A framework for identifying diversity in epistemic communities, linguistic variety and culture

By Varvara Nikulina, Johan Larson Lindal, Henrikke Baumann, David Simon, and Henrik Ny

1. Varvara Nikulina; 2. Johan Larson Lindal; 3. Henrikke Baumann; 4. David Simon; 5. Henrik Ny (biographies)

How can facilitators take into account diversity stemming from epistemic communities, linguistic variety and culture when leading workshops aimed at co-production in transdisciplinary research?

Although facilitators are skilled in mitigating conflicting interests and ideas among participants, they are often poorly prepared for dealing with these other types of diversity.

We have developed a framework that allows diversity in epistemic standpoint, linguistic diversity and culture to be mapped in a workshop setting. This is illustrated in the figure below and each box in the framework is described next.

Epistemic standpoint

Epistemic communities or thought collectives are groups with shared and agreed forms of knowledge, thought styles or rationalities, and world views. These often differ from or even conflict with those of other groups. For example, engineers, social scientists, public servants and entrepreneurs are four different epistemic communities.

An epistemic standpoint is characterised in relation to the categories individual, working and group:

  • The individual epistemic standpoint is the school of thought to which each individual in the facilitated workshop belongs. The level of diversity is defined by how many different individual epistemic standpoints are present in the workshop – the more individual standpoints, the higher the level of diversity.
  • The working epistemic standpoint reflects the occupations or communities that the workshop participants have and the diversity of epistemic standpoints in their daily work situation. Higher diversity is associated with more diverse working standpoints among those in the workshop.
  • The epistemic standpoint of the facilitated group as a whole reflects either:
    • the potential shared standpoint participants have within the facilitated group; or,
    • depending on the design and length of the facilitation process – the shared standpoint they obtain in the process.
  • The diversity is rated high when participants come from very distant epistemic communities and there are low chances of building a shared standpoint.
A framework for illustrating diversity in epistemic standpoint, linguistic diversity and culture in transdisciplinary co-production workshops (Nikulina et al., 2019)

Linguistic diversity

Language acquisition is not merely a matter of teaching and learning, but is affected by ideologies, social identities, power and agency. The framework also differentiates linguistic diversity between individual, working and group:

  • The individual linguistic diversity reflects the number of mother tongues spoken by the individual participants at the workshop. The diversity is high when there are many mother tongues present in the workshop.
  • If a lingua franca is spoken at the workplaces of the workshop members (ie., everybody shares the same working language), then the linguistic diversity of the working category is low. If several languages are used as working languages, the diversity is high.
  • The linguistic diversity of the group relates to the mono- or multilingualism of participants: they might speak several languages to some extent, however, not be proficient enough to use them as working languages. The more such languages that are present in the facilitated group, the higher the linguistic diversity for the group category.


Culture, in terms of working and personal culture, for example traditions, procedures and perspectives, has large implications for the interrelations and interactions between the collective and the individual. An individual’s behaviour is often dramatically affected by the working group and workplace to which they belong (or interact with) due to institutionalized cultural practices associated with that place and group. Individuals are also capable of affecting workplace culture to a certain extent, since they carry with them personal attributes, some of which are, in turn, affected by outside norms and identities such as gender.

The framework also differentiates the individual, working and group categories of culture:

  • Individual culture is what each workshop participant brings into the room with them, such as norms, customs, personal identity, etc. There is high diversity when individuals have many different types of backgrounds.
  • Working culture can be defined by norms and customs at the workplaces to which the participants belong and bring with them. There is high diversity when a facilitator can identify many such working cultures and subcultures.
  • Group culture emerges in the facilitation process and thereby applies to the facilitated group as a whole.

Using the framework

The level of diversity is assessed subjectively by the facilitator, using shading to indicate degree of diversity, with darker shades indicating more diversity. The level of diversity can be categorised as high or low; high, medium or low; or with more gradations. An example of a shaded framework is provided in the figure below.

An example of how shading can be used to illustrate diversity in epistemic standpoint, linguistic diversity and culture in transdisciplinary co-production workshops (Nikulina et al., 2019)

The framework provides an easy way to see the diversity within the group related to epistemic communities, linguistic diversity and culture. It can be helpful for the facilitator to complete the framework when preparing for the workshop to help decide how it might best be run. For example, they might enlist extra facilitators with additional language skills.

The framework can also be used as an evaluation tool at the end of the transdisciplinary facilitation process to determine whether the group was able to form an epistemic community with a shared group language and culture.

Identifying the levels of diversity in each category of each concept also helps raise the group’s awareness of the complexity of the context in which they are working.

