Valuing diversity: The good, the original and the outsider

By Frédéric Darbellay

Frédéric Darbellay (biography)

Stay in the norm, transform it or transgress it? If many researchers and teachers are comfortable in their disciplinary fold and providing good and loyal service to a well-defined epistemic community, more atypical profiles are also emerging, contributing to inter- and trans- disciplinary diversity.

I explore three complementary figures likely to cover the spectrum going from a good and respectable disciplinary worker (the Good) to the more disturbing figure of the Outsider, with the Original in between.

But first I want to share some reflections on how originality is (not) valued.

Originality in an uncertain world

Originality seems to be one of the supreme values of the knowledge economy, increasingly promoted in times of change and uncertainty. I, you, we all have to be original to find new solutions to old, new and future problems. Health, social, financial, political, climate crises, so many great challenges of the 21st century that conformist, predictable and wait-and-see thinking cannot stem.

If the value of originality and the major role it plays in any creative process is recognized and celebrated through the examples of great innovators, it remains subject to contradictory injunctions:

  • “Be original, be creative!” versus “Be compliant, follow the rules and stay in the system!”
  • “Think outside the box” versus “Maintain the status quo”.

In an educational context, it is paradoxically necessary to develop transversal skills, known as 21st century skills (creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, collective intelligence, etc.), but it is also necessary to maintain the logic of teaching-learning and disciplinary evaluation, which compartmentalize knowledge and prevent dialogue among disciplines and the implementation of inter- and trans- disciplinary work.

The end of dualisms

How can we overcome these sterile oppositions between change and inertia in the academic system, between conformism and creative originality, bondage and critical thinking, stupidity and collective intelligence, disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity? Can we imagine overcoming these dualisms by laying down the principle of a possible symbiosis between different (non-exhaustive) figures in teaching and research to stimulate the impulse for change? I suggest that the three figures of the Good, the Original and the Outsider can play this role.

The Good
The figure of the Good responds to the need to transmit disciplinary knowledge in a way that guarantees the acquisition of fundamentals and allows them to be adapted to solving complex problems.

The Original
The Original contributes to the decompartmentalization of research and teaching subjects by introducing novelty, by reorganizing subjects for the resolution of complex problems and by mentally and practically equipping students with transversal and interdisciplinary skills.

The Outsider
The Outsider is outside the system, and it is precisely this off-screen status, this non-expertise in any traditional academic field that allows the Outsider to bring an unexpected and disruptive point of view and solutions. An example is bringing into the academic system the logic of entrepreneurial innovation and creativity.

These figures are, of course, complementary. They overlap and they are likely to develop jointly. It is therefore advisable to value them all and to say that one can individually and collectively evolve to be, at the same time, the Good, the Original and the Outsider.

Do you identify more with the Good, the Original or the Outsider? Or an evolutionary combination of two or three of these figures? Are there other possible key figures that you would argue for based on your research or your experiences?

To find out more:
Darbellay, F. (2015). Rethinking inter- and transdisciplinarity: Undisciplined knowledge and the emergence of a new thought style. Futures (Advances in transdisciplinarity 2004-2014 issue), 65: 163-174. (Online) (DOI):

Biography: Frédéric Darbellay PhD is associate professor and head of the Inter- and Transdisciplinarity Unit in the Centre for Children’s Rights Studies at the University of Geneva (Valais Campus) in Switzerland. His research focuses on the study of interdisciplinarity as a creative process of knowledge production between and beyond disciplines.

4 thoughts on “Valuing diversity: The good, the original and the outsider”

  1. Hi Frédéric.
    Thanks for your post. I found it very interesting and inspiring.
    To face the challenge of sustaining life on the planet with opportunities for well-being, it is necessary to find new solutions to old, new and future problems.
    Educational and research centers can and should be part of these new solutions.
    Stay in the norm, transform it or transgress it? Frédéric Darbellay’s answer provides the kind of solutions that are required: stay within the norm, transform it AND transgress it.
    The conjunction operation that characterizes the thought of complexity is innovative. It can favor environments that stimulate interdisciplinary work to study social problems in their complexity. It allows combining the traditional values of the scientific field (quality, originality, rigor, etc.) with those that acquire relevance in the science-society relationship (for example, social relevance).
    How to combine in a viable way the idea of transgression with that of permanence and transformation? Instead of “transgression”, the term “to cross ” can be proposed as a way of breaking the boundaries?
    In practical terms, this justifies including mediation figures between the university and the set of institutions of the national science, technology and innovation systems. In the combination of the good, the original and the outsider, the ambassador can be added.
    Juan Carlos Villa

    • Hi Juan,
      Very relevant and rewarding comment! The idea of crossing over is indeed very useful in the articulation of permanence and change: it enables overcoming while maintaining continuity. It works on borders, those which delimit, separate while allowing ideas to circulate. The ambassadors – these connectors between different and complementary spaces – certainly have a role to play in this great adventure of transforming theories, habits and practices.
      Best regards

  2. Hi Marcel,
    Thank you for this very interesting and constructive comment.
    Yes indeed, this typology is fluid and it should be thought of as a crossfade and not in an arbitrary manner. We must also avoid the trap of reductive value judgments (good or bad) of these complementary figures. We need this diversity to tackle the complexity of the pressing problems to be solved.
    I am also following you on the need to recognize the scientific nature and the skills of inter- and transdisciplinarians. They carry out epistemologically and methodologically constructed and informed transgressions, they do not act in a random and disorganized manner. It goes without saying that the idea of transgression can give rise to different uses by people more or less in a situation of disciplinary discomfort. It is up to us to explain again and again the requirement of inter- and transdisciplinary work, its scientificity, its added value, its relevance and its creative scope.

  3. Hi Frédéric.
    Thanks for your post, which I liked very much. I agree with your typology: good, original and outsider. The good, as I understand, are those who somehow open their minds to the inevitability of interdisciplinarity, without having to abandon their backgrounds or to join ID teams. I call this practice the interdisciplinarisation of disciplines. The original is already a one step forwards, as it means entering (or at least bordering) ID. And the outsider is the one who assimilated TD. To be fair, the outsider is also good and original. And none of them are bad. Solving complex challenges demand the three types of scientists.
    The matter is: who do not feel comfortable within the frame of a discipline? You suggest that this is the case of the transgressor. And I agree. But we should have in mind that there is another group in Academia who do not feel comfortable under the umbrella of a single discipline, but are not necessarily creative enough to match ID/TD prerequisites. They can be just outsiders (in the sense of scientific precepts, as are some eccentric, charlatans, mythical or dogmatic pseudo-scientists, who insist in mixing up their beliefs with their research); and can also be just incompetent, who are somehow rejected by their peers, and then seek ID/TD as a refuge. Briefly: not all transgressors are good and original although they can be placed in the slot of “outsiders”. ID/TD epistemic communities must draw upon filters in order to avoid being stigmatised as those “outsiders”, and being considered as shallow or second-class scientists.
    Marcel Bursztyn


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