Setting an agenda for transdisciplinary research in Africa

By Basirat Oyalowo

author_basirat-oyalowo
Basirat Oyalowo (biography)

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.

Decolonizing 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.

Building Relationships

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.

Communicating research

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.

Conclusion

Participants agreed that:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

13 thoughts on “Setting an agenda for transdisciplinary research in Africa”

  1. Dear Basirat,
    In October 2020, this blog hosted a presentation of the discipline “Systems transdisciplinarity”. Perhaps you and your colleagues will be interested in how multifactorial problems involving the social factor are solved using the methodology and tools of the systems transdisciplinary approach.

    It is time to recognize that the effectiveness of transdisciplinary research is significantly limited by objective and subjective interpersonal, worldview, psychological and methodological, and other problems of interdisciplinary interaction of experts. In such a situation, the facilitators may be powerless. It is more important to use a strict philosophical and conceptual justification for solving such problems. In this case, we must be prepared for a different interpretation of some familiar terms and concepts. For example, generally accepted abstract stereotypes – a person, a state, the population of a state, a union of states, a human society, when solving a problem, you need to perceive, in the image of a specific person, a specific state, the population of a specific state, a specific union of states. In this case, the images of the states of the North and South stop working. The states of the North and South have their own tasks, functions, their own life, their own intensity of life, their own age, etc.

    From the point of view of systems transdisciplinarity, states form a Single Social Functional Ensemble. This ensemble is similar to the human body. It should have a complete set of organs and systems that will ensure the achievement of the purpose of man and human society. Each organ and system of the human body has its own (special) needs and goods (benefits), values and goals. They determine the features of the functions of each organ and system. That is why the economic, social, ideological and ideological models of one state do not work in other states. Figuratively speaking, when the brain is forced to digest food, and the stomach is forced to breathe, it will inevitably cause negative tension in the relations of the organs and systems of the human body. Therefore, the awareness of the population and the leadership of the identity of their state, its functional purpose in the functional ensemble of states, will solve two problems: to overcome the feeling of imaginary inferiority or lag in the field of socio-economic development (internal problem) and to justify the principles of equivalence of interstate relations, which will become the basis for sustainable development of human society (external problem).

    Of course, solving an internal problem has priority. This solution will require the involvement of local scientists and experts. This is important! In this short message, it is impossible to talk about the entire systems transdisciplinary methodology. However, we can say the main thing. You need to try to justify and clearly formulate the answers to the four questions:
    – what does the population of the state associate with the term ” Needs ” (quantitative and qualitative characteristics);
    – what does the population of the state associate with the term ” Goods ” (quantitative and qualitative characteristics);
    – what does the population of the state associate with the term ” Values ” (quantitative and qualitative characteristics);
    – what is associated with the term ” Goals ” (quantitative and qualitative characteristics) among the population of the state.
    We are confident that the generalization of this information will allow us to justify the solution of the internal problem. Then it will be your turn to solve the external problem. This is important when a complex multi-factorial domestic problem is solved by specialists of their state.

    If this approach to solving the problems that you have reported is interesting to you, then you can continue it.
    Vladimir Mokiy

    To find out more:
    – Mokiy, V.S. & Lukyanova T.A. (2019). World Social and Economic Development in the Theory of Ternary Counterpoints. European Scientific Journal. Vol. 15, no 23, ESJ August Edition, pp. 12-27. http://dx.doi.org/10.19044/esj.2019.v15n23p12
    – Mokiy, V. (2019). Training generalists in higher education: Its theoretical basis and prospects. Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, 22, 55-72. https://doi.org/10.28945/4431
    – Mokiy, V.S. (2019). International standard of transdisciplinary education and transdisciplinary competence. Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, 22, 73-90. https://doi.org/10.28945/4480

    Reply
    • As described, the systems transdisciplinary approach actually also speaks to governance approaches when government aspirations for the ‘big city’ do not always align with the actual needs and realities of their people. Without an approach that brings the governed and governors together to solve specific problems, plan incongruity, exclusion and perception of social injustice occurs. Yes, Vladimir, we can take this discussion forward.

      Reply
      • Basirat,
        Thank you for your decision to continue the discussion.
        I want to draw your attention to the difference in terms: research, approach, method:

        – Research in the broad sense is the search for new knowledge or systematic investigation in order to establish facts;
        – Research in the narrow sense is the process of studying an object;

        – Approach is a broad concept. By choosing an approach, you determine the initial vector in the work. In another way, it is the foundation in your work, based on which you try to achieve your goals.

        – Method is a narrower concept. This is the method of a specific action.

        This allows us to talk about the differences in terms: transdisciplinary research, transdisciplinary approaches, transdisciplinary methods.

        In the context of these definitions, it turns out:

        – Transdisciplinary research is the process of multi-faceted or multidisciplinary study of an object;

        – Transdisciplinary approaches are the optimal philosophical, methodological and technological organization (justification) of the process of solving a multifactorial problem;

        – Transdisciplinary methods are concrete, well-founded ways to solve a multifactorial problem.

        Therefore, it is important to clearly define what you want to do: study, organize (justify) a solution, or directly solve a multi-factor problem.

        From your message, I understand that you want to justify the solution and solve the problem, not study it. Therefore, transdisciplinary research will not help you in this. But transdisciplinary approaches will help.

