Transdisciplinary action research: A guiding framework for collaboration

By Steven Lam, Michelle Thompson, Kathleen Johnson, Cameron Fioret and Sarah Hargreaves

1. Steven Lam; 2. Michelle Thompson; 3. Kathleen Johnson; 4. Cameron Fioret; 5. Sarah Hargreaves (biographies)

How can graduate students work productively with each other and community partners? Many researchers and practitioners are engaging in transdisciplinarity, yet there is surprisingly little critical reflection about the processes and outcomes of transdisciplinarity, particularly from the perspectives of graduate students and community partners who are increasingly involved.

Our group of four graduate students from the University of Guelph and one community partner from the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, reflect on our experiences of working together toward community food security in Canada, especially producing a guidebook for farmer-led research (Fioret et al. 2018). As none of us had previously worked together, nor shared any disciplines in common, we found it essential to first develop a guiding framework for collaboration. Our thinking combined the following key principles from action research and transdisciplinarity:

  • reflexivity,
  • participation and partnership,
  • methods and process, and
  • integration.


Reflexivity was designed to support the on-going scrutiny of the choices made during the research process; this occurred in the form of reflexive journaling and weekly meetings for collective reflection and sense-making. The self-reflections helped ensure that our goals, needs and expectations were met through the decisions made.

Participation and partnership plus methods and processes

Partnership and participation refer to the quality of the relationship formed with stakeholders and the extent to which stakeholders are appropriately involved in the project. Methods and processes refer to the extent to which the action research process and related methods are clearly articulated and illustrated.

In practice, we found that these two principles were inseparable. Because we four students didn’t know each other before this project started, we invested the first two-months of the project in relationship building, attending workshops and meeting weekly to talk about motivations, previous experiences and expectations for the project. It was not until after that process that the collaboration with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario started. That involved similar conversations around expectations and priorities, as well as new conversations around community needs and potential solutions. By month four, a clear workplan was co-designed.

The last four months of the project focused on co-developing the farmer-led research guidebook. Roles and responsibilities based on our strengths and interests were assigned. The students contributed to data collection and analysis, while the community partner shared local knowledge, relevant reports and a guidebook outline, as well as connecting the students with farmers and other farmer-led organizations. Co-authorship was achieved through all of us contributing equally to the conceptualization, writing and dissemination of the guidebook.

Sharing responsibility for the project design, implementation and outcomes created strong avenues for partnership, participation, and knowledge integration within different aspects of the project. In particular, we experienced strong collaboration in the joint designing of the project, its methods, technical content and delegation of tasks. Since the project dealt with the need for supporting farmers in research, the community partner (as a farmer herself) was more familiar with the problem context and the actors involved than the students. Her expertise was helpful in framing the report in a way that is useful, relevant and accessible to farmers and farmer-led organizations. The guidebook is considered to be a success and an important document.

Nevertheless, most of us expressed frustration with different aspects of co-generating the farmer-led research guidebook and our expectations for integration were not entirely met. For example, Steven felt uncertain about “the relevant tools or paradigms from different disciplines and how to integrate them to address a shared problem in the context of food security.”

Based on our reflections, we note that the success of this joint inquiry depended on certain conditions, such as individual team member’s reflexive ability, sense of mutual responsibility, humility and deep respect for one another. Furthermore, the time invested in dynamic weekly exchanges between students and community partners was essential to build relationships and led to an enhanced understanding of community partner needs and solutions. Early delegation of roles and tasks led to high levels of efficiency and prevented the risk of one perspective taking over the research process. Finally, we found early efforts of “opening communicative space” to be helpful, whereby issues were opened up for discussion, experiences were shared and we all strived toward “mutual understanding, intersubjective agreement and unforced consensus about what to do in any given practical situation.”

Overall the framework helped us, to a ‘good enough’ extent, integrate our work which led to the co-publication of the Farmer-led Research Guidebook.

For us, engaging in reflection has made a substantial difference in the quality of our work. If you have worked in transdisciplinary teams, especially as (or with) graduate students, what framework or guiding principles did you follow? What did you achieve and what felt missing?

(photo credit: Kelly Hodgins)

To find out more:
Lam, S., Thompson, M., Johnston, K., Fioret, C. and Hargreaves, S. K. (2019). Toward community food security through transdisciplinary action research. Action Research (OnlineFirst, Open Access):

Fioret, C., Johnston, K., Lam, S., Thompson, M. and Hargreaves, S. (2018). Towards farmer-led research: A guidebook. Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario: Guelph, Canada.


