Insights into interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in India and Brazil

By Marcel Bursztyn and Seema Purushothaman

1. Marcel Bursztyn (biography)
2. Seema Purushothaman (biography)

How are interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity faring in India and Brazil? How do they differ from interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in the Global North? Are there particular lessons to be drawn from India and Brazil for the global interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary communities?

India and Brazil are among the most prominent countries of the Global South in the worldwide academic scene. Both have problems in common, but they have also singularities.

The focus in both countries at the institutional level tends to be on what is referred to as interdisciplinarity. The emergence of a new generation of liberal universities and other academic institutions open to interdisciplinary scholarship has allowed a small cohort of interdisciplinary scholars to emerge. In fact many young universities in India and Brazil welcome faculty members who have crossed several disciplinary borders or been trained in interdisciplinarity. These institutions tend to offer more interdisciplinary degree programmes and support problem-oriented research, at scales appropriate to their functioning, as compared to most older institutions.

In such new universities, faculty members from various backgrounds are allocated in activities around different teaching programmes or courses. As a consequence, students interact more and research is more integrated across disciplines and actors.

Moving to research, from a conceptual point of view, the way interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary practices are being implemented and are growing among researchers in India and Brazil does not differ from the experiences in the North.

However, from a Global South perspective, the role and diversity of grassroots stakeholders as active partners in the processes are distinct from the North. Several categories of actors have been historically marginalised from public decisions and from the making of science, even in the search for solutions to the problems they are experiencing. This limitation is the case for small-scale farmers and fisher people, Indigenous populations, slum dwellers and street vendors, among others. Even when their problems are somehow addressed, they remain passive beneficiaries.

Increasingly, transdisciplinarity aims to provide a fertile space to bring functional, collaborative and creative roles to bloom while searching for solutions.

For example, in an action research project on agrarian adaptive skilling in central India, interactions with communities (from conceptualising the problem to designing and planning a collective response) are conceived in meetings of the whole project team including a study circle formed by local villagers. However, implementation of these interactions are designed and led by practitioners from a development non-governmental organisation (NGO). When it comes to setting up and designing agricultural experiments in farmers’ fields, leadership comes from agricultural and social scientists in the team but, again, hands-on modalities of treatments and replications of experiments, as well as eliciting indicators that the community can perceive, are led by the practitioner team. This relationship involves negotiations and compromises in conventional processes of experimental and statistical designs.

Climate-change processes and prospects highlight the relevance of transdisciplinary practices in bringing together researchers, political decision makers and traditional communities.

When we consider traditional populations (especially Indigenous, riverside dwellers, peasants) we must also consider that they are usually guided by decisions based on their culture, grounded in their social practices over many generations. Over time, they have developed a world view and understood manifestations of nature and how to respond accordingly.

However, current rapid changes (such as extreme events) are accentuating a mismatch between culture and praxis. In addition, these developments tend to lead to misperceptions that, in turn, can lead to misadaptations. When strategies for adaptation do not correspond to a real-world situation and its trends, serious damage to the well-being of these populations (economic losses, health problems, social maladjustments) are likely to occur. A collaboration of researchers with local communities, and with formulators and operators of public policies, in processes of sharing information and co-construction of solutions, tends to minimise the risk of wrong decisions.

A concrete example from Brazil illustrates this point. The pattern of hydrological dynamics in the Amazon River basin has been changing rapidly in recent years, due to an intense process of deforestation and climate change in general. For many generations, riverside communities on floodplains developed an adaptive culture, usually building their houses on stilts and using a scheme for lifting the floor (maromba) according to the level of the annual floods. However, frequent and extreme hydrological events are disrupting those traditional adaptation strategies. In many cases, the strategies of local dwellers are not enough to cope with extremely high water levels. Science plays a crucial role in informing about the need for new adaptive schemes. Interactions of researchers and riverine populations are also enhancing experiences by moving traditional houses built on stilts to higher parts of the riverbanks, or even building new floating houses.

Ultimately, we call for inter- and trans- disciplinary institutions working with the poor. Universities in the Global South need to become citizen-inclusive interdisciplinary–transdisciplinary hubs engaged in problem-solving. This requires an alternative schema for scoring and ranking academic institutions, producing visible and immediate impacts acknowledged by local communities. Institutions need to be involved in identifying and establishing locally embedded and owned solutions to address community problems, for example facilitating equitable access to available fresh water in a neighbourhood rather than providing more resource-intensive large-scale water supply systems.

It also requires doing more with less, which in turn requires uniform accessibility to solution seekers and providers among local communities, and to interdisciplinary knowledge generators engaged in the problems local communities face and related challenges.

