Navigating intercultural relations in transdisciplinary practice: The partial overlaps framework

By David Ludwig, Vitor Renck & Charbel N. El-Hani

1. David Ludwig (biography)
2. Vitor Renck (biography)
3. Charbel N. El-Hani (biography)

How can local knowledge be effectively and fairly incorporated in transdisciplinary projects? How can such projects avoid “knowledge mining” and “knowledge appropriation” that recognize marginalized knowledge only where it is convenient for dominant actors and their goals? In addition, how can knowledge integration programs avoid being naive or even harmful by forcing Indigenous people into regimes of knowledge production that continue to be dominated by the perspectives of external researchers?

On the other hand, how can transdisciplinary projects avoid an exclusive focus on difference that risks creating an artificial divide between Indigenous/local and scientific knowledge and that contributes to further marginalization by denying the very possibility of meaningful dialogue?

We have addressed these dilemmas by developing a framework of partial overlaps. This is a model and methodology of relating actors beyond simplistic stories of seamless integration or insurmountable difference (Ludwig 2016, Ludwig and El-Hani 2020).

On the one hand, the framework assumes an overlap between the perspectives of actors that allows for intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding. Exploring overlaps in perspectives is a crucial element of any transdisciplinary practice that aims to identify common ground between heterogeneous actors in collaboratively working towards solutions.

On the other hand, the framework assumes that overlaps always remain partial and that many of the political challenges of transdisciplinarity relate to the question of how this partiality becomes negotiated.

In some contexts, partiality may be “complementing” in the sense that difference does not get in the way of successful collaboration. For example, Indigenous forest management may be entangled with spiritual perspectives that remain obscure to academic conservation managers but still lead to mutual recognition of expertise and collaboration towards a shared goal.

Other forms of partiality will be “conflicting” in the sense that they suggest contradictory courses of action and therefore require careful attention to the politics of transdisciplinary negotiations between actors in often very different positions of power.

Key elements of the framework of partial overlaps

The framework of partial overlaps distinguishes between dimensions of (1) epistemology, (2) ethics and (3) ontology.

  1. Epistemology: First, partial overlaps relate to epistemological questions of knowledge production and validation. In transdisciplinary conservation management, for example, an Indigenous community and academic ecologists may overlap in many observations of ecosystem dynamics while diverging in modes of knowledge production from intergenerational storytelling in the community to mathematical models of ecological dynamics.
  2. Ethics: Second, partial overlaps commonly extend into ethical reasoning. For example, there may be common ground in concerns about a local ecosystem but these are expressed in different normative orders and moral relationships between humans and their environments.
  3. Ontology: Finally, both epistemic and ethical dimensions are entangled with partial ontological overlaps. The ontological dimension is often the most challenging for transdisciplinary practices as it relates to fundamental differences in how actors view and relate to the world.

The acknowledgment of overlaps implies a recognition that even Indigenous communities and academically trained scientists do not live in entirely disconnected worlds that have nothing in common. A simple dualism between an “Indigenous world” and a “scientific world” that are exclusively defined in opposition to each other does not only misdescribe the relations between actors but is also politically harmful in precluding the very possibility of intercultural dialogue.

At the same time, Indigenous and academic actors do live in partially different worlds that require acknowledgement in transdisciplinary negotiation. Without recognition of ontological difference, Indigenous and local knowledge runs the risk of being assimilated into academic ontologies without acknowledgment of the inequalities that such an assimilation inevitably produces.

Theoretical and practical tools

The framework of partial overlaps aims to provide both theoretical and practical tools for navigating tensions of intercultural dialogue in transdisciplinary practice.

In empirical terms, our framework has been primarily developed through interaction with the fishing communities of Siribinha and Poças, in the state of Bahia, Brazil. As examples, we can mention our ongoing studies on the local ethnobiological and ethnotaxonomical knowledge of fish and birds and their overlaps and partialities in relation to academic science, or our studies on partial overlaps in the epistemological tools used by fishers and academic scientists.

In such practical terms, one needs to immerse oneself in the lived experience of the communities with which we work and, above all, one should assume an intercultural attitude. That is, one should be aware, when using the partial overlaps approach, that academic science and Indigenous or local knowledge are different knowledge systems that cannot be hierarchized in abstract terms. That is, if one asks which knowledge system is better, from our perspective this is simply a mistaken, unanswerable question, unless one takes academic science as a ruler for measuring the contribution of each and every knowledge system, something at odds with an intercultural attitude.

As knowledge is always embedded in cultural and historical settings, it develops in relation to a set of situated problems which it can handle, and then, in concrete terms, some knowledge systems may be better than others for doing specific things. Then, if we ask whether a given knowledge system is better than some other for some concrete, situated problem, we can at least tentatively find an answer. As the cultural and historical settings in which academic science and Indigenous or local knowledge develop are significantly different, they can benefit from comprehensive interaction and mutual learning.

