Integrating context, formats and effects in transdisciplinary research

By tdAcademy 2021 GAIA paper authors

Author biographies

What are the key aspects of transdisciplinary research and how can they be integrated effectively?

Four key aspects of transdisciplinary research are:

  • context dependencies
  • innovative formats
  • societal effects
  • scientific effects.

These are illustrated in the figure below, along with a summary of an ‘ideal’ transdisciplinary research process.

1. Context dependencies

Context dependencies are the factors that influence both the research design and the interpretation of results and include: who is involved (the actors), the social, cultural, political and other conditions, and the research setting (for example is it outside the lead researchers’ home country).

In transdisciplinary research, context dependencies have two sides. On the one hand, research takes place in specific contexts, which means that formats and methods need to be adapted to specific contexts. On the other hand, transdisciplinary research aims to provide generalizable and transferable methods and results that can inform other contexts.

Furthermore, to enable transformative change, transdisciplinary research needs to be sensitive towards the different context dependencies of the project. This applies especially for projects in the Global South and with Indigenous peoples and local communities. In particular, to avoid the reproduction of power asymmetries and colonial structures, researchers must consider existing power dynamics, inequalities and value conceptions.

2. Innovative formats

Innovative formats (eg., real-world labs) provide the structure for transdisciplinary research processes and include various methods, such as interviews or workshops.

Formats and methods need to be adapted to the characteristics of specific contexts. This even applies for case studies in similar contextual settings and with comparable basic cultural assumptions.

A key step in transdisciplinary research is the formulation of a shared vision and desired outcome for all stakeholder groups. Choosing the right format in transdisciplinary research is crucial for this step and must consider the different thematic fields where research takes place, eg., energy or recycling, and the different composition of the participating groups of researchers and practitioners.

As transdisciplinary research aims to take complex realities into account more adequately, innovative research formats lay the cornerstone for integrative transdisciplinary research practices.

3. Societal effects

Societal effects describe changes that are achieved in both the short- and long-term and at local and larger scales. They encompass, for instance, network and learning effects, as well as changes in individual or organizational practices. Effects result from complex processes that depend on diverse factors. Tools from a range of disciplines and approaches used by various research communities (eg., Theory of Change) help to reflect intended effects throughout the research process and adapt the project design accordingly.

4. Scientific effects

Scientific effects describe changes in the structure of research problems, research practices, results, and scientific institutions. There has been little empirical research on the scientific effects of transdisciplinary research so far.

Established approaches to assess the scientific effects of research generally use quantitative indicators such as number of citations. Yet, this approach is frequently criticized. For example, the decision to cite a publication often does not depend on the quality of an article but on strategic choices and power structures.

Transdisciplinary research goes beyond such quantitative indicators and involves scientific effects such as methodological innovations, new research questions, changes within scientific discourse, and changes in research practice. More research on the scientific effects of transdisciplinary research is needed.

Four key aspects of transdisciplinary research along with an ideal transdisciplinary research process consisting of problem-framing (formation of common research object), co-production (production of new knowledge), and integration (transdisciplinary integration) (Lam et al. 2021)

Towards an integrative perspective – three approaches to advance transdisciplinary research

What has been missing so far in transdisciplinary research is an integrative perspective, which combines these four key aspects, potentially shedding light on synergies. Three integrative approaches to stimulate research and debate are:

  1. Explore and strengthen interconnections and synergies
  2. Further develop quality criteria as cross-cutting elements
  3. Capacity building and guidance for scientists and practitioners.

Do you have insights to share on the four key aspects of transdisciplinary research? What has your experience been in strengthening interconnections and synergies between these four aspects? Do you have experience with quality criteria and capacity building that focuses on integrating the four aspects?

