Is it legitimate for transdisciplinary research to set out to change society?

Community member post by Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila

Antonietta Di Giulio (biography)
Rico Defila (biography)

An unspoken and unchallenged assumption underpinning much discourse about transdisciplinary research is that it must change society.

The assumption goes beyond whether research should contribute to change, or whether research impacts developments in society, or whether research should investigate societal problems and provide solutions, or anything similar – it is that research should actively and intentionally be transformative. This generally goes hand-in-hand with a deep conviction that researchers are entitled to actually change society according to what they believe to be right. For many this conviction allows researchers to impose their interventions and solutions on other societal actors by, if necessary, being manipulative.

We argue that such a ‘right to transform society’ does not exist, because researchers are not politically mandated and legitimised to do that. Furthermore, if such a right existed it would apply to every researcher and not only to the ‘good guys’. It could not be allowed for some and refused to others.

At the same time, we acknowledge that transdisciplinary research most often is conducted and funded to solve societal problems. How, then, should we conceptualize the relationship between transdisciplinary research and societal transformation?

Our earlier blog post explored how the definition of participants impacts the framing of the relationship between transdisciplinary projects and societal change. We argued that the primary goal of transdisciplinary research is the production of new knowledge (for academic and non-academic audiences) and that participants should be referred to as “non-certified experts”.

But this is only part of the story: Transdisciplinary research investigating societal problems wants, of course, to contribute to social change. Therefore, we have to find a way to capture the relationship between transdisciplinary research and social change based on the assumption that the primary goal of such research is the production of new knowledge.

In looking for an appropriate approach we ended up in the field of scientific policy advice. Here the question of how to relate research to social change and of how to optimize the societal impact of research are crucial issues.

Key concepts

There are two sets of findings in the field of policy advice that we found to be promising points of departure.

First, in the process of socio-political decision-making, academia is only one of the actors. In the Roberts (2011) “Policy Wheel”, academia belongs to what he calls “secondary influencers”. Academia competes with other actors. It is neither more nor less legitimised to influence decision-making than any other actor. Academic actors distinguish themselves by a “cognitive authority” giving them a special discursive power. This power accrues from the trustworthiness and impartiality of the knowledge they provide. This in turn is safeguarded by specific processes aimed at securing the scientific quality of the knowledge produced. Providing scientifically valid knowledge is the unique feature offered by academia, and preserving this feature is indispensable to maintaining its specific power. Consequently, although it is permeable, the boundary between academia and politics should not be blurred, but maintained.

Second, whether scientific knowledge impacts socio-political decision-making depends on three decisive attributes of this knowledge (Cash et al., 2003):

  • “Salience” (practical legitimacy): The relevance to the needs of decision makers.
  • “Credibility” (scientific legitimacy): The scientific adequacy of the evidence and arguments.
  • “Legitimacy” (political legitimacy): The perception that the production of the knowledge has been respectful of stakeholders’ divergent values and beliefs, unbiased in its conduct, and fair in its treatment of opposing views and interests.

Political legitimacy, practical legitimacy, and scientific legitimacy are tightly coupled. That is, efforts to enhance one of them normally incur a cost to the others. In other words, they have to be clearly distinguished and carefully balanced. Participation serves both practical legitimacy and political legitimacy. Hence, participation serves two different goals, each with different criteria of how to identify those that should participate (ie., those with practical needs or those with socio-political interests).

How do we transfer these concepts to transdisciplinary research?

If transdisciplinarity is understood to be research first and foremost, participation is primarily about scientific legitimacy and not about political and practical legitimacy. Accordingly, expertise is the number one criterion to apply in identifying the ‘non-researchers’ who should be invited to participate.

Nevertheless, the importance of both political and practical legitimacy should not be neglected if a project is to have the potential to actually impact societal development.

Even so, all three goals of participation serve to attain and improve attributes of knowledge – they do not endow a research-oriented project with the right to transform society. This does not necessarily impair a project’s societal impact. On the contrary: refraining from claiming a special transformative role and from socio-political engineering of social change might enhance the actual societal impact of a transdisciplinary project.