With this intercultural attitude in the foreground, we use the usual research tools in anthropological, ethnographic and ethnobiological work, such as participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and so forth, while in action research we take a bottom-up perspective using participatory planning of the research and intervention, encouraging whenever possible the establishment of communities of practice.

How fruitful do you think this approach can be in relation to your philosophical expectations, and, especially, to your transdisciplinary work?

To find out more:
El-Hani, C. N., Poliseli, L. and Ludwig, D. (Forthcoming). Beyond the divide between traditional and academic knowledge: Causal and mechanistic explanations in a Brazilian fishing community. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C.

Ludwig, D. (2016). Overlapping ontologies and Indigenous knowledge. From integration to ontological self-determination. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 59: 36-45

Ludwig, D. and El-Hani, C. N. (2020). Philosophy of ethnobiology: Understanding knowledge integration and its limitations. Journal of Ethnobiology, 40, 1: 3-20.

Biography: David Ludwig PhD is an associate professor in the Knowledge, Technology, and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands. He works at the intersection of philosophy and social studies of science with a focus on global negotiations of academic and non-academic knowledge. Recent publications have focused on local biological knowledge of indigenous and peasant communities, on contested categories such as race in scientific practice, and on questions of global justice in science policy.

Biography: Vitor Renck is an ecologist and transdisciplinary researcher doing his PhD at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil, and is currently a guest researcher at Wageningen University and Research, in the Netherlands. He is investigating the ethnobiology and ethnotaxonomy of artisanal fishers and using a transdisciplinary research approach in order to comprehend the prospects and limits of integration between traditional and academic ecological knowledge. His research interests include ethnobiology, human ecology, knowledge integration and agroecology.

Biography: Charbel N. El-Hani PhD is full professor in the Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia, Brazil. He is coordinator of the History, Philosophy, and Biology Teaching Lab and the National Institute of Science and Technology in Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Studies in Ecology and Evolution. Between January 2020 and July 2021, he is a visiting researcher at the Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal. He works in the areas of science education research, philosophy of biology, ecology, and ethnobiology.

17 thoughts on “Navigating intercultural relations in transdisciplinary practice: The partial overlaps framework”

  1. Thank you for sharing this post.

    The authors raise some (many) key questions regarding how to integrate academy and indigenous communities in producing and sharing knowledge.
    The idea of integration is a crucial issue, as from an anthropological point of view it can guarantee avoiding both Malinowski (how to understand natives) and Papalagui (how do natives see the colonizer) biases. Transdiciplinarity, as pointed out in the blog post, is a good path in the search for avoiding the divide of unilateral approaches.

    But how to operationalize it?

    The authors refer to their study in Bahia, Brazil, as providing a methodological framework. Their experience can add value to other initiatives on knowledge co-construction that are on-going elsewhere. Such an approach, unlike usual practices of interaction between researchers and local (mainly indigenous) communities tend to reduce risks of imbalanced exchanges, in which locals usually tend to lose more than win. Academics win, and are rewarded by publishing their articles, registering patents, getting visibility or even providing industry with insights to fostering technological development. In such relationships, locals tend to lose, mainly when they provide their knowledge without legal and/or economical safeguards, disregarding market mechanisms and traps. But they can also win, if the outcomes of the exchanges are appropriate and effectively useful to their lives.

    The three dimensions (epistemological, ethical and ontological) can provide a solid ground, mainly if they take into account the need to prevent unfair exchanges. Ethical checks and balances, such as informed consent and the commitment to restitution of results are necessary, but not sufficient. Co-construction approaches can prevent top-down, predatory, and paternalistic relations.

    I congratulate the authors for their up to date contribution.

    • Dear Marcel,
      Thanks for the insightful comment. This concern with what the community wins from interacting with us and giving access to their knowledge is a constant worry in our work. One straightforward way we use to guarantee that what we learn from them comes back in some way to them is precisely the work in the local schools I mentioned in the reply to Danielle. We have been working with the local teachers, in a community of practice, to bring for instance their knowledge on fish and shellfish to teaching about zoological contents, their knowledge about plants to the construction of a garden in the school, and so forth.

      We have also been trying to bring something back in the mediation of the communities’ relationships with local public power, the municipality, which is in the process of creating protected areas in the place where they live. This is, however, much more challenging, both because the unity of purpose and interest we find in schoolwork, is lacking in the conservation side, which is always full of wicked problems, and because we are not so much in the zone where we find ourselves comfortable with our capacities. We are currently in the process of rethinking how to engage with the conservation issues, while continuing work in the local schools as we have been doing since 2017.

