By Dena Fam, Julie Thompson Klein, Sabine Hoffmann, Cynthia Mitchell and Christian Pohl
The concept of integration is widely regarded as the crux of transdisciplinary research, education, and practice. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach or methodology. Projects and programs vary in purpose, scale and scope, problem focus, research question, mix of expertise, degree of coordination and communication, timing, and responsibility for integration. Based on findings in a study of integration we conducted (Pohl et al., 2021), we address four common questions to provide insights into transdisciplinary integration as a multidimensional interactive process.
1. Does integration require coming to consensus on a contested issue?
Not necessarily. Agreement on a final single understanding or solution is only one kind of integration.
Other kinds do not require agreement or consensus. Instead, they allow perspectives reflecting different ways of knowing related to different knowledge communities and knowers to coexist. Such other kinds of integration include:
- ‘weaving’ the threads of different knowledge systems;
- ‘balancing’ different knowledge systems and their respective ways of knowing; and,
- ‘accommodating’ what is desirable and feasible for participants in transdisciplinary research.
Different kinds of integration, then, are options. The key factor is determining what kind and degree of integration is needed at which stages of a transdisciplinary research process and whether it is suitable for particular types of societal problems.
2. Does integration mean individual researchers and practitioners question their own epistemologies, and make room for other positions and truth claims?
Not in every case. Before starting collaboration and integration, project leaders should make participants aware of the different ways of knowing in a project. This step may or may not lead participants to accommodate other epistemologies.
Exchange on different ways of knowing may also challenge participants’ fundamental assumptions. In some instances participants might adopt an insight into their existing ways of thinking (and acting) without questioning their own epistemologies. In others, participants might question them.
However, integration requires all participants to question their own epistemologies when attempting to co-produce knowledge in a reflective or reflexive process that balances different knowledge systems.
3. Does integration occur if a policymaker incorporates knowledge produced by researchers into decision making, even if the researchers do not assimilate any of the policy maker’s knowledge or work in collaborative fashion?
Sure, but in this instance integration only occurs on the side of the policy maker. Integration does not necessarily require mutuality in the form of reciprocal incorporation of all perspectives by all participants in a given research project or program.
Integration is an umbrella term for all instances and possible combinations of participants’ knowledge and information. However, regardless of whether the approach is one-sided or mutual, here too clarity about the kind of integration that is meant and appropriate methods are needed in each case, depending on the particular configuration of goals and needs in a given research project or program as well as the mix of knowledge, information, and forms of expertise brought together.
4. Are there situations where mutual integration is not appropriate?
Yes. If a particular kind of integration fails to meet the needs of specific transdisciplinary project or program goals, it might be sufficient for one knowledge community, a designated project leader, or a subgroup to integrate insights from other communities and researchers, as long as participants agree.
In contrast other situations may require mutuality. The challenge here as well is to find the appropriate kind of integration for a specific goal and context.
What do you think?
Overall, integration is crucial, though under-examined. It manifests in a variety of ways for transdisciplinary research and co-production of knowledge aimed at tackling complex problems such as sustainable development, health and well-being, and social justice. Given its importance, then, we ask have you explored and/or found answers to any of the following related questions in your projects?
- What contextual factors influence the process of integration?
These factors could include availability of resources, structural or systemic incentives, barriers, and disparities in access to resources. More explicitly, they could indicate power dynamics involved in projects and programs that require attention.
- What methods, tools and processes help participants in transdisciplinary projects recognise their own knowledge, expertise, and disciplinary contributions in relation to others and contextual factors that influence integration in practice, both positively and negatively?
Relatedly, what methods, tools and processes exist to analyse, monitor, and lead complex multidimensional integration processes? And, following suit, are current approaches adequate or do they prioritize specific aspects of integration such as cognitive rather than social dimensions?
- What is the role of learning with respect to integration in transdisciplinary projects?
Learning is integral to integration. However, the subquestion of what forms of learning facilitate different forms of integration arises. So does the subquestion of how projects might be designed and lead to enhancing learning among all participants.
- How do we further investigate integration as a balance of different knowledge systems and their respective ways of knowing?
This query asks how balance occurs in addition to understanding, achieving, and evaluating reflective equilibrium. And, it asks about power dynamics when researchers try to weave scientific knowledge with Indigenous and lay forms of knowledge.
To find out more:
Pohl C., Klein J. T., Hoffman S., Mitchell C. and Fam D. (2021) Conceptualising transdisciplinary integration as a multidimensional interactive process. Environmental Science and Policy, 11: 18-26. (Online – open access): https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1462901120314076.
Citations of sources for ideas in the blog post appear in this article.
Dena Fam PhD is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia with over a decade of experience in designing and delivering inter- and trans- disciplinary educational programs at undergraduate and post graduate levels. She has consulted on transdisciplinary education and leadership, on university transformation processes in Latin America, Australasia and Northern Europe.
Julie Thompson Klein PhD is Professor of Humanities Emerita in the English Department at Wayne State University, Detroit, USA and International Research Affiliate of the Transdisciplinarity Lab in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH-Zurich in Switzerland. She has written and edited numerous works on boundary crossing including ‘Beyond Interdisciplinarity: Boundary Work, Communication, and Collaboration’ (2021).
Sabine Hoffmann PhD is group leader of inter- and trans- disciplinary research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Duebendorf, Switzerland. She is also head of a strategic research program in sustainable water management. Her research focuses on integration and integrative leadership in large inter- and trans- disciplinary research programs.
Cynthia Mitchell PhD is Professor Emerita at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia where for two decades she led transdisciplinary projects around the world aimed at creating change towards sustainable futures. In 2021, Cynthia launched a program called ‘The Good Ancestor’, where her aim is enabling the reflexivity required to work across difference so that we can love each other and our amazing planet fiercely enough to be proud of the legacy we will leave.
Christian Pohl PhD is co-director of the Transdisciplinarity Lab of the Department of Environmental Systems Science (USYS TdLab) at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. His research and teaching interest is the theory and the practice of transdisciplinary research as a means for achieving sustainable development.