Choosing a suitable transdisciplinary research framework

By Gabriele Bammer

Author - Gabriele Bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What are some of the key frameworks that can be used for transdisciplinary research? What are their particular strengths? How can you choose one that’s most suitable for your transdisciplinary project?

The nine frameworks described here were highlighted in a series for which I was the commissioning editor. The series was published in the scientific journal GAIA: Ecological Perspectives in Science and Society between mid-2017 and end-2019.

Choosing among them is not a matter of right or wrong, but of each being more or less helpful for a particular problem in a particular context. And, of course, different frameworks can also be used in combination.

The brief descriptions and figures that follow aim to encapsulate each framework’s key strengths.

Framework #1. Guiding principles (Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn, 2017)

These general guidelines address the key challenges of transdisciplinary research:

  1. problem identification and structuring, which requires complexity to be reduced
  2. problem analysis, which requires integration
  3. “bringing results to fruition,” which is implementing research in practice-oriented solutions for the common good.
bammer_transdisciplinary-frameworks_from-article-pohl-hirsh-hadorn-2017
Phases of transdisciplinary research (Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn, 2017)

Framework #2. Distinguishing the scientific and societal processes and concentrating on the integration between them (Bergmann and Jahn, 2017)

This framework is based on the proposition that developing solutions for complex societal problems requires them to be linked to gaps in existing knowledge. It guides researchers through the challenges of problem constitution, knowledge integration and the participation of societal actors.

bammer_transdisciplinary-frameworks_from-article-bergmann-jahn-2017
Simplified model of the transdisciplinary research process (Bergmann and Jahn, 2017)

Framework #3. Focusing on research outcomes (Mitchell et al., 2018)

Research outcomes are both scientific and societal, specifically:

  • improving the problematic situation
  • generating knowledge stocks and flows
  • producing mutual and transformational learning.

Articulating the project-specific outcome spaces provides a set of guiding principles for process decisions throughout the project life-cycle and can change stakeholders’ perceptions about what research is.

bammer_transdisciplinary-frameworks_from-article-mitchelletal-2018
Conceptual map of the three outcome spaces of situation, knowledge, and learning. The transdisciplinary project is embedded within a field of vision, which is limited by the experiences, knowledge and worldviews of the research team. Beyond the field of vision is the unknown, which can also be thought of as future persistent uncertainty (Mitchell et al., 2018)

Framework #4. Taking a systems approach (Cabrera and Cabrera, 2018)

Systems thinking has four building blocks. These building blocks are used to:

  1. challenge existing norms and identify biases
  2. see how things fit into larger wholes
  3. show dynamic interactions, including feedback loops
  4. look at ideas from different perspectives.

The building blocks can be combined in various ways.

bammer_transdisciplinary-frameworks_from-article-cabrera-cabrera-2018
The four building blocks of systems thinking (Cabrera and Cabrera, 2018)

Framework #5. Knowledge co-production (Muhar and Penker, 2018)

This framework addresses the question: “Who can contribute what kind of knowledge in which phase of a transdisciplinary project and why?”. It can be used to design future projects and to analyse past knowledge co-production. Exactly what is included in each element depends on the organisational and thematic context of individual projects.

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Framework for designing and analysing transdisciplinary research projects (Muhar and Penker, 2018)

Framework #6. Context influencing the uptake of research into policy (Weyrauch and Echt, 2018)

This is a systematic and comprehensive assessment of where the potential for change in government policy is greatest, as well as where the most significant barriers are. This framework allows strategic identification of potential areas of change for different types of interventions, focuses specifically at the institutional level, and embraces the importance of politics in achieving change.

bammer_transdisciplinary-frameworks_from-article-weyrauch-echt-2018
Simplified (non-interactive) version of the six main dimensions of context defining the interaction between knowledge and policy (Weyrauch and Echt, 2018)

Framework #7. Ten essential processes for transformational change (Fazey, 2018)

Each of the ten essentials is effective on its own, but the greatest potential for change is achieved when they are applied together. This creates a more adaptive, reflexive, collaborative and impact-oriented form of research, as well as intellectual depth, that enables integration of knowledge with normative considerations of what is considered to be good.

bammer_transdisciplinary-frameworks_from-article-fazey-2018
Ten essentials for transdisciplinary research to have greater impact (Fazey, 2019)

Framework #8. Necessary expertise for transdisciplinarity as a whole (Bammer, 2019)

The Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) framework identifies the core elements of expertise in three domains:

  • synthesising knowledge,
  • managing unknowns
  • supporting improvement.

In each domain, five questions stimulate systematic consideration of specific expertise, such as in systems approaches and how to take context into account.

bammer_transdisciplinary-frameworks_from-article-bammer-2019
The Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) framework (Bammer, 2019)

Framework #9. Necessary expertise to help decision makers work with relevant experts and stakeholders (Bruhn et al., 2019)

Grounded action design is a framework for research organizations acting in a scientific advisory function to guide a reflexive and co-creative process where stakeholders, relevant experts and decision makers explore, map and expand their understanding of the complex problem space before the decision making body sets transformative change in train.

bammer_transdisciplinary-frameworks_from-article-bruhn-etal-2019
Grounded action design – a framework for a reflexive and co-creative process (Bruhn et al., 2019)

Conclusions

Each of these framework descriptions is greatly truncated, with more detail available in the one-page summaries published in this series, each of which also provides references to full descriptions and, for some, more detailed illustrations.

What’s your experience been in using the frameworks presented above? What other frameworks have you found to be useful?

To find out more:
Bammer, G. (2019). What makes a researcher transdisciplinary? A framework to identify expertise. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #8. GAIA, 28, 3: 253. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.28.3.2

Bergmann, M. and Jahn, T. (2017). A model for the transdisciplinary research process. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #2. GAIA, 26, 4: 304. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.26.4.3

Bruhn, T., Herberg, J., Molinengo, G., Oppold, D., Stasiak, D. and Nanz, P. (2019). Grounded action design – Transdisciplinary co-creation for better transformative processes. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #9. GAIA, 28, 4: 336. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.28.4.3

Cabrera, D. and Cabrera, L. (2018). Four building blocks of systems thinking. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #4. GAIA, 27, 2: 200. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.27.2.3

Fazey, I. (2019). Ten essentials for contributing more directly to transformational change. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #7. GAIA, 28, 1: 8. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.28.1.3

Mitchell, C., Fam, D. and Cordell, D. (2018). Outcomes spaces: Designing for impact in transdisciplinary research. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #3. GAIA, 27, 1: 112. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.27.1.3

Muhar, A. and Penker, M. (2018). Knowledge co-production: An analytical framework. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #5. GAIA, 27, 3: 272. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.27.3.3

Pohl, C. and Hirsch Hadorn, G. (2017). Principles for designing transdisciplinary research. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #1. GAIA, 26, 3: 232. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.26.3.3

Weyrauch, V. and Echt, L. (2018). Context in the interaction between research and government policy. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #6. GAIA, 27, 4: 344. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.27.4.3

A compilation of all nine frameworks is available online at: https://www.oekom.de/publikationen/zeitschriften/gaia/c-275

See also the companion eight toolkits for transdisciplinary research at: https://i2insights.org/2017/07/25/toolkits-for-transdisciplinarity/

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change.

Gabriele Bammer is a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange, which is in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.

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