In contrast to high rankings in well-funded scientific-technological knowledge institutions, these universities will also require greater investment in bringing together human resources with strengths necessary for in situ problem-solving. Their openness to integration across classes, cultures, skill sets and genders will help them host students and resource persons from both the Global and the Local South, including relatively marginalised communities within the Global South.

What do you think? Do these ideas strike a chord? Do the same lessons apply in the Global North?

To find out more:

Bursztyn, M. and Purushothaman, S. (2022) Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship for a civilisation in distress: Questions for and from the Global South. Global Social Challenges Journal. 1: 94–114. (Online – open access):
References to the work cited are provided in this article.

Biography: Marcel Bursztyn PhD is a Full Professor in the Centre for Sustainable Development at the University of Brasília in Brazil. He is the coordinator of the Observatory of Socio-environmental Dynamics at the National Institute of Science and Technology. His research interests are climate change governance, public policies integration, interdisciplinarity, and sustainable development.

Biography: Seema Purushothaman PhD is a professor in the School of Development at Azim Premji University in Bangalore, India. Her interests are in the interface of society, development and ecosystems seen through the lenses of ecological economics, inclusive action research and advocacy. Geographically her engagements span across peri urban zones, production landscapes and forest peripheries.

10 thoughts on “Insights into interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in India and Brazil”

  1. “The focus in both countries at the institutional level tends to be on what is referred to as interdisciplinarity.”

    This really resonates with the situation in China which saw an influx of joint venture “interdisciplinary universities” in the past decade. Our university, being one of them, has been exploring “proxies” as a way to describe, measure, and scale interdisciplinarity. “Problem”, as described in this post, is one because real-world problems are mostly interdisciplinary in nature. “Socialization” is another because it characterizes the way how interdisciplinarity is typically conducted. The socialization proxy also allows examination of student interaction by exploring the relationship between interdisciplinarity and learning outcomes (in our case, adaptively using the VALUE rubrics from the American Association of Colleges and Universities), thus bringing students to the focus. Interestingly, we found that students with an ambition to conduct an undergraduate capstone project of wide interdisciplinarity are sometimes deterred for fear of research capacity issues.

    • Posted on behalf of Marcel Bursztyn:
      Thanks Huiyuan. We are glad our post raised your reaction, comparing our analysis of India and Brazil with the case you mention, in China. It reinforces our argument that ID and TD deserve to be considered from the specific focus of the Global South. Regarding the point you made on undergraduate students having difficulties in facing complex interdisciplinary projects, we agree with you. ID endeavours are probably more feasible at the post-graduate level, after consolidating solid disciplinary background.

  2. Thanks for this excellent blog post! I am myself engaged in research about riverbank erosion-induced land loss and migration in Bangladesh, and thinking about how to further develop the project in a more inclusive manner. Your post motivated me to proceed in this direction!

  3. Thank you for such a concise and insightful review of interdisciplinary activities in your environments. You ask about relevance to the so called Global North and my immediate response the issue is exactly the same in terms of University ranking, resource allocation and relevance to people living in today’s situations. In fact it may be that the traditional Universities are even more entrenched in ‘discipline’ dominance. For me the challenge is taking a model like Community of Practice and building the University staff into being one of the Community sharing their expertise with the experiential expertise of others in the situation. For me the concepts of power, control, accountability and responsibility need to be part of the conversation you describe.

    • Thank you Bruce. We agree with the idea – ” concepts of power, control, accountability and responsibility need to be part of the conversation” .

      Traditional Universities’ rankings usually consider: publications in high impact-factor periodicals (mostly in English) not accessible to non-academic audiences; awards & Nobel Prizes; as also alumni drawing high compensation packages by international standards. A fair evaluation and ranking of the Academic Social Responsibility of Universities, will also take into account, (attributing appropriately decided weightages) the following criteria:
      – field activities being counted as academic credits
      – hubs promoting active interface of expertise from different disciplinary departments; as well as between this hub and real problems faced outside the university campus
      – institutionalised gateways that respect diverse knowledge systems of local relevance and are capable of meaningful engagement (often dealing with local political-economic/ cultural cleavages) with them in producing Transdisciplinary science for the grassroots
      – providing support to tackle unexpected crisis
      – active participation in the formulation, implementation and follow-up of public policies and governance.

  4. Great overview of your valuable work. I wondered whether there are also paths for community-initiated projects to be taken on by researchers, or even community-led projects that researchers can become involved in, commissioned by the community?

    • Thanks Jane.
      If you are asking for examples, our paper cited below the post has couple of them. General idea to be considered by Universities committed to solving problems in the real time, for their surrounding contexts, could be: establishing dynamically evolving permanent fora (instead of only ad hoc individual initiatives) of open gateways to welcome demands from the “real world”. This will catalyse institutionalised but contextually relevant and timely response. Urgent demand for responses by communities are generally stone walled by the slow process of purely academic research process.


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