Transdisciplinary action research: A guiding framework for collaboration

By Steven Lam, Michelle Thompson, Kathleen Johnson, Cameron Fioret and Sarah Hargreaves

author-steven-lam
Steven Lam (biography)

How can graduate students work productively with each other and community partners? Many researchers and practitioners are engaging in transdisciplinarity, yet there is surprisingly little critical reflection about the processes and outcomes of transdisciplinarity, particularly from the perspectives of graduate students and community partners who are increasingly involved.

author-michelle-thompson
Michelle Thompson (biography)

Our group of four graduate students from the University of Guelph and one community partner from the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, reflect on our experiences of working together toward community food security in Canada, especially producing a guidebook for farmer-led research (Fioret et al. 2018). As none of us had previously worked together, nor shared any disciplines in common, we found it essential to first develop a guiding framework for collaboration. Our thinking combined the following key principles from action research and transdisciplinarity:

author-kathleen-johnson
Kathleen Johnson (biography)
  • reflexivity,
  • participation and partnership,
  • methods and process, and
  • integration.

Reflexivity

Reflexivity was designed to support the on-going scrutiny of the choices made during the research process; this occurred in the form of reflexive journaling and weekly meetings for collective reflection and sense-making. The self-reflections helped ensure that our goals, needs and expectations were met through the decisions made.

author-cameron-fioret
Cameron Fioret (biography)

Participation and partnership plus methods and processes

Partnership and participation refer to the quality of the relationship formed with stakeholders and the extent to which stakeholders are appropriately involved in the project. Methods and processes refer to the extent to which the action research process and related methods are clearly articulated and illustrated.

author-sarah-hargreaves
Sarah Hargreaves (biography)

In practice, we found that these two principles were inseparable. Because we four students didn’t know each other before this project started, we invested the first two-months of the project in relationship building, attending workshops and meeting weekly to talk about motivations, previous experiences and expectations for the project. It was not until after that process that the collaboration with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario started. That involved similar conversations around expectations and priorities, as well as new conversations around community needs and potential solutions. By month four, a clear workplan was co-designed.

The last four months of the project focused on co-developing the farmer-led research guidebook. Roles and responsibilities based on our strengths and interests were assigned. The students contributed to data collection and analysis, while the community partner shared local knowledge, relevant reports and a guidebook outline, as well as connecting the students with farmers and other farmer-led organizations. Co-authorship was achieved through all of us contributing equally to the conceptualization, writing and dissemination of the guidebook.

Integration
Sharing responsibility for the project design, implementation and outcomes created strong avenues for partnership, participation, and knowledge integration within different aspects of the project. In particular, we experienced strong collaboration in the joint designing of the project, its methods, technical content and delegation of tasks. Since the project dealt with the need for supporting farmers in research, the community partner (as a farmer herself) was more familiar with the problem context and the actors involved than the students. Her expertise was helpful in framing the report in a way that is useful, relevant and accessible to farmers and farmer-led organizations. The guidebook is considered to be a success and an important document.

Nevertheless, most of us expressed frustration with different aspects of co-generating the farmer-led research guidebook and our expectations for integration were not entirely met. For example, Steven felt uncertain about “the relevant tools or paradigms from different disciplines and how to integrate them to address a shared problem in the context of food security.”

Conclusion
Based on our reflections, we note that the success of this joint inquiry depended on certain conditions, such as individual team member’s reflexive ability, sense of mutual responsibility, humility and deep respect for one another. Furthermore, the time invested in dynamic weekly exchanges between students and community partners was essential to build relationships and led to an enhanced understanding of community partner needs and solutions. Early delegation of roles and tasks led to high levels of efficiency and prevented the risk of one perspective taking over the research process. Finally, we found early efforts of “opening communicative space” to be helpful, whereby issues were opened up for discussion, experiences were shared and we all strived toward “mutual understanding, intersubjective agreement and unforced consensus about what to do in any given practical situation.”

Overall the framework helped us, to a ‘good enough’ extent, integrate our work which led to the co-publication of the Farmer-led Research Guidebook.

For us, engaging in reflection has made a substantial difference in the quality of our work. If you have worked in transdisciplinary teams, especially as (or with) graduate students, what framework or guiding principles did you follow? What did you achieve and what felt missing?

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(photo credit: Kelly Hodgins)

To find out more:
Lam, S., Thompson, M., Johnston, K., Fioret, C. and Hargreaves, S. K. (2019). Toward community food security through transdisciplinary action research. Action Research (OnlineFirst, Open Access): https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1476750319889390

Reference:
Fioret, C., Johnston, K., Lam, S., Thompson, M. and Hargreaves, S. (2018). Towards farmer-led research: A guidebook. Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario: Guelph, Canada.

