What makes research transdisciplinary?

Community member post by Liz Clarke

Liz Clarke (biography)

What do we mean by transdisciplinarity and when can we say we are doing transdisciplinary research? There is a broad literature with a range of different meanings and perspectives. There is the focus on real-world problems with multiple stakeholders in the “life-world”, and a sense of throwing open the doors of academia to transcend disciplinary boundaries to address and solve complex problems. But when it comes to the practicalities of work in the field, there is often uncertainty and even disagreement about what is and isn’t transdisciplinarity.

Let me give an example. In discussing our collaborations and inquiry in the Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation project case study areas (Transylvania, Romania and Oldenburg, Germany), we were struck by the very different kinds of engagement for various sub-teams and individuals. In some instances, researchers are collaborating closely with a core team of local, community-based partners including nongovernmental organisations, individuals, community groups and associations. In contrast, some of our other researchers are working at the institutional level, engaging in policy and governance in regional or national systems. And then there are others who are working with a broader range of local and regional stakeholders within the region.

Who is “doing” transdisciplinary research and who is not? Are we “in” or “out” of this space? And the discussion gets quite vigorous at this stage, as different definitions and conceptions butt up against each other, which has the potential to create separations or boundaries between the different team members.

Then the penny drops! There IS no one, useful definition, but a series of stipulative meanings (meanings which are useful and accurate for a particular time or application) or lenses through which we can view our research approach but most particularly our practice. It becomes a matter of what is practical and useful for particular inquiry situations.

So rather than seeing transdisciplinarity as an “in” or “out” (or “yes” or “no”) prescriptive set of tick boxes, we start to see some fluctuation in the caste of actors and partners over the life of the project, and we start to use terms like “near” and “far” and think in terms of interlinkages and broader networks, and what is a useful description at the time.

We are focusing on developing a transdisciplinary research practice, which is inclusive of a plurality of worldviews, embraces complexity and uncertainty and where we can work at multiple levels. Conceptual vagueness or plurality can be an asset (Strunz, 2012). And as Joern Fischer (2016) so clearly states:

Deep down, transdisciplinarity is about respecting non-research stakeholders, respecting their knowledge, engaging with them, and helping them do better through one’s research. It’s this moral basis of transdisciplinarity that I believe we can apply to just about all settings, because it’s grounded in something so deep that it makes sense irrespective of context.

And this means we need to be more inclusive about what we regard as knowledge. We need to include the tacit and invisible aspects of what we and others know, including our values, ethical frameworks, rules, customs, assumptions and the things we like (or not). And we need to deal with the inevitable conflicts, dissonances, dichotomies and dualisms that will arise. This is particularly relevant in the reality of our time (the Anthropocene), where we face multiple wicked problems, which require multiple and ongoing solutions and where we are beginning to rethink our rules and institutions, and our relationship to the natural world.

Which leaves us with the questions: How can we best engage in knowledge co-production? How we can be inclusive of the diversity of human inquiry and human justice, and embrace uncertainty and complexity to discover emergent futures?

This blog post is based on “TD or not TD, that is the question (or one of them …)” by Liz Clarke, 2 November 2017, Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation, Online: https://leveragepoints.org/2017/11/02/td-or-not-td-that-is-the-question-or-one-of-them/

Strunz, S. (2012). Is conceptual vagueness an asset? Arguments from philosophy of science applied to the concept of resilience. Ecological Economics, 76: 112–118. Online (DOI): 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2012.02.012

Fischer, J. (2016). Transdisciplinarity in a messy world. 2 January. Ideas for Sustainability, Online: https://ideas4sustainability.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/trandisciplinarity-in-a-messy-world/

Biography: Liz Clarke is a transdisciplinary social-ecological systems researcher at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany, far from her home turf in Australia. She works on knowledge coproduction in the Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation project, focusing on RETHINKing (sustainability-related knowledge creation) as a deep leverage point. With her family background in farming and her previous career in international agricultural research she is passionate about working in rural Southern Transylvania in Romania and Oldenburg in Germany.