Transdisciplinary integration: A multidimensional interactive process

By Dena Fam, Julie Thompson Klein, Sabine Hoffman, Cynthia Mitchell and Christian Pohl

authors_dena-fam_julie-thompson-klein_sabine-hoffman_cynthia-mitchell_christian-pohl
1. Dena Fam; 2. Julie Thompson Klein; 3. Sabine Hoffman; 4. Cynthia Mitchell; 5. Christian Pohl (biographies)

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.

Biographies:

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.

20 thoughts on “Transdisciplinary integration: A multidimensional interactive process”

  1. Dear colleagues! It seems to me that the complexity of describing and applying integration is due to the variety of actions that are directly or associatively associated with this term. To simplify the complexity, I propose to divide the integration content into four conditional groups:
    1. Integration of knowledge.
    2. Integration of methodologies.
    3. Integration of specialists.
    4. Integration of goals.
    Each group can be divided into subgroups (the number of groups and subgroups can be changed):
    1. Integration of knowledge
    – integration of complementary disciplinary knowledge;
    – integration of complementary and non-complementary disciplinary knowledge;
    – integration of disciplinary knowledge and knowledge of systems approaches.
    2. Integration of methodologies
    – integration of methodologies of complementary disciplines;
    – integration of methodologies of complementary and non-complementary disciplines;
    – integration of methodologies of academic disciplines and methodologies of systems approaches.
    3. Integration of specialists
    – integration of specialists of complementary disciplines using object thinking and disciplinary worldview;
    – integration of specialists of complementary and non-complementary disciplines using object thinking and disciplinary worldview;
    – integration of specialists using object thinking and a disciplinary worldview, and specialists using systems thinking and a systems worldview.
    4. Integration of goals
    – integration of knowledge, methodologies and specialists to solve low-threshold problems;
    – integration of knowledge, methodologies and specialists to solve medium-threshold problems;
    – integration of knowledge, methodologies and specialists to solve high-threshold problems;
    – substantiation of the level of scientific rigor of integrated methodologies for solving problems of different complexity thresholds.
    However, will specialists who will take part in solving group and subgroup tasks be able to overcome psychological and ideological obstacles? Will they be able to adequately summarize the results of solving group and subgroup problems? In such an environment, I suggest using the help of generalist facilitators who have the concept and methodology of systems transdisciplinarity.
    To read more:
    – Mokiy, V.S., & Lukyanova, T.A. (2021). Transdisciplinarity: Marginal direction or global approach of contemporary science? Informing Science: The International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, Vol.24, pp. 001-018. https://doi.org/10.28945/4752

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, Vladimir, and reference to the article you and Tatyana wrote. It was also good to see you two at the recent 2021 international td-net conference. Yes, indeed, the complexity of describing and achieving integration is due to the variety of actions and, I’d add, contexts. Your list of four groups includes both cognitive and social dimensions as well, important since many earlier accounts of integration did not factor in the centrality of social integration for inter- and trans-disciplinary collaborations. When it comes to the subgroups I would add, too, not only disciplinary but also interdisciplinary knowledge as well as expertise in sectors beyond the academy, including traditional, lay, and indigenous ways of knowing and related methods. In addition, while I agree with your emphasis on systems transdisciplinarity, several in this author group are advocating not only generalist facilitators but also integration experts. Julie T Klein