Biography: Steven Lam is a PhD student in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph in Canada. His research focuses on how evaluation can better support efforts toward food security, climate change adaptation and gender equity. He also works as an independent evaluation consultant.

Biography: Michelle Thompson is a PhD student in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph in Canada. She is currently researching endophytes (beneficial microbes) in corn that provide a natural immune system-like defense against disease.

Biography: Kathleen Johnson is a Master of Applied Science student in the School of Engineering at the University of Guelph in Canada. Her research is conducted through the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research and focuses on understanding the flow and fate of contaminants in the fractured bedrock aquifer beneath the city of Guelph.

Biography: Cameron Fioret is a PhD student in the Philosophy Department at the University of Guelph in Canada. His research focuses on property, political philosophy and environmental philosophy.

Biography: Sarah Hargreaves PhD is currently research director with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO), where she launched Canada’s first Farmer-Led Research Program to help farmers combine their curiosity with scientific rigour to answer their most challenging on-farm questions.

Why do we protect ourselves from unknown unknowns?

By Bem Le Hunte

author-bem-le-hunte
Bem Le Hunte (biography)

Why do very few people enjoy sitting comfortably with their unknown unknowns? Why is there an uncomfortable liminality ‘betwixt and between’ the known and unknown worlds?

How can we explore unknowns in a more speculative, playful, creative capacity, through our imaginations? How can we use lack of knowledge to learn about ourselves and let it teach us how to be comfortable and curious in the midst of unknowing?

The power and allure of unknown unknowns have long been recognised by creative practitioners as a holy grail for inspiration. Borges wrote in The Library of Babel about a fictitious library where all books ever written existed together, but this library turns to a dystopia as the reader discovers that “the certainty that everything has already been written annuls us, or renders us phantasmal.” And in those endless corridors lined with books the suicides begin…

For creative practitioners, the art of not knowing (and simultaneously expressing what you do know with confidence) is a careful balancing act. It is exemplified by Shakespeare when he gives Hamlet the statement that: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Here there is an admission that we have to hold knowledge and the lack of it simultaneously, in our being.

Similarly, St John of God wrote these words about unknowing from a prison cell in Toledo:

This knowledge in unknowing
is so overwhelming
that wise men disputing
can never overthrow it,
for their knowledge does not reach
to the understanding of not
understanding,
transcending all knowledge.

Ann Kerwin, when creating her taxonomy of unknowns wrote: “in creativity we bring life to unknown unknowns. We demonstrate that we ourselves are unknown unknowns: endowed with astounding capacities to reveal ourselves in unexpected ways.” Similarly, in my view, creative practice serves to construct a theory of the world (outside of us), but any revelation about that world is mirrored through a better understanding of ourselves – our own unknowns.

Unlike other research, which is often practiced in one direction in helping to solve problems ‘out there,’ creative practice is like a two-way telescope, revealing insights and connectedness between the researcher and that which is researched. This integrative capacity of creative thinking might well be one of the most powerful reasons for us to keep creative intelligence alive in our education systems, across all disciplines. Bringing the personal dimension into education, after all, does make it seem much more relevant!

It’s also important for leaders, civil and military, to understand how they are implicated in the knowledge they have at their disposal – and to develop the creative capacity to know and not know simultaneously.

But what do we do with our fear of not knowing? Creativity researcher, Vlad Glăveanu, in his new book Wonder, talks about the power of wondering and its capacity to stimulate a range of experiences from contemplation to pondering, curiosity and awe – all encounters with the unknown. Perfecting the art of wondering is a powerful way to encourage a sense of adventure around unknowns, rather than fear.

Glăveanu writes about a phrase that early sixteenth century cartographers from East Asia wrote on their maps – HIC SUNT DRACONES – or ‘here are dragons’ to signify unknown and potentially dangerous territories. He claims that these “might be interpreted as invitations to wonder about but not to wander off, to respect the unknown and yet make it somehow familiar.” The phrase ‘here be dragons’ is still used by hackers when they don’t understand how their code works but know that it does. They leave this message encrypted as an artefact, telling other hackers not to mess with it!

This brings another question – whether our ‘arrival’ at knowledge is always a good thing and whether the knowledge that exists should always be ‘un-encrypted.’ For traditional problem-solving it might be so, but often with creative practice one needs to remain in a state of mystery (and thereby, receptiveness). Poet Lewis Hyde and author of The Gift offers the insight that: “If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labour satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom.” As a writer myself, this phrase resonates deeply. Certainly, I wouldn’t be inspired to write my novels if I knew exactly what I was going to write and which ways my story would travel. This is also discussed by Lelia Green in her blog post on Creative writing as a journey into the unknown unknown.

