What motivates researchers to become transdisciplinary and what are the implications for career development?

By Maria Helena Guimarães, Olivia Bina and Christian Pohl

Author - Maria Helena Guimarães
Maria Helena Guimarães (biography)

If disciplines shape scientific research by forming the primary institutional and cognitive units in academia, how do researchers start being interested in and working with a transdisciplinary approach? How does this influence their career development?

Author - Olivia Bina
Olivia Bina (biography)

We interviewed 12 researchers working in Switzerland who are part of academia and identify as ‘transdisciplinarians’.

Author - Christian Pohl
Christian Pohl (biography)

They described seven types of motivations:

  1. Individual ethics, especially a desire to improve society and contribute to the advancement of the common good.
  2. Concern about real-world problems, particularly a desire to engage with societal issues that do not primarily emerge from disciplinary journals or academic discourse alone.
  3. Search for fulfillment, especially the possibility of making a difference in their own lives and those of others.
  4. Wanting to bring together theoretical and practical perspectives, as well as communities undertaking complementary but independent work.
  5. Realising that individual disciplines do not provide sufficient insights to deal with complex problems and wanting to go beyond them.
  6. Wanting to step “out of the box” and being attracted to transdisciplinarity as a transgressive and risk-taking activity.
  7. Desire to be reflective, connected to a range of research interests and to connect across a range of fields.

The following quotations from the interviewees illustrate these motivations.

quote number one - guimaraes post - motivations-TD-researchers

Career development

Most interviewees defined their trajectory in transdisciplinarity (ie., their entry into transdisciplinarity and their continuing development within it) as something that just happened and was linked to a specific way of perceiving science.

Most did not present a well-established career path in transdisciplinarity. Further they considered that the CV (curriculum vitae) profiles that they had developed so far meant that well-established career paths were not attainable.

Those who were professors described a dual role, one focused on disciplinary excellence and the other on transdisciplinarity. A few of the young researchers aimed at developing a career in academia and were therefore intermingling their transdisciplinary activities with disciplinary knowledge production.

Generally, professors and supervisors did not advise young researchers to move into transdisciplinarity because of its impact on career advancement or of the lack of supervision for inter- and trans- disciplinary research compared with disciplinary projects. Most of the challenges described were related to the lack of recognition for transdisciplinarity within the academic system. Therefore, independent of the individual’s age or years spent working in academia, the general perception was a lack of opportunities to progress in academia.

Within this discussion, some interviewees suggested creating a discipline, a field, or a community focused on the formalization of transdisciplinarity, as well as on its development. Others viewed this track as a threat to the inherent openness of transdisciplinarity to other disciplines.

The following quotations capture the above points.

Do these experiences match your own? What other motivations for entering transdisciplinarity are you aware of? What impacts on career development have you seen?

To find out more:
Guimarães M. H., Pohl C., Bina O. and Varanda M. (2019). Who is doing inter- and transdisciplinary research, and why? An empirical study of motivations, attitudes, skills, and behaviours. Futures, 112, 102441. Online open-access (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102441

Biography: Maria Helena Guimarães PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Mediterranean Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (ICAAM) in Évora University, Portugal. In her research group, she coordinates the line of research dedicated to transdisciplinary processes and co-construction of knowledge. Her research interest is the practical application of knowledge co-construction and the use of systems thinking for the sustainable management of natural resources..

Biography: Olivia Bina PhD is Principal Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon in Portugal and Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science. She coordinates the Urban Transitions Hub at her Institute. Her research focuses on change and sustainable futures, on the critique of “green” growth and the limits to growth, on connectedness between humans and nature, and notions of scarcity. .

Biography: Christian Pohl PhD is co-director of the Transdisciplinarity Lab of the Department of Environmental Systems Science (USYS TdLab) at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. He completed his habilitation at the University of Bern. His research interest is the theory and practice of transdisciplinary research as a means for sustainable development.

Using Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework to set context for transdisciplinary research: A case study

Community member post by Maria Helena Guimarães

Maria Helena Guimarães (biography)

How can Elinor Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework help transdisciplinary research? I propose that this framework can provide an understanding of the system in which the transdisciplinary research problem is being co-defined.

Understanding the system is a first step and is necessary for adequate problem framing, engagement of participants, connecting knowledge and structuring the collaboration between researchers and non-academics. It leads to a holistic understanding of the problem or question to be dealt with. It allows the problem framing to start with a fair representation of the issues, values and interests that can influence the research outcomes. It also identifies critical gaps as our case study below illustrates. Continue reading