Addressing diversity in epistemic communities, linguistic variety and culture in a just way requires:

  1. Disciplinary integrity, ie., taking into account disciplinary difference in intellectual content, practical problem solving and so on.
  2. Linguistic equality between participants, especially allowing everyone to speak a language of their choosing, rather than a predetermined lingua franca.
  3. A working culture of mutual respect.
  4. Simultaneous mitigation and informed facilitation ie., making facilitators aware of the complexity related to group diversities when preparing for the event, increases the likelihood that they can manage such diversities.

Concluding questions

What has your experience been with diversity stemming from epistemic communities, linguistic variety and culture in transdisciplinary co-production or other workshops? Have you seen instances where such diversity was handled well – or perhaps badly – by the facilitator and participants, or where the absence of a facilitator created difficulties? Do you have useful lessons or tools to share?

To find out more:
Nikulina, V., Larson Lindal, J., Baumann, H., Simon, D. and Ny, H. (2019). Lost in Translation: A Framework for Analysing Complexity of Co-Production Settings in Relation to Epistemic Communities, Linguistic Diversities and Culture. Futures, 113 (October): 102442. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102442


Varvara Nikulina is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Strategic Sustainable Development at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden. Her research interests include but are not limited to transdisciplinary co-production of knowledge for planned transitions towards sustainable urban mobility, participatory processes and international comparative studies.

Johan Larson Lindal is a PhD Candidate at Linköping University, in Norrköping, Sweden, in the Department of Culture and Society, ‘Tema Q,’ where he is pursuing an interdisciplinary PhD in Culture & Society. His interests are inclusion, dialogue, and organisation in urban sustainable knowledge co-production in Sweden.

Henrikke Baumann PhD is Professor of Industrial and Domestic Ecologies in the Department of Technology Management and Economics at Chalmers University of Technology, Göteborg, Sweden. Her research interests include methods and practices of life cycle assessment and life cycle thinking, sociomaterial approaches in environmental systems studies, and interdisciplinarities in research.

David Simon PhD is Professor of Development Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey, UK. His particular research interests lie in urbanism, climate change and sustainability, the relationships between theory, policy and practice at different scales, and transdisciplinary co-production methods.

Henrik Ny PhD is Associate Professor in Strategic Sustainable Development at Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlskrona, Sweden. He runs the SustainTrans research team with focus on accelerating the transition to sustainable transport and energy systems. His research interests include societal strategies, stakeholder inclusive system dynamics modelling and ecological economics.

12 thoughts on “A framework for identifying diversity in epistemic communities, linguistic variety and culture”

  1. Dear Varvara. You and your colleagues are investigating a key issue – diversity management. Let me philosophize a little on this topic. As you know, any problem can be solved in two directions. From the beginning (bottom-to up) and from the end (top-to down).

    The «bottom-to up» movement makes it possible to identify all aspects of this problem and propose multiple classifications of these aspects. On the basis of these classifications, facilitation technologies are created in conditions of diversity. Then these technologies are tested for and for their practical suitability and effectiveness. The greatest positive result indicates the right direction. This is the traditional way of many disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies. In this case, the context in which the research is carried out remains passive. It is corrected by the results of research.

    The “top-to down” movement occurs only after the formation of an active context. Such a context is formed by a strictly defined philosophical position, conceptual basis and methodological support. In this case, all aspects that were identified in the previous direction are investigated within this active context. This makes it possible to single out, unify and generalize only those aspects and their classifications that will inevitably determine a positive solution to the problem. This is the traditional way of systems transdisciplinary research. I’ll give you an example. You write: “In my opinion, in any participatory process, the work environment should create a safe space and encourage creativity.” It may be interesting to you that when moving from “top-to down”, this phrase has a real methodological meaning. It means that the diversity of worldviews, knowledge and people, depending on the goals of transdisciplinary research, can be distributed among fragments of a systems transdisciplinary model of a spatial unit of order. The location in this model determines their functional predisposition and potential capabilities. One of them will set and control the course of the research process. Someone will support and develop this process. This circumstance will allow the facilitator to manage diversity as efficiently as possible. You can read about it in these articles:
    – Mokiy, V.S. (2020). Information on the space. Systems transdisciplinary aspect. European Scientific Journal, ESJ, 16(29), 26. https://doi.org/10.19044/esj.2020.v16n29p26
    – Mokiy, V.S. (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

    If necessary, these models can also be adapted to manage diversity at any level – from the workshop to society as a whole.

    • Dear Vladimir,

      Thank you for your thorough and well-informed comment. We truly appreciated your systems transdisciplinary approach and the suggested readings which captured various essential aspects of these and adjacent issues often overlooked, for instance, neuron connections.

