Can cultural hegemony explain resistance to transdisciplinarity?

By Livia Fritz, Ulli Vilsmaier and Dena Fam

1. Livia Fritz (biography)
2. Ulli Vilsmaier (biography)
2. Dena Fam (biography)

What are the reasons for resistance to transdisciplinary research and education? And what insights can Antonio Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist party in the early 20th Century, offer?

We argue that one of the main reasons for resistance is that transdisciplinarity subverts well-established and often unquestioned structures, practices and values in academia. In particular, transdisciplinarity challenges persistent organizational structures, mechanisms of knowledge production and evaluation criteria based on disciplinary models of research and higher education.

An important step forward in overcoming resistance is shedding light on its root causes. We propose the concept of cultural hegemony, building on Gramsci’s concept, to make these root causes visible, able to be articulated, and tangible.

Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony

By stressing the cultural and moral dimensions of the exercise of political power, Gramsci substantially expanded earlier uses of the term hegemony. He suggested that political domination extends beyond control of a state into the realm of culture, ideas and beliefs.

The key characteristic of his definition of hegemony is the dynamic interaction of consent and coercion. Hegemony for Gramsci reflected the dominant worldview prevalent, internalized, naturalized and maintained through mundane activities in society. Hegemonic culture replicates its own values and norms so they become common sense and are no longer negotiated or questioned – even by those whom they marginalize.

Gramsci argued that traditional intellectuals such as writers, philosophers and professors act as manufacturers of consent, as deputies of a dominant group, maintaining their hegemony. In a stable hegemonic system, consensual institutional mechanisms conceal and render invisible the coercive mechanisms. It is only in situations of crisis that hegemony crumbles.

Gramsci was a political figure striving to transform society. He affirmed that transformation could not be brought about by violent revolution but required the rise of “counter-hegemonies”, that is alternative cultures that upset the consensus and counter the alleged common sense. Educators and intellectuals as bearers of ideology play an important role in shaping an alternative culture.

Gramsci asserted that in order to develop counter-hegemonic values and norms, traditional intellectuals need to join forces with “organic” intellectuals who belong to the working-class movement. The intellectual realm, therefore, is not to be seen as something confined to the elite but as something rooted in everyday life. According to Gramsci;

“…the mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence […] but in active participation in practical life, as a constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader’ and not just a simple orator” (Gramsci 1930-32, Notebook 4, §72, translated in Hoare and Smith 1999: 141-2).

So, what can we learn from Gramsci for the transformation of research and higher education towards transdisciplinarity?

Cultural hegemony in research and higher education

We build on Gramsci’s ideas of hegemony to render visible hidden assumptions, unquestioned values and deeply entrenched norms that belong to a discipline-based idea of research and higher education. The concept of cultural hegemony invites us to:

  • acknowledge that all common sense is historically contingent and not naturally given, as well as to expose what is considered to be common sense in academia for discussion and negotiation. In particular, it invites us to render visible the coercive mechanisms (for example in evaluation of what is considered legitimate knowledge or career paths) of the hegemonic disciplinary model of research and higher education;
  • question what seems obvious to find out how far disciplinary hegemony dominates and permeates our own values, norms and beliefs;
  • consider all humans as intellectuals and potential researchers and acknowledge the right to research for all in order to overcome hierarchies in transdisciplinary research teams and unleash the potential of everyone involved;
  • organize and join forces (as discussed in Gabriele Bammer’s blog post What is needed to institutionalise transdisciplinarity?) with academics and civil society to strengthen a new alternative culture of transdisciplinary research and education.

Final points

Revisiting work such as Gramsci’s, which was developed in a fundamentally different context and time, might be bewildering. While we acknowledge the challenges in transferring his ideas to our current times, we suggest his ideas are still relevant for sharpening our view of the obvious and the unquestioned.

What are the cultural hegemonies you have encountered in your professional life? What strategies have you used in building a new (or counter-hegemonic) culture in academia and beyond?

Hoare, Q. and Smith, G. N. (1999). Selection From the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. ElecBook: London, United Kingdom.

We thank the tdAcademy and ZTG – Center for Technology and Society, TU Berlin, both in Germany, for hosting us as fellows and Robert Bosch Foundation for financial support.

Biography: Livia Fritz PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory on Human-Environment Relations in Urban Systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne. As a social scientist in an interdisciplinary environment, she explores how social theories and concepts can support us in making sense of what happens within science-policy-society systems and in identifying levers for improving these complex interfaces for sustainability governance.

Biography: Ulli Vilsmaier PhD is initiator of the Responsive Research Collective and adjunct apl. (ausserplanmässiger) professor at Leuphana University Lüneburg in Germany. She has long-term experience with inter- and transdisciplinary research, higher education and university transformation. Her research focus is on epistemological and methodological foundations of transdisciplinarity and on methods for boundary work.

Biography: Dena Fam PhD is an adjunct associate professor at University of Technology, Sydney, in Australia and has over a decade of experience in designing and delivering undergraduate and postgraduate transdisciplinary education for sustainable development. Her research and consultancy experience has spanned the socio-cultural (learning for sustainability), institutional (policy analysis), and technological aspects of environmental management. She has been involved in developing processes, methods, and formats for transdisciplinary educational programs and projects and is a founding member of the Responsive Research Collective.

3 thoughts on “Can cultural hegemony explain resistance to transdisciplinarity?”

  1. Dear Daniel, thanks for your feedback! It would be great to learn from your TRUUD initiative: who is considered a researcher in your transdisciplinary research environment and how do you deal with/value differences regarding the ways and environments where knowledge entering TRUUD is produced.

    • Thanks Ulli, re: your first question, we’ve not sought to unpack who is considered a researcher per se, though we have started to explore different literatures in and around this space (e.g. ‘blended professionals’, ‘practitioner-researchers’, knowledge brokers, co-production with lay publics, etc.) It’s also core to what are are attempting to do on TRUUD so, as a result, re: valuing differences regarding different knowledge areas, in theory, it’s central to our whole approach (e.g. core focus on ‘end user’ co-production, etc.), but in practice it’s not straight-forward given we’re seeking to engage with such a wide range of actors across many different sectors, sub-sectors across public, private, third, lay, etc. Lots of institutional challenges to overcome as well as the project-based challenges. We are writing up a paper reflecting on all this at the moment. So much of what comes from this II2i blog resonates…


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