Steven Lam is a PhD student in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph in Canada. His research focuses on how evaluation can better support efforts toward food security, climate change adaptation and gender equity. He also works as an independent evaluation consultant.

Michelle Thompson is a PhD student in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph in Canada. She is currently researching endophytes (beneficial microbes) in corn that provide a natural immune system-like defense against disease.

Kathleen Johnson is a Master of Applied Science student in the School of Engineering at the University of Guelph in Canada. Her research is conducted through the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research and focuses on understanding the flow and fate of contaminants in the fractured bedrock aquifer beneath the city of Guelph.

Cameron Fioret is a PhD student in the Philosophy Department at the University of Guelph in Canada. His research focuses on property, political philosophy and environmental philosophy.

Sarah Hargreaves PhD is currently research director with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO), where she launched Canada’s first Farmer-Led Research Program to help farmers combine their curiosity with scientific rigour to answer their most challenging on-farm questions.

7 thoughts on “Transdisciplinary action research: A guiding framework for collaboration”

  1. Lovely to see this transdisciplinary action research work may its way in the world :). In reading your post I am struck again by the importance of “mutual understanding, intersubjective agreement and unforced consensus about what to do in any given practical situation.” Grappling productively strikes me as the next developmental edge for our work. While there won’t be a recipe I believe as a global community we may find more clarity, more principles/rubrics for moving toward mutual action together. What makes the work interesting (to me with my psychoanalytic-mindfulness orientation!), is how much it requires us to grow ourselves and thereby uncover many learned obstacles to collaboration. Thanks for the good work!

    • You’re right. There is so much growth potential in doing this type of work, in reflecting on what/how one is doing and articulating what it might mean for collaboration. Thank you so much for your support Hilary!

  2. Thanks for sharing this thoughtful reflection of your group’s work. I certainly learned more about TDAR through this post and Dan Stokol’s note above. Very helpful. I found it particularly refreshing that the group was very open about the fact that doubts remained about whether or not interdisciplinary integration really happened at a level that is satisfactory. I think being upfront and curious about this question is the first step to finding better ways to approach integration.

    I agree, as you have explained in your article, that institutional changes are needed to make interdisciplinary integration more practical for students and faculty to carry out. But I wonder if there is also work to be done ourselves as researchers in this field to articulate what integration is for exactly and what “successful” integration looks and feels like. What will we be able to do in the field once we have achieved this integration? A clear (and graspable) spelling out of concepts is needed before institutional change can occur to support these processes.

    Gabriele Bammer, Marianne Penker, Michael O’Rourke and I are currently editing a Palgrave collection that delves into the matter of what expertise means in the field of TD. Sabine Hoffman and Christian Pohl (among others) have also been submitting grants and working on the matter of integration. There is a recognition that we must get clearer before we can move forward (from my point of view) within the TD community. It would be great to have your view on what skills you would ideally want to possess, in order to be able to solve real world problems. It’s going to take a combination of imagination and practicality to make change happen.

    Please get in touch if you’re interested in discussing some more.

    • Thank you BinBin for your very kind comments. I completely agree with you that integration concepts should be more explicit given the different understandings of integration. Furthermore, the conceptualization of integration should go beyond what it is, to how we can measure it. Doing so will facilitate evaluation’s important role in learning from and improving collaborative endeavours. And I think value comes mostly from the formative process of examining success rather than the actual judgement of success itself.

      Our paper highlights several TDAR skills (e.g. reflexivity, opening communicative space, interpersonal skills, and so on). I will emphasize, perhaps a bit more implicit, are the cognitive skills required to work across and beyond disciplinary boundaries. In the context of our food security project, knowledge from local, natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities were combined to some extent. TDARers should have a strong understanding of different knowledge cultures and the relationships between them; peer-to-peer learning with some direction might be helpful for fostering understanding.

      Looking forward to reading the Palgrave collection!

  3. Thank you for this excellent report of your work with farmers on achieving food security through transdisciplinary action research (TDAR). In case of interest to i2Insights readers, some earlier strands of TDAR are noted here: I look forward to learning more details about your research as described in your 2019 Sage article which also includes a more extended bibliography on the topics covered in your i2Insights article. Best wishes, Dan


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: