Three narratives describing interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary researchers

By Laura Norton, Giulia Sonetti and Mauro Sarrica

authors_laura-norton_giulia-sonetti_mauro-sarrica
1. Laura Norton (biography)
2. Giulia Sonetti (biography)
3. Mauro Sarrica (biography)

How do inter- and trans- disciplinary researchers talk about themselves? Do these narratives disrupt the status-quo and help integrate inter- and trans- disciplinarity into current academic institutions?

Below, we describe three narratives that can be applied to how inter- and trans- disciplinary researchers talk about themselves, namely as:

  • Heroes
  • Refugees in sanctuaries
  • Navigators of shifting borders.

Heroes or the individual escape narrative

This narrative sees inter- and trans- disciplinarity as an individual escape. It focuses on internal characteristics that act as drivers to leave a disciplinary context, which is a box, a silo, a shape that hinders researchers’ ways of conceiving and doing science.

Personality, interests, curiosity, motivation, flexibility, and passion are factors required for inter- and trans- disciplinarity. Further, empathy, honesty, humility, and humour are also seen as important factors to facilitate interaction with others.

Heroes choose to cross disciplinary boundaries because they have these characteristics and because they feel neither recognised nor rewarded. Such a choice comes with high costs. It means giving up a safety net, taking risks, and being uncomfortable.

This results in a narrative characterised by multiple tensions and inconsistencies; for example, heroes need to “get away” from academia, while at the same time wishing to change it by “reintroducing” quality into it. Further, while transgression and contestation were presented as welcome parts of the co-production of knowledge, authoritarianism, fear and insecurity were also prominent.

The outcome of the “escape” narrative is the constitution of relatively safe spaces with autonomous groups in which members know each other, interact, promote their methodology and create new norms. In this context, diversity is presented as richness.

Refugees in sanctuaries or the exclusive inclusivity narrative

In this “sanctuary” narrative, the contribution of every discipline, person and identity is unique, and is considered of value. Inter- and trans- disciplinarity is seen as the production of a shared vision or a shared product that comes from a deep interaction between the group members. Research groups become communities with shared goals and methods, vocabularies, and tools to communicate and manage interactions.

Borders are again central. Groups are “exclusive,” only few researchers can enter, and those who are not engaging in the same effort are ideally left out. Refugees refer to struggling paths, and evoke conflicts within themselves and with institutions. The narratives about researchers’ struggles and (self-evaluated) success end up with the description of the roles held by refugees as conquests.

By staying “outside” the disciplinary box and crossing the borders between academia and society, refugees are much more in touch with different stakeholders: they look for recognition in scientific contexts and funds from external bodies and governments, while at the same time responding to scientific communities and societal demands.

This narrative therefore encompasses a dynamic process in which different forces push towards opposite sides and engage researchers in producing innovative and creative ways of doing research. Inter- and trans- disciplinary researchers, driven by a problem-oriented focus, bypass the academic environment, going to practice and intervention rather than remaining trapped in theoretical lucubration.

At the same time, driven by the need to explore new basic research problems at the crossroads between traditional disciplines, inter- and trans- disciplinary groups are committed to re-creating a new scientific culture with their vocabulary and scientific tools, and engaging in new practices. This commitment is rhetorically presented as rediscovering the ‘authentic’ vision and mission of science as opposed to distorted academic practices.

Navigators of shifting borders or the disrupting the status quo narrative

This is the smallest group and focused on how to change the disciplinary system rather than engineering individual escapes or seeking sanctuaries. These navigators introduce an intergenerational perspective and convey that one of the biggest obstacles is transmitting, generating, and stimulating inter- and trans- disciplinarity to younger and future generations.

This narrative changes from a personal saga to group advocacy. The goal is not individual mobility or community cohesion, but intergroup conflict to change not only the paradigm but the academic system itself. Because the younger generations are still being “moulded” in disciplinary ways, such advocacy is seen as a possible way of shifting normative paths for some participants.

The aim is to interrupt the disciplinary dynamics intrinsic to the academic and educational system. This recalls the conception of inter- and trans- disciplinarity as historically, culturally and geographically situated movements, through which minority groups are opposed to the hegemonic systems which are no longer suitable for today’s world. However, alternative and concrete options for replacing disciplinary standards in education are still lacking. A key generational factor is that change-makers have to be grown because they will be needed.

