why some of the most innovative TD work is happening outside of academia. Thanks so much for the post

    • Thank you Dena! You are right. There are so many innovative grassroots projects outside academia that are truly making a difference for on the ground communities. We have been thinking about that for a while now and engaging questions about how to support projects that are already taking place in the communities from our academic spaces…

  4. These topics are one of the most critical challenges we face… how to shift from focus on individual expert intelligence toward collective intelligence. We will get a lot wrong on the way to bringing collective intelligence to life, but we need to experiment and try. We are now beyond simple solutions, almost all of our problems and opportunities require trans disciplinary solutions. It is brilliant to see people try and talk about the most limiting factor we have, our ability to integrate wisdom from wide set of sources.

    Response from Martin Garcia Cartagena
    Hello Edin, great to see your comment, interest, and commitment to trans-disciplinary research! We share your enthusiasm! We also believe that it’ll take a lot of work to move academia beyond centralized disciplinary structures and thinking. Perhaps it is also important to highlight the interpersonal characteristic of knowledge production processes and how important it is to foster genuine, trustworthy and equitable relations with all research partners in such processes. We say this because, in the end, this is precisely what makes knowledge production a collective process, perhaps even communal rather than solely individual, disciplinary, and centralized. What do you think?

    Reply by Edin Mustajbegovic
    Very well put. We see the world though our mental models and values that underpin them. Any collective process needs to start with sovereign individuals, capable of critically assessing their own mental models and values. We need new tools. Just to name a few, tools to help us deal with signal to noise ratio, ability to integrate personal experience and scientific evidence, ability to translate sense making into action taking in a collective way. The existing structures have hierarchical tools (authority, class and so on) that work within existing structures. It is maybe our greatest challenge that when we change context we also need to change our tools, and that will take time, dedication, failure and love. Exciting times 🙂

    Copied from LinkedIn Systems Thinking group

  5. An excellent opportunity to apply this constructivist approach would be in reconciling indigenous creation stories with modern space sciences. A very large proportion of the oldest stories are relating astronomical content. In fact, the assertion is made in Plato’s Dialogues that all of the original mythological archetypes were attempts to describe a catastrophic event in human-historical times (best I can tell, academics completely missed this reference).

    Modern scientists have been trained to interpret observations through the lens of a uniformitarian worldview, but if we accept that the “gods” anthropomorphized in cultural traditions are in fact planets and stars, the original myths appear to describe a violently changing sky. This clash of worldviews on how to interpret the myths has historically led the academic community to reject all myth, but this then draws a veil over our true intellectual origins.

    Having wiped the slate of man’s intellectual origins, modern science seems happy enough to fill in the produced gaps with overly-simplistic ideas born of physical principles instead of actual historical events. They want us to believe that they can arrive at the historical truth using this approach.

    Well, have a look at David Talbott’s Symbols of an Alien Sky on Youtube ( – which proposes a VERY detailed analysis of the myths based on several decades of analysis – and the problem should become apparent: You just cannot get to that level of detail from physical principles alone. You absolutely need the testimony of the eyewitnesses to reconstruct these events. The terrestrial evidence just fails to clearly encode all of the rich detail of cosmic plasma events that human oral tradition can.

    Truth be told, the scientific community rejects myth because the myths reject uniformitarianism. Your constructivist approach is exactly what needs to happen to show it. There is nothing at all invalid about the creation stories; it is only when we force interpretation through our own fragmented worldview that the myths become incoherent. If scientists simply tried harder to understand the clash between science and myth, tremendous scientific progress could be had in understanding our intellectual origins and even unifying all of the world’s cultures. Unification is the cultural tradition which defines the period of oral tradition, and now from a more fragmented world culture and worldview, we very much struggle to regain it.

    • Thank you for your response and for directing us to these materials, Controversies of Science. You make an interesting point on the value of other ways of knowing and the difficulty that scientists experience when confronted with different epistemologies. Your point has prompted us to reconsider the importance of ‘place’ and ‘locality’ in the production and co-production of knowledge by diverse groups of people and the need to find ways to acknowledge and respectfully engage with these groups and the cultural practices that are deeply embedded in their worldviews.

  6. At my place there have been very few. if any, changes. Silos rule the day! But, I am trying to make changes. If there is any movement on this, i will let you know.

  7. Great blog thank you. My small suggestions: critical unlearning is as much institutional [structural] as it is embodied [personal / social]. You either ‘love it or hate it’ [so it seems].

    • Hi Christopher, thank you so much for your comment and engaging with our blog post. You bring up an excellent point and signal an area for further developing our research. Shifting cultures, policies, and working rules at the institutional level is needed, and must compliment the changing mentality at the personal and team-based levels. Change at one scale is not sufficient. I would love to know more about institutional-level changes that researchers based in academic and non-academic settings have seen/experienced.

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