      Anyway. I think what you raised should be a central concern of any initiative that engages with local and Indigenous communities: we should think of what they will gain from the process from a perspective of what is really relevant to them.

    • @Marcel, I share your concern about reward systems for locals and the authors have succeeded in providing an example of how they are working towards this. In my own work with informal communities in Lagos, Nigeria, I try to give back by ensuring that where-ever there are opportunities to appoint paid research assistants in a study, members of the community are enlisted to carry this out. It is a small way of giving back, but I find it creates trust and helps community actors know that their contributions are valued. As a research centre, we also create opportunities for co-authorship of research papers with non-academic actors, by including this as a condition for sponsored research within our research clusters. I think these are small steps that can be expanded upon.

      • Dear Basirat Oyalowo,
        Thanks for sharing this. We should do whenever we can the possible steps towards this kind of reward, even though there are always the risk of polemics within communities on who is paid as research assistant. I am now working on projects for monitoring and carrying out censuses of endangered bird species in the region we work, and this is a constant source of worry for me. The choice of research assistants is clear and transparent, as they are the ones in the community who have been constantly collaborating in the very same work we are planning to obtain funds… But I fear this does not mean much when some see others getting benefits that they are not getting, particularly when there are so many needs and so limited resources… Perhaps I am too grim now but it is difficult not to be so in a day where 92% of the funding for scientific research in Brazil has been cut by the present government (and this from the smallest budget for scientific research for Brazilian science in the last four decades.


        • Charbel, I relate with your concern on community-based research assistants, and potential division between those who benefit and those who don’t. There are no easy answers here, sincerely. Especially recent limitations we have with research funds, post-covid. Considering the deprivations that exist in the communities we work with, and how they value these opportunities as a mark of respect of their own capacity, one is tempted to say it helps provide just a little compensation in lieu of the research publications etc that researchers get out of these processes. More needs to be done, of course and I would be interested in learn more about your work as you navigate this.

          • Dear Basirat,
            You said it all, there are no easy answers, and it is really something we learn as we navigate. btw, we need to learn as we navigate and if we place too strict, golden standards for the difficult issues of participation, reward etc., we may not be able to handle all the diversity and flexibility of the situations we face.
            Thanks for the questions and inputs!


  2. Thanks so much for sharing this. I think your approach can really help us in some work we are currently doing in Central Australia around education and training initiatives designed and funded by Indigenous groups. Any chance of getting a copy of your forthcoming paper? Cheers, Danielle

    • Dear Danielle,
      I do think it can help. In the fishing villages where we work, the research on the biological and ecological knowledge circulating in the communities is used in the local classrooms in collaborative work with teachers – who are all from the communities themselves – to develop and investigate together educational innovations for intercultural education as dialogue between knowledge systems and ways of knowing. We have been doing this since 2017, but we are still working on the papers resulting from this experience.

      In our theoretical work, we develop this idea of dialogue based on authors like Paulo Freire, Enrique Leff and Boaventura de Sousa Santos, and we also work on the advocacy for always combining continuous studies on others’ knowledge systems before proposing to work with this knowledge in the classroom, in order to avoid caricaturing it.

      This is, finally, part of a struggle in the field of power relationships taking place in the construction of curricula, and as in any struggle we always need to choose our side. We politically take the side of supporting that the voice of marginalized and oppressed communities be heard within curricula and classrooms, both through the dialogue embedded into the educational innovations, but also through the presence of their knowledge holders in the classrooms, participating in the teaching activities. However, the goal of their presence there is not to teach, we think, their knowledge system in itself (because this is not a role for the school, but for their own transmission processes, unless they are eroded), but rather to promote a dialogue in which the knowledge of those alien to the community can also be learnt. After all, intercultural education is always a tricky thing, as it deals with learners who are supposed to learn well their own culture, the cultures of others with whom they are in contact, and how to cross borders between cultures.

  3. Very stimulating proposal! That leaves me some residual perplexity though: I see quite easily how this approach based on partial overlapping can work in certain settings like the one the authors worked in — the one of the indigenous fishers — and in general this approach seems to me quite convincing in nature or conservation-related projects. Intuitively, the approach can work well enough when the academics and the indigenous culture have a natively shared view of a “phenomenic” well-observable world, made of mid-size objects, like landscapes, forests, rivers, seas, with all their animal and vegetal inhabitants, or in general a shared view of an outside physical setting, perceptually unambiguous. Can the same approach be based on partial overlapping work in other kinds of setting? Or is it mostly applicable to ecology and nature-related issues?

    But even in these area, can there be cases falling outside the power of the proposed method? Let’s say — as a purely hypothetical example — that there is a place in which a sacred mountain is considered as the “mother” generating gods by the the indigenous culture, and from a geological point of view it is instead something else entirely: in this case, probably, the ontologies are too different and have a minimum or even non-existent overlap.
    So, it seems the real problem is with ontologies. In the above example, it is easy to identify them as non overlapping. But is it in general easy to effect this kind of assessment? Isn’t there a possible problem of (radical?) translation here?