      Our framework, we assume, would largely fall under the “bottom-up” movement, as it is undertaken by the relevant group/team themselves, and establishes the most significant factors of diversity before the event or process takes place. By contrast, if we understand you correctly, a “top-down” movement would instead center on the location, which we interpret as – for example – a particular problem, workshop or project format and its goals or management, and then help coordinate the diverse expertise within this workshop or project in order to realise transdisciplinary goals. Would this mean that the diversities in the specific group do not determine planning, but rather that the identification of the context determines the diversities? In other words, that we should use diversities as efficiently as possible without treating them as problems but as assets?

      Your approach to this issue is, we believe, a productive and positive one. We also believe that some diversities may yet appear that cannot be harnessed but instead need to be addressed, even if a top-down, systems approach is taken. The interface of linguistic, cultural, and epistemic diversity will often be complex, unevenly distributed, and unpredictable. In such circumstances, addressing the unevenly distributed elements of diversity – especially if they are not reflective of the wider community – might become necessary because it could leave some members of the group feeling marginalized or undervalued, thereby undermining the very rationale of the transdisciplinary co-design/co-production initiative.

      In this context, please see the manual of transdisciplinary co-production methods published earlier this year by Mistra Urban Futures, which presents detailed guidelines and instructions drawn from the various cities and projects engaged in the 10-year programme. These reflect the diversity of conditions, situations and contexts, which were important factors in the respective research and method designs. Each method is accompanied by text explaining those contexts and offering guidelines on how to adapt them to different circumstances so that they become locally appropriate. This is explicitly to avoid a ‘blueprint’ or ‘off the shelf’ approach that would be insensitive to local circumstances, including the dimensions of diversity:
      Transdisciplinary Knowledge Co-production: A guide for sustainable cities, by K. Hemström, D. Simon, H. Palmer, B. Perry and M. Polk (2021). Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing.
      The e-book is available free on open access from

      Your suggested articles have definitely provided additional valuable insights for us.

      • Dear Johan,
        Thanks for your reply. You have understood my position correctly:
        – the diversities in the specific group do not determine planning, but rather that the identification of the context determines the diversities;
        – we should use diversities as efficiently as possible without treating them as problems but as assets.
        However, this position will be correct under certain conditions. Firstly, this position should be taken if the team has to solve the problem, and this decision can no longer be reviewed and changed.

        I’ll give you an example. In the first case, a team of specialists and students were assigned to solve the problem of urine excretion and collection from the sewage of the Australian National University. Further, fertilizer for farms is created from this urine. In the second case, a team of specialists was offered to solve the problem of the possible negative impact on the environmental condition of Canberra from the overhaul of many government buildings. In both cases, the facilitators talk about these problems as transdisciplinary. Therefore, in both cases, facilitators will manage diversity.

        In the first case, an environmental risk analysis is not required. Team members can suggest different ways and mechanisms. They can change these ways in the process of solving the problem. They may argue about new knowledge that appears in the process of solving this problem, etc. This is a natural interaction of specialists in solving such problems. Therefore, to manage diversity in such a team, facilitators can confidently use the “bottom-up” movement. I’ve written before that the greatest positive result indicates the right direction. In this case, the context in which the research is carried out remains passive. It is corrected by the results of research.

        In the second case, you cannot start the workflow in the absence of a security analysis of the upcoming solution to the problem. After carrying out a large-scale overhaul of government buildings, which is associated with the import of a large number of modern building materials, it will be impossible to correct the decision. Therefore, to manage diversity in such a team, facilitators should confidently use the “top-to-down” movement. Let me remind you that this is the “top-to-down” movement possible only after the formation of an active context.

        That is why I propose to strengthen the concept of facilitation with such a classification of problems and ways of movement.

        I have read the book you recommended to me. Here are a few lines from the first chapter of this book: “All over the world, communities, researchers, and decision-makers are trying to come to grips with the serious challenges involved in realizing sustainable development. ‘Sustainability’ itself is a vague, ambiguous, and highly contested term. It allows unlimited possibilities for context- and actor-dependent interpretations of what changes are necessary, in what direction, and how to reach them. The ways in which ‘sustainability’ is applied in the urban arena are thus continually adapted and revised to fit the needs and underlying worldviews of the respective stakeholders, be they politicians, researchers, civil servants, representatives from community-based organizations, or business developers”.

        After our classification of problems and areas of facilitation, we can confidently say that it is irrational to solve the problem of sustainable development using the “bottom-up” movement. In this case, it will be impossible to cancel the solution of the problem if it turns out that this solution is wrong. In this case, it is necessary to use the “top-to-down” movement. Do you agree with this statement?

