By Basirat Oyalowo
Why is transdisciplinary research important for the advancement of African countries? What are the key issues that need to be taken into account in fostering such research?
This blog post presents key lessons from the ‘Transdisciplinary Research Workshop: Rethinking Research in COVID-19 times’, held in August 2020, in which we brought together academia, government, civil society, industry and development agencies to delve into how researchers might navigate the new terrain wrought by COVID-19 in Africa and use it to further the development of transdisciplinary research. Although the focus of the workshop was urbanization and habitable cities and on adjusting to COVID-19, the lessons for enhancing transdisciplinary research are more broadly generalizable.
Why transdisciplinary research in Africa?
Transdisciplinary research challenges us to question our motives for research:
- Why are we interested in this problem?
- Who would benefit, other than us and our sponsors?
- Where is the voice of the beneficiary in the knowledge production process?
- And towards whose good should our research be tailored?
In other words, transdisciplinarity is an approach that makes research inclusive, recognizing the limits of science (and its experts) and respecting the expert knowledge of ‘laypeople’ (the society, the governed and the governors).
To do this, research cannot be restricted to the methods of one discipline, but has to draw from others. In societies already divided by gender, caste, wealth, education, title, technology and more, such research seeks to bring together ‘communities of producers’ and ‘communities of users’ to gather compelling evidence to support (or refute) previously acceptable ways of doing things and chart new directions for action.
What key issues need to be considered?
Here, four key issues for transdisciplinary research are discussed:
- Decolonizing research
- Building relationships
- Collaborating at distance
- Communicating research.
African researchers should not just implement the research agenda of the global north and this includes interrogating the relevance of transdisciplinarity for Africa.
In addition, partnerships between African-based researchers and their peers in the global north need to be more equitable so as to shift the center of research gravity to African institutions.
Transdisciplinary research in Africa needs to be crafted as an opportunity for research decolonization, placing African researchers at the nexus of change, thus enabling them to re-order narratives of what the world knows, and how African societies have been (re)shaped as a result.
Transdisciplinary research requires that researchers work in collaboration with professional bodies, regulatory bodies, civil society groups, communities, the private sector and others.
Such relationships need to be based on sound ethical processes in order not to breach trust. Relationship building provides the foundations for the partnerships that are required for collaboration.
Collaborating at distance
Learning to work together without, or with limited, physical interaction is not only essential in a pandemic, but has benefits in cutting the costs of collaboration, especially across countries or large areas, when resources are tight.
Technology opens up opportunities for managing this. There are tools for meetings, collaborative data collection, analysis and reports. There are also tools for navigating through the steps of a transdisciplinary research process: building trust and shared understanding, communication, knowledge sharing and awareness.
Special consideration needs to be given to ethical concerns about the already tangled up power imbalance between who is considered the expert and who is considered the layperson and working through the digital divide that separates them.
As yet, technology cannot fully enable co-production with impacted communities to provide a deeper understanding of the problem and enable the planning required to address the challenge. In this, building relationships is very important and requires at least some face-to face contact.
Transdisciplinary research can also be easily combined with approaches such as citizen science as a structure for participatory and collaborative research. This helps researchers to work with communities, building collaborative skills both ways and amplifying knowledge about the challenges that are being studied.
Specialist approaches such as observatories and repositories are of strategic importance to African researchers going forward. With this comes the need for a science-policy interface that ensures that researchers are able to communicate research advice to the policy sector and other communities of users. Action research also dovetails nicely with transdisciplinarity as a means of strengthening communities’ capacities for problem solving.
Participants agreed that:
- Transdisciplinary research requires us to rethink how we research, combining not just academic disciplines, but also including participation by the people who are going to be impacted by research.
- Academics need to be far more effective in working with non-academics. They also need to develop relationships that can help them respond more flexibly in research terms to changes in the environment that disrupt previously established research processes.
- Academics need to seek more equitable partnerships with their own collaborators globally.
Do you have experiences to share in decolonizing research using transdisciplinary approaches? Or in using technology to build relationships and support collaborations, especially during pandemics? Do you have case studies to share from African countries and elsewhere that reflect on the issues raised here?
To find out more:
The report of the ‘Transdisciplinary Research Workshop: Rethinking Research in COVID-19 times’ can be obtained at: https://chsd.unilag.edu.ng/?p=1085.
Biography: Basirat Ashabi Oyalowo PhD manages the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development and teaches in the Department of Estate Management, both at the University of Lagos Akoka in Nigeria. Her research interests are in housing studies (informality, post-colonialism, policy, regeneration, development and finance), urban sustainability (real estate and property) and comparative African studies.