This blog post is modified from Lam, D. P. M., Freund, M. E., Kny, J., Marg, O., Mbah, M., and Theiler, L. (2022). Painting the full picture: An integrative perspective on context, formats and impact in transdisciplinary research. Science for Sustainability: A blog by social-ecological researchers at Leuphana University. (Online):

To find out more:
Lam, D. P. M., Freund, M. E., Kny, J., Marg, O., Mbah, M., Theiler, L., Bergmann, M., Brohmann, B., Lang, D. J. and Schäfer, M. (2021). Transdisciplinary research: towards an integrative perspective. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 30, 4: 243–249. (Online – open access): (PDF 328KB).
The paper is the first joint publication of the tdAcademy.

Author biographies:.

Open the combined image of all the authors (JPEG 224KB).

Top row (left to right): David P. M. Lam, Maria E. Freund, Josefa Kny
Second row (left to right): Oskar Marg, Melanie Mbah, Lena Theiler, Matthias Bergmann
Third row (left to right): Bettina Brohmann, Daniel J. Lang, Martina Schäfer

Biography: David P. M. Lam PhD is the Scientific Director of the project “tdAcademy – Platform for transdisciplinary research and studies” at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany. His research focuses on transdisciplinary research, dynamics of transformations (eg., scaling and amplification), and the role of diverse knowledge systems in transformations. He is lead author in the Transformative Change Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and fellow of the Robert Bosch Postdoc Academy for Transformational Leadership.

Biography: Maria E. Freund is a research associate at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany. Her research interests focus on structural interdependencies, the production of knowledge in different contexts, questions of global (in-)justices in human-nature-relations.

Biography: Josefa Kny PhD is a research associate and an online editor in the research project “tdAcademy – Platform for transdisciplinary research and studies”. She works at the Center for Technology and Society (ZTG) at the Technische Universität Berlin, Germany. Her research interests include the societal effects of transdisciplinary research, transdisciplinary methods and concepts, and participatory methods in futures studies.

Biography: Oskar Marg PhD is a researcher in the Department of Transdisciplinary Methods and Concepts at ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. His research focuses on the integration of diverse knowledge, the effects of transdisciplinary research on science and society, and the accompanying research of transdisciplinary research projects.

Biography: Melanie Mbah PhD is scientific coordinator for transdisciplinary sustainability research at the Institute for Applied Ecology (Öko-Institut e.V.) in Freiburg, Germany She has experience in conducting, coordinating and evaluating inter- and transdisciplinary research projects, focusing on energy transition and nuclear disposal. Her main research foci are participation and governance, formats and methods in transdisciplinary and transformation research, and the role of space and place in infrastructure planning.

Biography: Lena Theiler works at ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research in Frankfurt (Main), Germany in the research unit Transdisciplinary Methods and Concepts. Her main areas of interest are societal and scientific effects of transdisciplinary research as well as participatory and integrative formats.

Biography: Matthias Bergmann PhD is a member of the research unit Transdisciplinary Methods and Concepts at the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt, Germany. He holds an Honorary Professorship at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany. He focuses on the scientific foundations and practice of transdisciplinary research and on transdisciplinarity in higher education.

Biography: Bettina Brohmann PhD is a senior researcher and has more than 30 years of experience in research and policy consultancy. With a main focus on energy and climate change issues, participation and sustainable consumption, she coordinates and evaluates inter- and transdisciplinary research projects. Additionally, acceptance issues, risk management and risk communication, as well as health aspects are the main topics of her research at Öko-Institut e.V. (Institute for Applied Ecology) in Darmstadt, Germany.

Biography: Daniel J. Lang PhD is professor for Trandisciplinary Sustainability Research at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany. His work revolves around the further development of the theoretical, methodological as well as process-related foundations of Sustainability Science. He is currently leading several large sustainability science projects both engaging in transformational sustainability research as well as analysing this and similar research approaches from a meta-perspective.

Biography: Martina Schäfer PhD is the Scientific Director of the Center for Technology and Society (ZTG) of Technische Universität Berlin in Germany. She has coordinated inter- and transdisciplinary research projects in sustainable regional development, sustainable consumption and sustainable land use. One of her research foci is reflection on methods for inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation as well as the societal impact of this research mode.

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