      Reply
      • Thank you Julie. Tatiana and I welcome new groups! Such groups can be: integration of experts, integration of contexts, integration of factors, integration of technology
        The development of the logical sequence of these groups allowed us to form their classification.
        1. Integration of contexts.
        2. Integration of knowledge.
        3. Integration of methodologies.
        4. Integration of specialists.
        5. Integration of experts.
        6. Integration of factors.
        7. Integration of goals.
        8. Integration of technology.
        Taking into account the subgroups in each group, it became possible to give a generalized definition of integration. Integration is a term that denotes a reasonable set of intellectual and practical activities in the direction from contexts to technology for solutions to complex problems. Within this complex there is a diverse network of complementary and non-complementary interactions of contexts, knowledge, methodologies of specialists, experts, factors, goals and technologies.
        However, the lack of objective quantitative and qualitative characteristics of the “integration expert” will not allow many scientists, specialists, politicians, managers to identify themselves with the image of an “expert”. Within the framework of the proposed classification, it becomes possible to formulate these objective characteristics. We are sure that instead of the term “integration expert” it is advisable to use the term “functional integration expert”. In this case, the technology integration expert will evaluate the complex of proposed technologies for solving a complex problem. But he will not try to pass himself off as an expert on knowledge integration. At the same time, experts in the integration of technologies and knowledge will know exactly which functional experts and on what issues they should seek help.
        We are sure that this classification does not contradict the concept of integration of five stages, which you and your colleagues have formed. However, if our brief communication on a specific issue allowed us to form a prototype of the integration classification (thanks to Gabriele Bammer!!!), then what results can there be with long-term cooperation?
        Therefore, one of the subgroups of the first classification group may be the integration of international experts on the integration of contexts within various international forms of cooperation.
        Recently, Susan M. Fitzpatrick said: We all know the problems – and we even know what should be done to right the ship and yet everyone (funders, institutions, researchers, professional societies) keep waiting for some unidentified first domino to fall…” Perhaps the time has come for us, in the form of long-term cooperation, to draw up a practically useful “road map” of the path-from contexts to technologies for solving complex problems of nature and society? Perhaps it will be ” unidentified first domino to fall…”?
        Good wishes to all your colleagues!

        Reply
        • Thanks for your further thoughts, Vladimir. On the matter of an “integration expert,” the group working on pertinent conference events and publications has been defining qualitative characteristics, beginning with traits of people engaged in related tasks. We have resisted establishing a single model since such people occupy different types of positions. However, we have identified competencies that constitute expertise in the What and the How of integration (and collaboration). They span all of your types, though to differing degrees depending on the position. In some cases, such as an Executive Interdisciplinary Scientist, s/he possess expertise in a given knowledge domain as well as integrative process and knowledge of inter/transdisciplinarity. In other cases mastery of a particular domain is not expected, and the person assumes more managerial tasks. We are keenly mindful, I would add, of the need for an identifiable community of practice if the family of positions is to be perceived as a form of expertise meriting recognition as a career and data collected for comparison. Julie

          Reply
  2. Hi All,

    Thanks for a great Blog and an excellent article. I am interested in a number of issues you raise or allude to in both the Blog and article. My context for the interest is a long-term involvement in inter/trans-disciplinary project teams. In particular, the sorts of collisions that occur between team members. E.g. collisions occurring in Hospital redevelopment teams, Multidepartment federal policy teams and action research teams.

    My first area of interest is the idea of ‘multiplicity’, dimensional or other forms. Initially, the part of your article that looks at integration beyond the cognitive dimension. I was wondering what any of you think of the potential of Howard Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences as providing a framework for looking beyond the cognitive? He also links different ‘entry points to understanding’ to each type of intelligence.

    Cheers,

    Craig

    Reply
    • Good observation, Craig. Gardner’s theory is cited from time to time in literature on interdisciplinarity and I have seen references in literature on transdisciplinarity. The current trend toward opening up to the affective domain is also often anchored in learning theory and cognitive science. It is striking as well that Howard advocates thinking in term of “multiperspectivism,” not “interdisciplinarity.” While I am not abandoning use of the latter term, it accommodates pertinent work crossing boundaries of not only disciplines but also interdisciplinary fields, occupational professions, and forms of expertise beyond the academy.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the reply Julie. Yes, the slight shift in label does seem to more easily include those from more backgrounds. Which links to my new point of interest, expanding the role of metaphor.

        Reply
        • Yes, Craig, though at the same time Gardner reinscribes the primacy of disciplines. That premise is challenged by a number of developments and movements, including relational and feminist theories and decolonizing transdisciplinarity. So, the bottom line becomes whose perspective is prioritized?

          Reply
  3. Thanks, Liz, for your further thoughts. They lead me to ask, per your point #1, whether both a generic awareness of boundary negotiation (informed by cross-cutting traits in other examples) and the sui generis nature of work (responsive to particularities) are needed. A both/and approach would not displace what I agree is the crucial criterion you voice: “how is this helpful to our constituency ….? ”

    And, btw, I became aware this morning of another reference on failure. I was thinking of Dena when the lead author, a featured speaker in a keynote session at the 2021 Transdisciplinarity conference, mentioned the importance of embracing failure and using it intelligently:

    D. Dinesh, et al. (2021). “Learning from failure at the science-policy interface for climate action in agriculture,” published in the journal Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 26(2), online at Springer.