As we will always be faced at some point in our lives with a world we cannot fathom, it would be useful to teach our students and leaders how to think of these unknowns as gifts – and not to always privilege certainty as our scientific paradigm insists that we should.

References:
Borges, J. L. (1970). Labyrinths. (Eds.). Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, (Trans.). James E. Irby and Anthony Kerrigan. Penguin: London, United Kingdom.

Glăveanu, V. P. (2020, in press). Wonder: The extraordinary power of an ordinary experience. Bloomsbury: London, United Kingdom.

Hyde, L. (2007). The gift: How the creative spirit transforms the world. Canongate: Edinburgh, United Kingdom.

Kerwin, A. (1993). None too solid: medical ignorance. Science Communication, 15, 2: 166-85.

Shakespeare, W. (2008). Hamlet (The Oxford Shakespeare). (Ed.). G. R. Hibbard. Oxford: Oxford, United Kingdom.

St John of the Cross. (2007). A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ. (Trans.). David Lewis. Cosimo: New York, United States of America.

Biography: Associate Professor Bem Le Hunte PhD is the founding Course Director of the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation in the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. This degree is transdisciplinary and future-facing, combining with 25 different disciplines to explore unknowns and investigate the challenges of our times. Over the past three decades she has worked across a broad range of creative industries, from advertising and journalism, to publishing and new media. She is also a globally published novelist and has written scripts for documentaries and film. She researches creativity in education and ways to deliver a ‘Curriculum for Being’ across communities of learning and practice.

This blog post is part of a series on unknown unknowns as part of a collaboration between the Australian National University and Defence Science and Technology.

For the ten other blog posts already published in this series, see: https://i2insights.org/tag/partner-defence-science-and-technology/

Scheduled blog posts in this series:
February 25, 2020: Theory U: a promising journey to embracing unknown unknowns by Vanesa Weyrauch

Decentering academia through critical unlearning in transdisciplinary knowledge production

By Gabriela Alonso-Yanez, Lily House-Peters and Martin Garcia Cartagena

author-gabriela-alonso-yanezetal
Gabriela Alonso-Yanez (biography)

How can academic researchers working in transdisciplinary teams establish genuine collaborations with people who do not work in academia? How can they overcome the limitations of their discipline-based training, especially assigning value and hierarchy to specialized forms of knowledge production that privileges certain methodologies and epistemologies over others?

author-lily-house-peters
Lily House-Peters (biography)

We argue that to truly engage in collaborative work, academics need to participate in deliberate processes of critical unlearning that enable the decentering of academia in the processes and politics of transdisciplinary knowledge production and knowledge translation. What we mean by this is that academics have to be willing to acknowledge, reflect upon, and intentionally discard conventional avenues of designing and conducting research activities in order to be authentically open to other ways of exploring questions about the world in collaboration with diverse groups of social actors. Continue reading

How can resilience benefit from planning?

By Pedro Ferreira

author - pedro-ferreira
Pedro Ferreira (biography)

Improved resilience can contribute to the ability to deal with unknown unknowns. Dealing with uncertainty is also at the core of every planning activity. The argument put forward here is that planning processes should be considered a cornerstone for any given resilience approach. An outline of planning and resilience is given, before presenting fundamental aspects of planning that should be strengthened within a resilience strategy.

Planning

From attempting to do as much as possible within a day’s work, to launching rockets into space or managing a nation, everything requires planning. Continue reading

Facilitating serendipity for interdisciplinary research

By Catherine Lyall

author-catherine-lyall
Catherine Lyall (biography)

How can institutions facilitate the serendipitous encounters that so often appear to characterise interdisciplinary careers? Is there an inherent hypocrisy in university leaders, research funders and policymakers claiming that they want to facilitate interdisciplinarity and then not creating the conditions that experienced interdisciplinarians say they need in order to foster this style of working?

Here I examine the importance of informal interactions, physical locations, the ‘small stuff’ and ‘slow research.’ Continue reading

Detecting non-linear change ‘inside-the-system’ and ‘out-of-the-blue’

Susan van ‘t Klooster and Marjolijn Haasnoot

Author - Susan van ‘t Klooster
Susan van ‘t Klooster (biography)

Change can be expected, envisioned and known, and even created, accelerated or stopped. But change does not always follow a linear and predictable path, nor is it always controllable. Novelty and surprise are inescapable features of life. Non-linear change can involve threats or opportunities.

Although it defines the world we live in, who we are, the outlooks we have and what we do, we often do not relate to non-linear change in a meaningful way. What is holding us back from engaging with it? How do we deal with non-linear change? And what are promising ways forward? Continue reading