By Gabriela Alonso-Yanez, Lily House-Peters and Martin Garcia Cartagena
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?
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.
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): https://doi.org/10.1017/sus.2019.2
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.