    Julie

    Reply
  4. Following up on Dena’s thoughtful response to the important concern Liz raised, drawing boundaries has a double value: defining the appropriate scope of a given project while not setting up for failure. I heartily recommend the book Dena and Michael O’Rourke edited on inter- and trans-disciplinary failures because it addresses the plurality of reasons failure occurs and differing pathways for success. Julie

    Reply
  5. Thanks for emphasizing this important issue that integration can -and often will need to- be a matter of plurality! Indeed, I think your valuable insight could be made even more forceful: in light of theoretical, conceptual, methodological and other pluralisms which have become much more common even within monodisciplinary research in recent years (cf. methodol. pluralism in cognitive neuroscience; plurality of ‘gene’ concept and level of selection in evol. biology; pluralism of ‘religion’ in comparative theology) it is only a logical consequence that there is also ‘integration pluralism’. So we need to make our team perhaps more aware of these developments in order to accommodate this integration pluralism.
    Importantly, though, is the question when we should avoid such pluralism as it might lead to inconsistent or incoherent results (e.g. as pointed out by transcultural cognitive neuroscience). So how can we teach our teams to both accept integration pluralism while still be cautious as to avoid such inconsistency?

    Reply
    • Machiel, thank you for this challenging question.

      Not knowing what the transcultural cognitive neuroscience pointed out, my starting point would be to distinguish between the general concept of integration and the specific one. The general concept of integration is to my view often too narrow, asking for a consensus or one particular framing of an issue that must be shared by all in a group. With such a view the productive potential of different perspectives is not used. This does, however, not mean that for a specific project or in a specific field always several concepts of integration have to co-exist. In contrary, it might be wise that project participants or members of a discipline decide at a particular point in time to develop a consensus, for this and that reason, like the IPCC in the topic of climate change. In other situations a more pluralistic shared boundary object might be the right approach, e.g. when developing a policy. Those who co-produce a boundary object must not share the problem framing, but still can all support the policy (for different reasons). So the flipside of the plurality on a general level is the task to explicitly discuss and define what concept of integration to use in a given case, context and with a particular purpose in mind.

      Reply
      • Echoing Christian’s reply, the question Machiel raises reinforces the importance of explicit attention to research process throughout a project. Awareness of options surrounding integration at an early stage in particular, before embarking on cognitive and social integration, is an essential learning step. Julie T. Klein

        Reply
        • Indeed, Julie, I think that it is crucial to consider integration not as a final part of a process but to consider it as a kind of ‘epistemic virtue’ that should guide us during the entire process: what plausible and relevant options are available and how should we try to integrate them into our research process? How to do this in a feasible way and allow team members also to conduct their contributions withouth constantly being challenged by this task is another issue, though. In the teams I’m supervising this is sometimes experienced as quite challenging.

          Reply
      • Thanks for a thoughtful reply, Christian. I agree completely with you that in many cases integration is understood too narrow and associated with synthesis of different perspectives (assuming this is at all possible) and consensus. You refer to the all too realistic option that sometimes a project or problem requires participants to jointly decide for a particular solution, accepting that other potential solutions (which will imply their own forms of integration) are put aside. Obviously, such a pragmatic approach would still require a normative consensus among the participants and their accepting that a plurality of solutions is considered to be counterproductive. Especially when we are working towards socially robust solutions it might be that such an approach is less viable than it used to be decades ago, as our societies are also expecting more space for pluralism in solving problems. E.g. regarding fighting the pandemic: would a vaccination-only strategy perhaps decades ago been accepted more widely, now it is inevitable to offer alternative options to citizens – like testing for access. This might imply that transdisciplinary projects should also work towards a plurality of solutions instead of focusing on a single, allegedly optimal solution. What do you think?

        Reply
        • Yes Machiel! Project management cycles and demands of research funding are often premised on the expected delivery of single, unified and integrated solution, however as you have mentioned, if you are attending to a range of contexts, networks, resources and interactions between scientific and societal partners (not to mention a range of cultural expectations, values and beliefs), the potential for responding in multiple modalities and paths of knowledge and action, it is then not only logical but perhaps even an obligation to provide a plurality of potential solutions/outcomes. Thanks for your thoughtful comments

          Reply
          • Thanks for bringing that important consequence to our attention, Dena! We may indeed have to convince research funders but perhaps also other interested parties that this kind of work yields different results than they’re typically expecting.

