Three tasks for transdisciplinary bridge builders

Community member post by Roderick J. Lawrence

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Roderick J. Lawrence (biography)

Human groups and societies have built many kinds of bridges for centuries. Since the 19th century, engineers have designed complex physical structures that were intended to serve one or more purposes in precise situations. In essence, the construction of a bridge is meant to join two places together. What may appear as a mundane functional structure is built only after numerous decisions have been made about its appearance, cost, functions, location and structure. Will a bridge serve only as a link and passage, or will it serve other functions?

In discussing three things the transdisciplinary research community can do to build bridges, I use “building bridges” as a metaphor. I discuss a bridge as a human-made artefact that is attributed meaningful form. It is created intentionally for one or more purposes. I step along a path I sketched in a recent publication (Lawrence, 2017) in order to explain why bridge building is fundamental for transdisciplinary inquiry, and three tasks that are necessary in order to effectively build bridges across academic, institutional and professional divides.

1. Build cultural bridges

The transdisciplinary research community has given little attention to the culture of transdisciplinary inquiry. I am using the world ’culture’ to denote a multi-dimensional (plural) and evolving (change) concept rather than a monolithic and static one. This interpretation of culture enables us to explain why there has been an increasing division and specialization of disciplinary knowledge and professional know-how since the 19th century.

Today, for example, the word ‘environment’ (which only came into public use from about 1970), has been attributed different meanings by biologists, chemists and geologists, as well as anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists. Beyond these discipline-based groups, there are other trades and professional groups as well as policy decision makers who have specific interpretations too.

This example shows that there are no longer “two cultures” as C.P. Snow (1961) claimed, but multiple cultures, sub-cultures and micro-cultures, in a broad field concerned about the environment. Consequently, a fundamental task for the transdisciplinary research community is to develop capabilities and skills to build cultural bridges, and especially conceptual and linguistic bridges, between key concepts and their meanings used during specific projects. This is not a simple task.

The diversity of coexisting cultures today is only one reason why a trans-anthropo-logic of transdisciplinarity requires a commitment by funders and researchers for more in-depth research. In order to respond effectively to this challenge, a major shift is required from inward looking perspectives common to disciplinary-based education, training and research, to outward looking perspectives with vision beyond disciplinary divides. Today, beyond the walls of universities and professional institutions, there are a growing number of international organizations and foundations that support knowledge networks founded on such outward looking perspectives.

2. Use dialogue and negotiation to build bridges

A second task for the transdisciplinary research community stems from a commitment to the co-definition of the purpose of the bridge. It is worth emphasizing again here that the bridge is not a physical structure, but a cultural artefact with meanings, uses and values. Participants in transdisciplinary projects need to agree on the shared concepts, data, definitions, information, meanings, rules and methods that will be used. Dialogue and negotiation are the means for the construction of a bridge across common divides. These processes can bring together academic and non-academic actors and institutions to tackle real-world concerns and situations that may require change. Building bridges across conceptual divides, institutional borders and social barriers takes time rarely allocated sufficiently in project proposals.

3. Use the bridge to challenge perceptions

The third task is to creatively use the bridge not just as a passage but as an artefact that can challenge the way the transdisciplinary research community and others perceive and interpret real world situations that require some kind of intervention for the common good, especially:

  • to challenge our thinking in terms of dichotomous categories (eg., either disciplinary or interdisciplinary);
  • to replace reductionist and normative interpretations of the challenges we face in the world today by admitting diversity, complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability; and,
  • to remember that the bridge we have co-created expresses the way we act, perhaps not just during a research project but during our daily lives.

In essence, the way we think will influence our decisions about the purposes of building bridges, or whether we construct a bridge at all! Are you a transdisciplinary bridge builder? If so what do you think the next steps should be to bridge over academic, institutional and professional divides? Do you know of positive bridge building by the transdisciplinary research community?

To find out more:
Lawrence, R. (2017). A trans-anthropo-logic of transdisciplinarity. In: D. Fam, J. Palmer, C. Riedy and C. Mitchell (eds.), Transdisciplinary research and practice for sustainability outcomes, Routledge: London, United Kingdom, pp: 253-259.

