Theory of change in inter- and transdisciplinary research

By Josefa Kny, Sabine Hoffmann, Emilia Nagy and Martina Schäfer

1. Josefa Kny (biography)
2. Sabine Hoffmann (biography)
3. Emilia Nagy (biography)
4. Martina Schäfer (biography)

What are key functions of theory of change? For what purposes can we use theory of change in inter- and transdisciplinary research?

A theory of change maps the assumed relationships between activities and short-, medium- and long-term changes of an intervention, program or project. It makes assumptions about why and how such changes occur transparent. Theory of change approaches have their origins in theory-based evaluation and Paulo Freire’s theory of societal change (Freire, 1970) and have predominantly been used in development research and practice since the late 1990s.

In general, theory of change can be understood as a process and a product, as described by Heléne Clarke in her i2Insights contribution Theory of Change in a nutshell. In the process, a group of involved actors develop their shared understanding of how the program, project or intervention will bring about a desired change. The product is a narrative and/or visualisation which illustrates how such change will be achieved.

Although theory of change was not developed for inter- and transdisciplinary research, both the process and the product are relevant for such investigations.

Key functions of theory of change mainly related to the group process are to:

  • develop a shared vision and a ‘bigger picture‘ of change processes
  • trigger reflection on change processes in a continuous or recurrent way
  • reflect on (intended and/or unintended) effects of an intervention, program or project
  • foster mutual understanding about intended short-, medium- and long-term changes
  • make implicit assumptions about change processes explicit
  • reflect and clarify roles and responsibilities of those involved in change processes.

Key functions of theory of change mainly related to the tangible product are to:

  • visualise and communicate change processes eg., by impact pathways or narratives
  • monitor and assess change processes based on the explicated theory of change
  • enable adaptive management and strategic planning based on transparent monitoring and assessment of change processes.

In addition to the change-related processes and products described above, developing a theory of change as part of inter- and transdisciplinary research contributes to:

  • strengthening internal communication, collaboration and integration within the group.

We have experience in combining the various functions of theory of change in inter- and transdisciplinary projects for two different purposes.

First, we have used theory of change as an evaluative tool. As two of us (Nagy and Schäfer) described in an earlier i2Insights contribution, How to systematically design transdisciplinary project evaluation, theory of change is useful in formative (process) evaluation of inter- and transdisciplinary research. In particular, as independent evaluators we have found theory of change useful for:

  • developing indicators and monitoring questions for the intended effects, which can then be discussed, and if necessary modified, by the research team
  • enabling a shared understanding within the research team of the preconditions for medium- and long-term effects, which may occur after an intervention, project or program itself is finished
  • facilitating recurrent reflection on change processes as they are occurring, including adapting strategies after making previously hidden assumptions explicit.

Second, we have used theory of change as an integrative tool that strengthens communication, collaboration and integration. This is described in an i2Insights contribution by Deutsch and Hoffmann on Integration in inter- and transdisciplinary research: how can the leadership challenges be addressed? Using theory of change as an integrative tool requires a substantial investment of time making critical connections among different disciplinary views and projects, and shaping those perspectives into a coherent whole.

We have provided a glimpse into:

  • different functions that theory of change can fulfil, and
  • different ways that researchers can make use of these functions for different purposes.

We argue that explicit critical reflection about these functions is helpful in designing and implementing the theory of change process and its product.

For what purposes do you use theory of change? Are there other functions of theory of change that you have used? Have you productively combined theory of change with other methods and tools?

Acknowledgements: This contribution builds on two workshops at the Schader-Stiftung and the 2021 International Transdisciplinarity (ITD) conference which were developed by a working group comprising the four authors and Silke Kleihauer, Julian Schenten, Jonas Rehn, Martin Führ, Lisa Deutsch, Rachel Claus and Brian Belcher. It also builds on Sabine Hoffmann’s visit at the Center for Technology and Society (ZTG) at the Technische Universität Berlin in Germany in the frame of a tdAcademy fellowship and guest program funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
Photo acknowledgment: The source for Martina Schäfer’s photo is Landtag Brandenburg.

To find out more:

Schäfer, M., Kny, J., Nagy, E. and Hoffmann, S. (2022). Developing Theories of Change in inter- and transdisciplinary contexts. tdAcademy webinar. (Online):


Freire, Paulo (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Books: London, UK.

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: Sabine Hoffmann PhD is group leader of inter- and transdisciplinary research at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Duebendorf, Switzerland. Her research focuses on integration and integrative leadership in large inter- and transdisciplinary research programs.