This third narrative is the only one that advocates a systemic shift of borders to “interrupt” a model that is no longer considered suitable. Changing standards of evaluation of the research “outputs” also leads to modifying the “inputs” by shifting away from disciplinary ways of conceiving curricula and courses of study.

Conclusion

The narratives above are based on a discursive analysis searching for interpretive repertoires, which was applied to 23 semi-structured interviews conducted with leaders of research centres on urban sustainability around the world. These leaders were identified on the basis of international scientific reputation.

Paradoxically, the first two narratives contribute towards preserving the status quo, while the “shifting borders” narrative advocates structural shifts and is coherent with the need for deeper changes and persistent recognition of inter- and trans- disciplinarity, especially in sustainability studies.

Do these narratives and our interpretation of them align with your experience? What is your reaction to the idea of raising a new generation of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary researchers, without requiring them to be new heroes or to find salvation in sanctuaries, but instead giving them space and legitimacy to be good scholars and human beings taking care of themselves, their scientific processes, and consequent societal impact?

To find out more:

Norton, L. S., Sonetti, G. and Sarrica, M. (2022). Crossing borders, building new ones, or shifting boundaries? Shared narratives and individual paths towards inter/transdisciplinarity in research centres for urban sustainability. Sustainability Science. (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-022-01218-8

Biography: Laura Soledad Norton PhD is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Department of Communication and Social Research, Sapienza University of Rome in Italy. Her main research interests are interculturality, diversity, and inclusion in educational contexts. She also teaches social and media psychology at Lumsa University in Rome and coordinates the Italian Interuniversity Consortium for Argentina (CUIA) from Rome.

Biography: Giulia Sonetti PhD is a transdisciplinary researcher at CENSE – Center for Environmental and Sustainability Research in Lisbon, Portugal, and fellow at the Postdoc Academy for Transformational Leadership funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. She is currently principal investigator of the research project “TrUST – Transdisciplinarity for Urban Sustainability Transition” (https://www.trustcollaboration.com/) which includes the work described here.

Biography: Mauro Sarrica PhD is associate professor of social psychology, Sapienza University of Rome, in Italy. His studies focus on the social construction of shared realities facing societal and technological shifts, energy transition and related socio-cultural transformation of communities, and social representations of peace, war, and conflict, as well as the role of information and communications technologies in rural community development projects.

2 thoughts on “Three narratives describing interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary researchers”

  1. Bonjour Cyrille! Wow, many thoughts are around in us, in turn! Thanks for sharing your personal path through these narratives. It’s indeed something changing and very context-depending, we found. And, as you highlighted, the important thing is to not feel “stuck” in one narrative or another and looking at the final aim, that is transcend a bit this old silos and competitive mentality embedded in most of academic career policies. Again, happy our article was somehow stimulating, and grateful for your sharing :)!!!

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  2. Thank you for this stimulating post! Provoking a lot of thoughts on my personal path and experience with transdisciplinarity. I guess it is normal to feel somehow personally like a combination of the three narratives, with the dominant one changing at different times of our career, and even sometimes in the same single day… I think it depends a lot also on where we start from. Personally, I was in a very disciplinary group (animal production sciences) when I got my first breakthroughs on the importance of TD. As a young researcher, I really needed to think sometimes about myself as a kind of “hero” and I had no other choice than to seek for sanctuaries. After a while we begin to feel strong enough to dare challenging the status-quo. Today, sometimes I think my position in a big institution still very disciplinary might the best place to transform the academy and the world from the inside… But when I feel less courageous, maybe, I wonder if I should move to one of these very stimulating transdisciplinary groups emerging here and there (it is also a question of scale and strategy, as strong coherent group can be very powerful to challenge the status-quo globally). Maybe the most important thing is the meaning we give to our action, whatever it is? And I see your point on making space for a new generation of TD researchers, so they don’t have to be new heroes or seek for sanctuaries, yes I believe this is the way ! Well, as you can see, many thoughts arising, thank you!

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