In our next blog post (to be published next Thursday, March 22) we will address transformative transdisciplinary research. In the meantime: What do you think about the relationship between transdisciplinary research and social change?

Cash D. W., Clark, W. C., Alcock, F., Dickson, N. M., Eckley, N., Guston, D. H., Jäger, J. and Mitchell, R. B. (2003). Knowledge systems for sustainable development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the Untied States of America, 100, 14: 8086-8091.

Roberts L. (2011). Engaging with policy-makers: Influencing sustainability policy through academic research. In, A. Franklin and P. Blyton (eds.), Researching Sustainability: A Guide to Social Science Methods, Practice and Engagement. Earthscan: London, New York: 242-259.

Biography: Antonietta Di Giulio PhD is leader of the Research Group Inter-/Transdisciplinarity and senior researcher at the Program Man-Society-Environment (MGU), Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Basel, Switzerland. Her areas of interest in inter-/transdisciplinarity are in theory of inter- and transdisciplinary research and teaching, methodology, knowledge integration and evaluation.

Biography: Rico Defila is deputy leader of the Research Group Inter-/Transdisciplinarity and senior researcher at the Program Man-Society-Environment (MGU), Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Basel, Switzerland. His areas of interest in inter-/transdisciplinarity are in theory of inter- and transdisciplinary research and teaching, methodology, knowledge integration and evaluation.

This blog post is based on a paper presented by the authors at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017 at Leuphana University, Luneburg, Germany in September 2017.

Using the concept of risk for transdisciplinary assessment

Community member post by Greg Schreiner

Greg Schreiner (biography)

Global development aspirations, such as those endorsed within the Sustainable Development Goals, are complex. Sometimes the science is contested, the values are divergent, and the solutions are unclear. How can researchers help stakeholders and policy-makers use credible knowledge for decision-making, which accounts for the full range of trade-off implications?

‘Assessments’ are now commonly used. Following their formal adoption by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in the early 1990s, they have been used at the science-society-policy interface to tackle global questions relating to biodiversity and ecosystems services, human well-being, ozone depletion, water management, agricultural production, and many more. Continue reading

Advocate or Honest Broker?

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

To mark the first anniversary of the Integration and Implementation Insights blog, we launch an occasional series of “synthesis blog posts” drawing insights across blog posts on related topics.

What is our social obligation as researchers to see our findings implemented? And how should we do it? When is it appropriate to advocate loudly to drive change? When should we focus on informing decision makers, stepping back ourselves from direct action? How can we know that our research is ‘good enough’ to act on and not compromised by our own values, interests, cognitive biases and blind spots? Continue reading

Should water scientists be advocates?

Community member post by Patricia Gober

Patricia Gober (biography)

Efforts to improve the use of models to support policy and practice on water resources issues have increased awareness of the role of advocacy and public engagement in the modeling process. Hydrologists have much to learn from the recent experience of climate scientists who have discovered that scientific knowledge is not independent of the political context in which it is used but rather is co-produced by scientists and society.

Despite a strong consensus among climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2013 report that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” approximately one-third of the USA’s population still does not believe that global temperatures have risen over the past 100 years and does not trust the things that scientists say about the environment. Continue reading

Should researchers be honest brokers or advocates?

Community member post by John Callewaert

John Callewaert (biography)

When to advocate and when to be an honest broker is a question that deserves serious attention by those working on collaborative and engaged research initiatives. In my role as the Integrated Assessment director at the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute I facilitate a wide array of collaborative research efforts. For most of our initiatives we strive to work within an honest broker frame. Following the work of Pielke (2007), the honest broker engages in decision-making by clarifying and sometimes expanding the scope of choice to decision-makers. Our recent analysis of options for High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing in Michigan[1] (fracking) and outlining sustainability goals for our Ann Arbor campus[2] are two examples which involved teams of faculty, students, practitioners and decision-makers.

The honest broker approach was particularly important for the project on fracking given the polarized views that can sometimes be associated with this topic. Continue reading