Reference:
Snow, C. (1961). The two cultures and the scientific revolution: The Rede Lecture, 1959. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, United Kingdom. https://www.routledge.com/Transdisciplinary-Research-and-Practice-for-Sustainability-Outcomes/Fam-Palmer-Mitchell-Riedy/p/book/9781138119703

Biography: Roderick Lawrence is Honorary Professor at the Geneva School of Social Sciences, in Switzerland, Honorary Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture and the Built Environment, University of Adelaide, Australia, and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Environment and Development (LESTARI) at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, in Malaysia. He is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research at the Swiss Academy of Sciences. His current research is about transdiciplinary planning of the built environment in the context of global, regional and local changes in order to promote and maintain health and well-being of all.

Undertaking bi-cultural research: key reflections from a Pākehā (non-Māori) New Zealander

Community member post by Maria Hepi

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Maria Hepi (biography)

What does it mean to be a bi-cultural researcher? The following eight key reflections are based on working bi-culturally in New Zealand.

I am a Pākehā (non-Māori) New Zealander and started learning Māori language and culture at university in 1995. Previously I had little to no contact with te reo Māori (the Māori language) or te ao Māori (the Māori world and culture). During my studies I became involved in kapa haka (the university Māori cultural club), and as such was exposed to a whole new world.

When I embarked on my journey into te ao Māori I naively thought I would be only learning about the Māori language and culture, however I also learnt what it meant to be Pākehā. I had been blind to my own culture as I had nothing to reflect it back to me. Continue reading

Sharing mental models is critical for interdisciplinary collaboration

Community member post by Jen Badham and Gabriele Bammer

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Jen Badham (biography)

What is a mental model? How do mental models influence interdisciplinary collaboration? What processes can help tease out differences in mental models?

Mental models

Let’s start with mental models. What does the word ‘chair’ mean to you? Do you have an image of a chair, perhaps a wooden chair with four legs and a back, an office chair with wheels, or possibly a comfortable lounge chair from which you watch television? Continue reading

Co-producing research: Why we need to say what we mean, mean what we say, and learn as we go

Community member post by Bev J. Holmes

Bev J. Holmes (biography)

The co-production or co-creation of research is not new – action based research traditions can lay claim to a long history, but are those of us involved in co-production doing enough to understand what it means?

In their work on public involvement, Antoine Boivin and colleagues (2014) note there is such widespread support for the rhetoric of co-production that we may dismiss (I would add not even acknowledge) the tensions that arise when professionals and lay people work together. Co-production in health research is similar. We need to work harder to say what we mean, mean what we say, and learn as we go. Continue reading

Three schools of transformation thinking

Community member post by Uwe Schneidewind and Karoline Augenstein

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Uwe Schneidewind (biography)

‘Transformation’ has become a buzzword in debates about sustainable development. But while the term has become very popular, it is often unclear what is meant exactly by ‘transformation’.

The fuzziness of the concept can be seen as a strength, giving it metaphoric power and facilitating inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation. However, this fuzziness means there is also a danger of the transformation debate being co-opted by powerful actors and used strategically to impede societal change towards more sustainable pathways.

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Karoline Augenstein (biography)

Thus, issues of power are at stake here and we argue that a better understanding of the underlying assumptions and theories of change shaping the transformation debate is needed. We delineate three schools of transformation thinking and their assumptions about what drives societal change, and summarize them in the first table below. We then examine the relationship of these three schools of thinking to power, summarized in the second table. Continue reading

What can action research and transdisciplinarity learn from each other?

Community member post by Danilo R. Streck

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Danilo R. Streck (biography)

A man raises his hand and brings up the following issue: “Our community is constantly affected by terrible floods that not only destroy our houses, but are the cause of sicknesses of our children.” This statement—in the midst of a participatory budget meeting in South Brazil—raised issues concerning the deforestation of riverbanks, the deficient sewage system, contested land ownership and occupation, among others.

Our research group is primarily interested in citizenship education and in supporting it through studying what makes learning possible (pedagogical mediation) within discussions about the allocation of resources for the public budget. Stories like this one remind us of the limits of a simplistic approach to understanding citizenship. In this case, citizenship and citizenship education was clearly related to health, to ecology, to urban planning, to farming, among other fields of acting and knowing.

Action research, broadly understood as collective (self) reflection in action within situations that one wants to change, is intrinsically an exercise of disciplinary transgressions. Continue reading