        It may be interesting to you that the expectations that were originally associated with transdisciplinarity were formulated in October 1968 in Bellagio (Italy) at a symposium on long-term planning and forecasting, which was organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The participants of the symposium clearly expressed the need to solve the problem of planning, forecasting and managing the socio-economic development of society through a “global” approach. Within the framework of the” global ” approach, there was to be a deep synthesis of disciplinary knowledge, academic and non-academic specialists.

        It is obvious that the “global” approach should have a traditional institutional form: it should be a special discipline. This discipline defines a single context for the cooperation of all specialists in solving a complex multi-factorial problem. For example, chemistry defines a single context (common rules) for the handling of chemicals (poisons, gases, etc.) for academic, non-academic specialists, managers, and ordinary people. Students are introduced to this context (rules) at the university. But who will form such a context (rules) for solving complex multifactorial problems in which it is necessary to eliminate “inconsistency of plans, exclusion and perception of social injustice”? Who, where and how will introduce this context (rules) to government officials, a team of academic and non-academic specialists?

        Therefore, if you want to solve multifactorial problems involving social aspects, you must first choose the appropriate approach: a transdisciplinary approach or a systematic transdisciplinary approach. And this approach will help to justify the vector of work and organize specific joint actions of specialists, non-specialists and officials. In this case, it will be possible to manage disciplinary knowledge and facts, but not to manage specialists and non-specialists. This circumstance allows us to organize more effective cooperation!
        Vladimir

        Reply
  2. Thanks, Basirat, for sharing this experience and mainly for calling to decolonize collaborative research. I think it is time not only for Africa but for all the world to start decolonizing knowledge production. In our experience in Bolivia, we have been working towards this goal. We found that it is necessary to stop monologues disguised in dialogues and re(valuating) different knowledge systems through a listening-being. You can find more details of our proposed methodology called Listening dialogues of wisdom in the following link https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11625-021-00937-8.pdf. Looking forward to your comments.

    Reply
    • Adriana, I find that phrase: ‘monologues disguised in dialogues’ to be very apt, and especially true for researchers just starting it out in collaborative research. As you have correctly noted, decolonizing knowledge means that we need to draw from different knowledge systems and we need to acquire new skills that makes collaborations more beneficial to all partners. Thanks also for sharing the link to your article, I will definitely read it and share my thoughts.

      Reply
      • Dear Basirat, it will be interesting to compare our experiences. We found that in Bolivia, senior researchers that have been trained under the positivist paradigm are more reluctant to consider equally valid other knowledge systems; therefore, they continue imposing the monologue of scientific knowledge on their students.

        Reply
  3. Thanks for this engaging post, Basirat! It resonates with my blogpost on how we can prepare our students for intercultural transdisciplinary projects here ( https://i2insights.org/2018/01/30/preparing-transdisciplinary-students/ ). Yet since the pandemic has forced us to intensify online collaborations both in research and education, I think your call for active global engagements and subsequent decolonisation of research (and education as well, I would add) is all the more relevant. Although personal connections are important for building trust etc., to make this work at a larger scale we may need to employ existing and build new networks to create momentum. What are your thoughts on that?

    Reply
    • During the lockdown in Lagos, myself and colleagues at the University of Lagos had to engage communities (see the report: https://chsd.unilag.edu.ng/?p=1083) in unprecedented ways (such as virtual focus group discussions) and we had a successful run only because of the trustworthy relationship we had built with informal community leaders over the years. Despite the digital divide, the lockdown has really helped in opening up our research activities to global audiences through the webinars that overseas-based facilitators could engage in, without travelling. This opens new networks on the global scene, So, existing networks provide opportunities for continuing collaborations and new networks would help to expand our reach. I think the challenge is then how to ensure that both existing and new networks play complementary roles in our research agenda.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the reply and information on this interesting project, Basirat! Interesting to note that the virtual solutions could build on the “trustworthy relationship we had built with informal community leaders over the years”. That resonates with my experiences as well: building trust in online-only relationships is something we have not yet done a lot so we might need to learn to develop those. Perhaps we should start here?

        Reply
  4. Sensible observations. In the water sector we need far more attention to be given to water and sanitation health. Without NGOs as active role players in the system, transdisciplinary research in the field will become more complex and difficult. Academics also need to give more dedicated attention to nuclear localtities that each have unique featutes. Only by taking note of local traditions and customs and becoming aware of how they are different and yet also very muich the same, will we be able to get to the point where larger spatial areas can be incorporated to introduce adaptable infrastructure and services to communities from the local to the regional and the nation state.

    Reply
    • Unfortunately, my own experience has been that despite the similarities in culture and traditions in at the grassroots, politics remain a powerful divisive factor when it comes to infrastructure and basic service provision. (There are records of politicians who allocate post-election basic resources only to those communities that voted for them). Because NGOs fill some of these needs and work with the grassroots, they are more trusted by the people and I have found it useful to identify NGOs working in specific community as a sound pre-engagement activity.

      Reply
  5. It really is exciting that participants began to re-conceive transdisciplinarity of research in Africa as involving not just multiple collaborating disciplines. Transdisciplinarity must “trans…” the university or research centres into the communities and policy arenas. And not in ways that just seek to benefit the communities or policy actors. No. It must be in ways that actively collaborate with these entities as equal partners seeking to understand and decimate the mountains of development challenges that are before Africa.

    Reply
    • Absolutely! One of the setbacks we face as researchers is in assuming that all we need is our ‘expert knowledge’ of the problems we seek to solve and we tend to overlook those who are already navigating these challenges in innovative ways. Seeking communities out and working directly with them to solve their problems is an ideal that we must pursue.

      Reply

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