            Reply
  6. Great post thank you all. Just wanted to draw attention to the elephant in the room which is time and resources. As funding gets tighter and deadlines are shorter, our ability to take the time to integrate our work and embrace the complexity becomes increasingly challenged. At Soils for Life we are up against these challenges as we try to enact our values of working collaborative, valuing farmer and indigenous knowledge, and taking an holistic, complex systems approach.

    Many of us also fight a natural reflex from our somewhat positivist scientific training to be precise and unassailable in our findings which fights against the need to accept the ambiguity, uncertainty, multiplicity and instability of working with wicked problems in complex systems.

    The four questions you ask speak to these challenges, but I would add one more – “How can we make informed decisions about what we DON’T do in transdisciplinary research”, once we open up the endless possibilities and the need for multiple ongoing solutions (as Rittel and Weber put it in their seminal paper on wicked problems).

    Reply
    • Thanks for your insightful and thoughtful comment Liz, I agree, this work is time consuming, resource intensive and challenges traditional scientific training.

      The additional question you pose: How can we make informed decisions about what we DON’T do in transdisciplinary research? is very helpful and should most definitely be considered here… it also suggests setting boundaries on what is possible to achieve within each individual projects’ constraints (e.g. budget, time, human resources, as well as limited views of the situation by funders and others etc.). There are a plethora of ways boundaries are set, whether consciously (e.g. systems thinking in practice – STiP) or unconsciously (e.g. limited by the expertise, knowledge, resources of the team/stakeholders involved). Your post suggests either way, there must be reflexivity built into transdisciplinary practice to ensure we don’t act unconsciously and fall back into narrow views of the problem/solution.

      While I agree that we are expected to do with less (particularly in the Australian Higher Education sector at the moment), its also heartening to see international funders acknowledge the need for different ways of working that financially supports integrative approaches – the Belmont Forum being a case in point (although I’d be remiss to not also acknowledge that Interdisciplinary/Transdisciplinary can be used tokenistically…)

      The question you posed also made me wonder how you are setting boundaries at Soils for Life and deciding what you don’t do in your own projects? I imagine this would be incredibly challenging in working across agricultural scales, knowledge communities, particularly if you’re seeking environmental and agricultural outcomes. Are there particular tools you use that you can share?

      Thanks again for your feedback Liz, you’ve provided lots to think about!
      Dena

      Reply
      • Dena you raise an important question about how Soils for Life sets boundaries. As you can imagine, the possibilities of such research can be pretty limitless. i have a couple of points to make about boundaries following on from my previous comment.

        1. The boundaries need to be renegotiated with each piece and subpiece of work. In our case study program, we work with groups of farmers to tell their stories of innovation and change, and their adaptive responses in their production systems to enable soil and landscape regeneration. Each case study is unique and has unique themes. These themes are emergent, and are discussed and confirmed with our farmer group partners.

        2. These themes are the framework for the case study – and they sit at the core of the integrative process around which each of the researchers (across a number of disciplines) weave their findings and outputs.

        3. The data we gather often allows for much more in the way of outputs and outcomes we deliver as part of our contractual obligations, but it means we can continue to produce more outputs and outcomes beyond the life of the project.

        4. We cannot compromise on our collaborative research approach – where the farmer group are equal partners with us in the inquiry. We do NOT see them as participants (which has a slightly patronistic flavour) but as equal partners so the collaboration and integration process with them cannot be compromised.

        5. The driving question for us always is — “how is this helpful to our constituency: innovative farmers who are wanting to learn from others’ experiences and draw on new ideas and approaches”, with a secondary question “How might this influence and stimulate engagement by the research community and influence their research agendas by raising key practitioner questions and experiences”. Sometimes, the answers to these questions comes long after the formal case study engagement is finished. So having a rich data bank to explore in order to answer later questions is crucial.

        Lastly, thank you Julie Thompson Klein for your recommendation of “Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Failures
        Lessons Learned from Cautionary Tales”. This is a great read, and a crucial acknowledgement of the human need to learn from failures rather than hide them.

        Reply

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