Three types of knowledge

By Tobias Buser and Flurina Schneider

authors_tobias-buser_flurina-schneider
1. Tobias Buser (biography)
2. Flurina Schneider (biography)

When addressing societal challenges, how can researchers orient their thinking to produce not only knowledge on problems, but also knowledge that helps to overcome those problems?

The concept of ‘three types of knowledge’ is helpful for structuring project goals, formulating research questions and developing action plans. The concept first appeared in the 1990s and has developed into a core underpinning of transdisciplinary research.

The three types of knowledge, illustrated in the first figure below, are:

1. Systems knowledge, which is usually defined as knowledge about the current system or problem situation. It is mainly analytical and descriptive. For example, if you think of water scarcity, systems knowledge refers to producing a holistic understanding of the relevant socio-ecological system, including aspects like water availability, water uses, water management, justice questions, and their interrelations.

2. Target knowledge, which is knowledge about the desired future and the values that indicate which direction to take. It relies on deliberation by different societal actors, and is based on values and norms. In the water scarcity example, ways of producing target knowledge could include participatory vision and scenario development with a wide range of stakeholders.

3. Transformation knowledge, which is about how to move from the current to the desired situation. It includes concrete strategies and steps to take. In the water scarcity example, producing transformation knowledge could, for instance, employ a collaboration platform between water rich and water poor communes to coordinate just water distribution, as well as to provide detailed and feasible water saving measures.

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Three types of knowledge (created by Flurina Schneider and University of Basel New Media Center, CC BY 4.0)

The three knowledge types are equally important for societal change and they are interdependent. A specific project might focus on only one or two types, however it is important to keep them all in mind, as the missing knowledge may have been generated in another project.

Two particular traps to watch out for are:

  • ignoring target knowledge production can mean that an implicit assumption of a desirable goal can be completely at odds with what different stakeholders aim for
  • generating more and more systems knowledge, with no plan for using it to effect change.

Relationship with facts, values and agency

The three types of knowledge can be usefully conceptualised as being located within a triangle delimited by facts, values, and agency, as shown in the figure immediately below. Facts are strongly associated with systems knowledge, values with target knowledge, and agency―the capacity to act in a purposeful way―with transformation knowledge.

Three questions are helpful for operationalizing this relationship:

  • systems knowledge answers the question, ‘what is?’
  • target knowledge addresses the question, ‘what ought to be?’
  • transformation knowledge defines ‘how to?’

It is important to note that answers to each of the questions involve facts, values and agency to a certain extent. For example, the knowledge about ‘how to’ would be of limited use, or even dangerous, if not oriented towards desirable target values and based on sound facts.

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Three types of knowledge and the relationship with facts, values, and agency (created by Flurina Schneider and University of Basel New Media Center, CC BY 4.0)

Three spheres of influence: science, politics, and practice

The corners of the triangle can also be linked to spheres of influence, where different societal actors tend to have higher legitimacy, as shown in the next figure:

  • facts belong to the sphere of science, with scientists as the most credible actors
  • values and norms are generally in the sphere of political actors, depending on public debate and governments for their legitimacy
  • agency is linked to the sphere of practice, with legitimacy resting with practitioners who know how things are done.

The three spheres, with their respective legitimised actors and attributes, provide one rationale for the importance of working with stakeholders from all three spheres when generating knowledge for societal change.

buser_3_three_types_of_knowledge_influences
Three types of knowledge and their spheres of influence (created by Flurina Schneider and University of Basel New Media Center, CC BY 4.0)

This third image (above) is too simplistic, as the knowledge types overlap and are interdependent. Furthermore, the spheres of influence of the different societal actors are also not independent. For example, actors from the political and practical spheres are also important holders of systems knowledge. Some scientists, for example, ethicists, explicitly work on values, while others, for example engineers, work on transformation knowledge. Finally, every research question is already a normative decision on what topic to focus on. In this regard, transdisciplinarity can be seen as working within, and creating spaces at the intersection of, all three spheres.

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Intersecting spaces between the three types of knowledge, the relationship with facts, values and agency, and the three spheres of influence (created by Flurina Schneider and University of Basel New Media Center, CC BY 4.0)

How does the concept of three types of knowledge and their relationships resonate with you? Do they reveal new things about your projects? What other concepts do you use to structure different types of knowledge and their links to project goals, research questions and action plans?

To find out more:
These are some of the core ideas from the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “Partnering for Change – Link Research to Societal Challenges” which will be run for a second time starting on February 22, 2021. (Online): http://www.transdisciplinarity.ch/en/td-net/Kompetenzvermittlung/tdMOOC.html and https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/partnering-for-change

The MOOC video about the concepts presented here can be seen on the Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/IeM2Ayj4F2Q and on the MOOC website at: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/partnering-for-change/1/steps/604067

An exercise on the three types of knowledge tool is also described, with references, in the td-net toolbox at: https://naturwissenschaften.ch/co-producing-knowledge-explained/methods/td-net_toolbox/three_types_of_knowledge_tool.

Biography: Tobias Buser is executive secretary of the Global Alliance for Inter- and Trans- disciplinarity (ITD Alliance) and project head of international networks and capacity building at the Network for Transdisciplinary Research (td-net), which is at the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences in Bern, Switzerland. He is a specialist for collaborative research processes, with experience in a) designing, conducting and reflecting stakeholder engagement processes, b) capacity building for transdisciplinary research, and c) conducting research on transdisciplinary research programmes, projects and stakeholder perspectives.

Biography: Flurina Schneider PhD is an integrative geographer and head of the Land Resources Cluster at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, Switzerland. Her research focuses on sustainability, justice, and human well-being in relation to land and water resources. She is particularly interested in how science, knowledge co-production and participation can contribute to sustainability transformations.

