An analytical framework for knowledge co-production

By Marianne Penker

Marianne Penker (biography)

How can students and academics starting out in transdisciplinary research begin to come to grips with knowledge co-production?

Colleagues and I developed a useful analytical framework comprising the following four elements:

  1. typology of actor roles (who?)
  2. research phases (when?)
  3. objectives and forms of actor integration (why?)
  4. types of knowledge (what?).

These four elements are illustrated in the figure below.

The development of the framework was based on the literature and our experiences in running a doctoral school on transdisciplinary sustainability research (see Enengel et al. 2012). Although we developed the framework for a comparative analysis of transdisciplinary case studies, it is also useful for planning knowledge co-production in transdisciplinary research, as we describe here.

It is helpful to start by identifying the key actors who will be involved in the knowledge co-production, as well as the research phases in which they will be involved. A third key component is the aims of the actor involvement in knowledge co-production and how their involvement occurred. The final component of the framework is the types of knowledge contributed by the different actor groups at various stages of the project. Let’s review each of these in detail.

Who? Typology of actor roles

Collaboration in transdisciplinary research comprises both the collaboration between researchers from different disciplines and between actors within and outside academia. It is useful to consider five categories of actors:

  1. Core scientists, who are the main scientific actors throughout the course of a project.
  2. Scientific consultants, who support the core group in particular project phases. These academic experts often come from external organisations working on similar projects in other locations and offer expertise that is not well enough covered by the core team.
  3. Professional practice experts, namely practitioners, typically working in public agencies or NGOs (non-governmental organisations). They are often very familiar with the practical and political aspects of the issues investigated, but not necessarily with the specific local case context.
  4. Strategic case actors, namely practitioners involved at the case level with a specific formal or informal responsibility (eg., local politicians, leaders of stakeholder groups) or professional competence (eg., regional managers).
  5. Local case actors, who are all other actors involved in the processes at the case level. They may be residents, farmers, members of local conservation groups or others affected by the issue under investigation.
Analytical framework for planning and analysing knowledge co-production in transdisciplinary research projects (from Enengel et al. 2012: p.108)

When? Research phases

It is useful to consider seven research phases:

  1. problem history
  2. problem identification and structuring
  3. research design and selection of methods
  4. data collection
  5. data analysis and triangulation
  6. reflection/interpretation and synthesis
  7. dissemination of results.

The last six phases are commonly considered in transdisciplinary research, whereas problem history is less often taken into account. We proposed that this is an important phase, as a life-world problem usually exists before the researchers arrive on the stage. Prior to the initiation of a research project many actors will already have been confronted with several aspects of a problem field due to their professional or private background. These persons have individual perspectives and accumulated knowledge, which influences the way in which they act in a research process. In many cases the “problem history” might also be a conflict history, which needs to be known in order to understand the behaviour of, and relationships between, certain actors.

Why? Objectives and forms of actor integration

Three types of involvement are useful to consider:

  1. Information, where actors are informed about the research project through, for example, a public meeting or a written report.
  2. Consultation, where actors comment on proposals and contribute ideas and suggestions.
  3. Knowledge co-production and empowerment, where actors have a say in developing, implementing and running the research project. This often means deliberate and responsible participation, where actors are empowered to be partners in the project, characterised by discourse, open debates and common decision making.

What? Types of knowledge

It is useful to consider the knowledge contributions of different actor groups at various stages of the project using three dimensions:

  1. Scale dimension. This comprises context-specific knowledge about the concrete setting of the individual case, as well as the adaptation and translation of generalised knowledge to a local context.
  2. Functional dimension. This comprises phenomenological and strategic knowledge. Phenomenological knowledge is concerned with local social and environmental phenomena and their description. Strategic knowledge focuses on connections and interrelations of system elements. It often addresses organisational, functional and network issues for changing the system, and is essential for structuring research processes.
  3. Epistemic (cognitive) dimension. This comprises experiential and scientific knowledge. Experiential knowledge is derived from a person’s life experience or adopted traditional knowledge, and is often tacit or implicit and therefore usually not formalised or systematised. Scientific knowledge is based on empirical evidence or scientifically acknowledged theories; it is systematic, formalised and explicit.

In conclusion

Although we developed this framework a decade ago, we are still using it to plan and discuss PhD projects in our doctoral school Transitions to Sustainability. Students consider the framework particularly helpful for systematically comparing their transdisciplinary approaches, which provides them with insightful learnings.

Does this resonate with your experience of key steps for knowledge co-production? Are there other steps that you would include or steps you would change?

To find out more:

Enengel, B., Muhar, A., Penker, M., Freyer, B., Drlik, S. and Ritter, F. (2012). Co-production of Knowledge in Transdisciplinary Doctoral Theses on Landscape Development – An Analysis of Actor Roles and Knowledge Types in Different Research Phases. Landscape and Urban Planning, 105, 1-2: 106-117.
This paper provides the references for the ideas cited in this i2Insights contribution.

Biography: Marianne Penker PhD is Professor of Rural Sociology and Rural Development at the Department of Economics and Social Sciences, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) Vienna, Austria. Her main interests cover sustainable rural development research as well as theoretical and methodological contributions to transdisciplinary research.

8 thoughts on “An analytical framework for knowledge co-production”

  1. Dear Prof. Penker, Thank you for your useful brief introduction of the framework developed by you and your colleagues ten years ago. In the seven phase you mentioned (dissemination of results), I understand that you mean only the dissemination of research results in some traditional ways (workshops, publications, etc.)? If yes, it would be different from TDR? Because TDR emphasizes on the bringing research results into practice. Thanks. Cuong BUI, Professor in sociology, Vietnam.

    • Dear Prof. Cuong Bui,
      thank you for your insightful remark. The PhD projects, which we analysed as the empirical source of our article, involved different forms of written, oral or video dissemination of results (sometimes prepared with practice or case actors, some addressed to the scientific community, others to practice communities). While the participants of the TDR (transdisciplinary research) process exchanged much knowledge among each other, the PhD students also addressed audiences not directly involved in the TDR-process (the international scientific community, civil society within or outside the study area, teachers or students in schools, readers of newspapers, etc.). The phase of dissemination (involving publication, communication, and/or implementation) often started early in the projects and went in parallel/overlapped with other phases. Thus in the PhD projects, we identified dissemination of results to both scientific community and practice. We co-authors were unsure if we should include this phase in the graphic, as it is not a core-phase of transdisciplinary research but rather about communicating the results to audiences not involved in the transdisciplinary research process. Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on this again in this blog.
      Best regards from Austria to Vietnam,

      • Dear Prof. Penker,
        Thanks for your reply to my comments. I introduced your model to Vietnamese readers in a report. In Vietnam I am trying to introduce the TDR (transdisciplinary research) to Vietnamese students and researchers. We also conducted some research projects using TDR. But, it is still first initiatives. I am having a plan to introduce i2S in Vietnam.
        Regards, Cuong BUI.

  2. Many thanks for sharing this model which will be very helpful in our transdisciplinary research in living labs for biodiversity restoration in the Netherlands. To investigate the communication between various actors and the interplay between different components over time, we are working on an interactional model for our project. This may become a useful addition.

    • Looking forward to reading about your experiences and approaches to track stakeholder involvement in your living labs over time soon!

  3. I consider the heuristic of the four simple questions as useful for planning stakeholder involvement in PhD projects – particularely when combined with considerations on resource restrictions in time, finances etc. to come up with manageable PhD project plans.


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