        I recognize the role of facilitators in solving the complex problems of modern society. However, in this case, facilitators should have a higher level of scientific outlook than disciplinary specialists. Do you agree?

        Moreover, facilitators who manage transdisciplinary research should be aware of the differences in transdisciplinarity itself and transdisciplinary approaches. You can read about it in this literature:
        – 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
        – Mokiy, V.S. (2019a). Systems transdisciplinary approach in the general classification of scientific approaches. European Scientific Journal, Vol. 15, 19, ESJ July Edition, 247-258. http://dx.doi.org/10.19044/esj.2019.v15n19p247
        – Mokiy, V.S. (2019b). 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

        • Dear Vladimir

          Many thanks for your detailed response. From our perspective, the appropriate way forward should be resolved on the ground case by case. Your first example is rather specific and technical, so perhaps does not even need a facilitator but just an experienced project leader with some interdisciplinary ability. Your second example might well need one. However, your 2nd argument about a facilitator needing an ultra-high level of scientific knowledge seems to miss two key points:

          – no facilitator is likely to have a higher level of scientific expertise than any of the participants. Even if feasible, it seems potentially unhelpful to privilege one particular discipline / field within the ethos we articulate because that risks generating some asymmetrical sense of superiority.
          – the whole point of an experienced facilitator is to bring diverse groups together and build bridges, which requires ‘soft’ mediating and facilitating skills and some understanding of the various fields of experience and knowledge, rather than being a scientific specialist in one field.

          • Dear David, it was important for me to hear your point of view.
            In Western countries, the practice of facilitation is widespread. Therefore, with your help, I want to understand for myself several aspects of this practice. From the correspondence with you and your colleagues, I realized that, probably, we should talk about two types of facilitators: facilitator = psychologist and facilitator = expert.
            It seems to me that a facilitator = psychologist is necessary in the student environment. Students have not yet formed a scientific worldview. Therefore, when conducting a student project, their personal youthful motivation prevails. It is important for them to show their importance and some superiority over their comrades. I think that in this case a facilitator playing the role of a mobile psychologist is extremely necessary. As a psychologist, the facilitator should not show his superiority.
            However, if we are talking about an interdisciplinary team of specialists who solve a transdisciplinary problem, then we have a completely different situation. Specialists already have a scientific worldview and practical skills. Specialists are invited to such a team by contract. If a specialist violates the terms of the contract or creates discomfort in the team by his behavior, the project manager will fire him. However, in such teams, specialists understand that they must work for the overall result, and not show their superiority. My experience shows this. I am sure that in such a situation a facilitator = psychologist is not needed. Need a facilitator = expert.
            Facilitator=expert will tell the created team about the existing classification of problems; the rules for selecting disciplinary specialists to solve a specific problem; about possible ways to solve problems (top-down and bottom-up); about existing transdisciplinary approaches and advise which approach should be chosen in each case; will help choose ways to analyze the risk from the implementation of the decision. Most importantly, the experience of the facilitator =expert should help the team find a way out of conceptual problems.
            Do you agree with this opinion about facilitators?

  2. Thank you BinBin for your feedback and questions. As a former practitioner facilitator and current researcher facilitator I think it should not matter what role you take. In any participatory process the working environment, in my opinion, should create a safe space and encourage creativity. Consensus is not always the goal. We might agree to disagree and acknowledge plurality of views in the room. As for who needs to fill it in, it depends on your project, its goals and opportunities that you have within the workshop/project. In the context where I work, people are often stressed with time and we, as facilitators, try to sharpen the workshop methods for them to take the least possible time. In other contexts, one of the goals could be to bring out the differences to the surface, to appreciate diversity, then this framework can be used in a participatory way, perhaps several times during the workshop (or even the project), once at the beginning – to see the starting point, perhaps in the middle to reflect on a possible change, and once at the end, to see if participants managed to develop their common working language and culture, for example. There is no one predetermined way to use the framework, two uses were suggested here, but others may come up with other uses too.
    Sincerely, Varvara on behalf of the Team

  3. Thanks for this helpful framework! A question comes to mind when reading – what role do you assume “facilitators” have in the context of applying the framework? I think this is implicit in the post, but it might be useful to make it more explicit to understand underlying assumptions of why diversity is a point of focus to begin with. If the facilitator is a researcher, is the goal to be more accurate in capturing the dynamics of the group, in order to better interpret qualitative data and/or observations? If the facilitator is a practitioner, is the goal to encourage consensus, create a safe working environment and/or to promote creative thinking? (Researchers could, of course, share these same goals.). Also, is there a possibility that the facilitator not be the only one who “fills out” the framework, but rather open this activity up to all participants in order to capture various interpretations of this diversity? Very interesting work, thank you!


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