11 thoughts on “Three types of knowledge”

  1. I like your visual presentation of the three knowledge types and how they relate to different worldviews. I found your linked example in the td-net toolbox helpful for seeing how this idea might be operationalized.

    The key takeaway for me is to consider how research questions might be framed to address the interests/needs of different actors. One promising way of doing so is to have several research questions, touching on the what (systems knowledge), how (transformational knowledge), and why (target knowledge). I agree that the latter is rather neglected and something that should be made explicit. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
    • Hi Steven,
      thank you for your kind comment! We also often define seperate research questions for each of the three types of knowledge, hence, they become a key structuring element of the overall research plan.
      To make sure that the research question effectively tackles the societal challenge in question, we often work with the following set of questions:

      What is the societal challenge you are aiming to address?
      What type(s) of knowledge are needed to tackle the societal challenge?
      What are the main research questions regarding systems, target, and transformation knowledge?

      Best, Flurina and Tobias

      Reply
  2. Colleagues, I congratulate you on an interesting presentation.

    But there was something about it that made me uneasy… Perhaps it is that knowledge plays the role of subject in your presentation. Therefore, “they interact”, “they are firmly connected” with facts, values, agency, “they answer” fundamental questions. Perhaps it is an allegory or a metaphor, but it is more like an established stereotype that can play a cruel joke in the role of the subject.

    If you will allow me, I will look at your presentation without this stereotype. I think that the three types of knowledge, like all types of knowledge, are indifferent to facts, values, and agencies. They are indifferent because they are not subjects. Any knowledge appears and acquires value in the consciousness of a particular person, and its specific meaning in his worldview.

    You have identified three types of people who are related to the three types of knowledge -scientists, specialists, and politicians. It is likely that each group of people will have a distinctive worldview that allows them to perform their tasks. Therefore, they will strive to create their own (characteristic) facts, will interpret values and agency in their own way. This situation is close to the problem of sustainable development. Let me remind you that the reason for this problem is the different understanding of facts, values and agency by economists, environmentalists and politicians. At the same time, economic, environmental and social knowledge turned out to be innocent.

    If my thoughts are correct, then there is the prospect of building the capacity of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. To do this, it is necessary to form a group of subjects consisting of four types of people: scientists, practitioners, politicians and ordinary people (permanent residents of a particular area). Determine the characteristics and scope of four types of knowledge: disciplinary, practical, managerial, and everyday. Use a high-threshold methodology that will integrate, unify and generalize the four types of worldviews and four types of knowledge. And with a new potential, from the perspective of a new transdisciplinary methodological and instrumental platform, to approach the issues of research and development of action plans.

    This is just one possible point of view. What do you think, is it advisable for us to move in this direction, but, of course, while maintaining your theoretical and methodological structure?

    Reply
    • Dear Vladimir,

      thank you very much for your thoughts. We are not sure if we can follow your arguments to the necessary depths, especially with the challenge of discussing across three languages (German, Russian, English), but we try to address a few of the points.

      We fully agree that knowledge is always embedded in different people’s worldviews, that different groups of people create their own facts and values, and that this is a key rationale for doing transdisciplinary research. However, we argue that knowledge is neither innocent nor neutral. Each type of knowledge – be it from scientists, practitioners or political actors – involves facts, values and agency, though to different degrees.

      Our aim with this article is to present a heuristic tool for structuring project goals and formulating research questions when addressing complex societal challenges. There are also other valuable approaches and categorisations of knowledge types that can help with this task. But we believe it is important to explicitly address the value and agency dimension, as they are often neglected or taken for granted in research projects. Your categorisation of knowledge types looks interesting, but none of them encompasses the normative dimension in an explicit way.

      For sure a discussion to follow up at another occasion,
      Tobias and Flurina

      Reply
      • Dear Tobias and Flurina,
        You are quite right to point out the problem of having a discussion in those languages. But if we don’t solve “the problem of three languages”, can we solve “the problem of three types of knowledge”?

        I probably should have explained my thoughts with simpler examples. When a soldier draws blue and red arrows on the map, he associates them with the actual movement of people. When an engineer draws a schematic diagram of a TV, he associates it with the actual movement of electric charges. What should the movement be associated with when a scientist draws a schematic diagram of the interaction of knowledge? With the real movement of knowledge or with the real movement of people (carriers of this knowledge)? It seemed to me that independent knowledge can only move in the direction of its own classification within the framework of its native discipline. In this status, they do not need to look for compromises and come to a consensus. In my opinion, this is a huge lack of knowledge. We would be able to observe from the outside how knowledge is looking for a compromise, and we would just use these results. This lack of knowledge is corrected by people (knowledge carriers). It is people who seek compromises and come to a consensus. Perhaps your diagrams show these paths, like arrows on military maps. Therefore, I drew your attention to the fact that it is advisable to strengthen your heuristic tool for knowledge interaction with a methodological tool for structuring the human factor. Therefore, in this situation, I am not an external facilitator and critic. Rather, I am a well-wisher and your potential colleague.
        Vladimir

        Reply
        • Hi Vladimir,
          Thank you very much for further elaborating! Indeed, as in transdisciplinary projects research questions are often defined by various stakeholders in a co-production process (and not only by researchers alone), it is critical to combine the concept of three types of knowledge with other methods that address how the relevant actors can interact in fruitful ways. Such methods are also presented in the quoted MOOC. A possible way of combining these methods can be found here: http://bit.ly/MethodCombination

          Best, Flurina and Tobias

          Reply

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