    • Those are very relevant questions – thanks Luca! Indeed, some domains (e.g. often mid-size objects, as you mention) – create more overlaps than others. Still, the pairing of overlaps & partiality reflects the assumption that most domains are not cases of 100% incommensurability or 100% consensus but somewhere in-between. Recognising this in-betweenness is important to navigate between (1) giving up on the very possibility of intercultural dialogue and (2) superficial dialogue that assimilates Indigenous perspectives. And recognising the partiality overlaps also means recognising the limits of translation & understanding. In this sense, your case of a sacred mountain is an excellent example – in such a case, academic researchers should not pretend that they can fully translate indigenous knowledge into academic language. Recognising these limitations through partiality also sometimes means de-emphasising the “integration” of knowledge systems and emphasising issues of Indigenous/local self-determination instead.

      • Thanks David, it’s really interesting how in your view limitations in theoretical convergence open the way (possibly even as a route to further theoretical progress in a broad sense, I guess, even if maybe not along the former lines) to a “political” way of proceeding.

        This gradual shift from the theoretical to the political — and thus to the practical, if we want to use classical metaphilosophical categories — seems really innovative and I’m wondering if it should or could occur even when facing other theoretical conundrums in completely different scenarios.

        I think this deserves further reflexion, thanks for the suggestion.

        • Hi Luca and David,
          Great conversation! I think it is relevant to think of these relationships in terms of learning opportunities. While it is true that some phenomenic domain may harbor more overlaps than others (think, e.g., of quarks on the academic side, or sacred mountains, on some indigenous knowledge system, to use Luca’s example), it is not the case that we can always learn from each other and, perhaps, ever advancing for coproducing knowledge only in the domain of overlaps.

          When overlaps are found, it is important to consider, first, that they do not mean simple matches between entities, properties, relations, but exercises of intercultural translation which, as well discussed in both philosophy and anthropology, should consider that there are never perfect translations, and as much as it can generate understanding, translation also generates equivocality. This per se puts aside any idea of validation of one knowledge system by another, which would lead to epistemic injustice.

          Overlaps seem to me, thus, to above all create fields of mutual understanding that can prompt mutual learning and perhaps coproduction between peers who recognize themselves as knowledge holders, and are in a position to put into question usual hierarchies between knowledge systems.

          That said, what about the case Luca brings to the fore, which falls under what is called in the framework partiality of overlaps? In this case, I think the first step is to avoid taking our own ontology as literal and all others as metaphorical. If we do so, we can pass over questions of existence, such as “is there really a sacred mountain there” or “is this a sacred mountain”, which are blocks to mutual learning. If we take existence as a literal thing, and curiously take all our ontology to be literal and others’ ontologies not, then the answer will be probably negative.

          Well, but what happen in this case? Nothing really interesting: just once again Western ontology has been imposed onto other ontologies, reenacting colonial relationships. An investigative attitude – which I think should qualify an academic – should dismiss this avenue, because it blocks inquiry more than anything else.

          Another attitude can open up avenues for inquiry, however, which is reminiscent of Thomas Nagel trying to advance understanding in the philosophy of mind asking “what is it like to be a bat?”. In this case, we may ask “what is it like to see that mountain as sacred?” We will not be able for sure to share the whole experience of seeing that with someone who is a holder of the knowledge system where that mountain-ontology is situated, but what we can do when seriously asking that question may raise new ideas, new questions, new meanings, new values, attitudes, political positions and so forth, which may be worth pursuing.

  4. Very helpful distinctions between *partially* different worlds and better *for some purposes*. Will read your paper, but can you say more about what “partial” means? Does it mean “is about the same topics”? Or “has implications for the same types of actions”? Or…?

    • Partial in this case points to the nuanced approach to relationships between the knowledge systems proposed by the framework, namely, to look both for convergences and differences between ontological, epistemological and value aspects between them. Overlaps are never seen in the framework from a validation perspective, i.e., rather than engaging in the epistemic injustice of demanding Indigenous/Local Knowledge (ILK) to be validated based on Academic Knowledge (AK), the framework assumes an intercultural attitude, and see overlaps as a way of finding space for mutual learning and knowledge coproduction. Differences – which we can describe as partiality of overlaps, which can be complementary or conflicting – in turn are regarded from a political perspective, i.e., demanding that the researcher positions himself/herself in relation to the self-determination of Indigenous and Local communities.

    • Thanks for the interest, Stefan. I hope it will be helpful to your work, and we will be very pleased if you share more of your impressions on what we have argued.


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