Biography: Emilia Nagy researches on transdisciplinarity at the Center for Technology and Society (ZTG) at the Technische Universität Berlin in Germany. Her focus is on increasing the societal effects of transdisciplinary sustainability research.

Biography: Martina Schäfer PhD is the Scientific Director of the Center for Technology and Society (ZTG) of the 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.

11 thoughts on “Theory of change in inter- and transdisciplinary research”

  1. I have a question regarding the usage of ToC as a tool for “evaluation” of projects. My concern is due to the connotation that the notion of evaluation has with quantitative approaches. And as far as I have understood the ToC is more qualitative than quantitative! Or can it be both? If not, a better word would be valoration, or at least in Spanish we say valoración instead of evaluación when referring to more qualitative approaches.
    Can you clarify this distinction for me in terms of your work?

    Have you productively combined theory of change with other methods and tools?
    We have used it implicitly, because we didn’t know about the relevant publications, so we used a change-oriented design methodology – see From now on we will use ToC explicitly thanks to your work.


    • Dear Daniel, thank you very much for the stimulating question! We use ToC primarily for impact orientation and for reflection on impact potentials. The ToC with all its elements (impacts, impact pathways and assumptions about impact relationships) is the starting point for the formulation of the criteria and indicators, which can be both qualitative and quantitative. The decision on what kind of indicators are appropriate for the project is made by the project stakeholders. This decision is often also related to what data will be accessible during the project. As a rule, most project leaders are rather reluctant to use quantitative indicators of impact.

      Many thanks for the literature recommendation. I am very curious about your integrated change-oriented concept.
      All the best!

  2. I join in the congratulations and would like to emphasize Heléne Clark’s comment on fostering joint understanding within a group devekoping a ToC. From my expericence with using ToCs, I conclude that it can be an excellent tool to get specific about different epistemological backgrounds and understandings. It can therefore be a good starting point for developing a shared language in a project or process.

    • Thank you, Theresa! Yes, we agree that “ToC as a process” can foster understanding, developing a shared language and clarifying roles and interests very well. So even though the “ToC as a product” can be a helpful tool and orientation, the richness definitively lies in the joint process of developing and iterating it.

  3. I’m want to applaud the authors here for highlighting the ways Theory of Change can be used to facilitate internal and interdisciplinary communication and understanding. It’s a very neglected area of the power of ToC. Using the process of developing and clarifying a ToC is itself a very valuable way to cross disciplinary lines and boundaries. The product of a ToC is a great communication tool also, but the process is equally valuable and I think the main thing to add here is that it’s important to be intentional about it. Thanks for this piece!

    • Thank you for the compliments and your supportive thoughts, Heléne! We found your contribution “ToC in a nutshell” very helpful as a basis, too.

    • Thank you, Daniel! Great to hear. If you’ll write something about it, let us know how you made use of the functions – that would be interesting!

  4. Many thanks also from me for the answer and valuable advice, Ricardo! Our experience confirms your view of the relevance of visualisation and layout guidance. It is an important hint to consider them as roles and not only as useful competences. A sound and comprehensible visualisation enables the identification of all stakeholders with the ToC. I look forward to an exchange with you!

  5. Thank-you for sharing these insights. I also viewed the webinar with great interest. Your summary of roles is fascinating and seems to echo my experience. I did notice a missing role that I feel is relevant: visualization and layout guidance. I would be happy to share a slide show I have with 5 different experiences facilitating ToC, where your analytical framework of roles would be relevant (like raw material for your research). For me the main challenge has always been: to facilitate versus to train others to produce their ToC and thereby have ownership over its evolution.

    Of additional interest: I am part of a project providing mentoring in collaborative evaluation and research communication to research teams globally. Our latest publication focuses on what it takes to facilitate capacity development in utilization-focused evaluation and research communication; ie a retrospective on our role – very complementary to your work. All of our materials are available in 3 languages on our website ( Feel free to reach out. Compliments on your work.

    • Thank you for your compliments and interest in our work, Ricardo! It is great to hear that you can relate to the functions we identified with your work and approach. I would say all of us in the author team would agree on the main challenge of ownership of the ToC and its evolution that you have formulated – this would be another interesting aspect to dig deeper.

      I had a glance at your website and U-FE approach and it definitely resonates with our approaches at ZTG (and probably also with Sabine’s at eawag, but I cannot speak for her) – so we would be happy to get in touch, see your slide show and discuss some more! We’ll get in touch with you by email.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: