Non-certified experts, stakeholders, practitioners… What participants are called defines transdisciplinarity

Community member post by Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila

Rico Defila (biography)
Antonietta Di Giulio (biography)

In an actor-oriented understanding of transdisciplinary research, there are basically two types of actors: those in the academic system who ensure scientific rigor and who are responsible for project outcomes, usually called ‘researchers’ – and ‘the others’. ‘The others’ lacks precision and even a superficial review of the literature reveals multiple ways of describing them. We highlight a selection of these below (the emphasis in the quotations is ours).

  • “Transdisciplinarity (TD), in turn, is linked with new frameworks for health and wellness that transcend disciplinary and interdisciplinary inputs, involvement of stakeholders outside the academy in team-based research” (Klein 2014: 2).
  • “We conceive transdisciplinarity (…) as a special format of interdisciplinarity, where, in addition to scholars from different academic disciplines, (future) users contribute substantially to the research (…) (future) users are (…) “experience-based experts” (or “non-certified experts”)” (Di Giulio, Defila (2017) and (2015)).
  • “(…) transdisciplinarity is the highest form of integrated project, involving not only multiple disciplines, but also multiple non-academic participants (e.g. land managers, user groups, the general public) in a manner that combines interdisciplinarity with participatory approaches” (Burton et al., 2008: 27).
  • “TdR is characterized by a process of collaboration between scientists and non-scientists on a specific real-world problem” (Walter et al., 2007: 325).
  • “The core idea of transdisciplinarity is different academic disciplines working jointly with practitioners to solve a real-world problem. It can be applied in a great variety of fields” (Klein et al., 2001: 4).
  • “Transdisciplinarity is a reflexive research approach that addresses societal problems by means of interdisciplinary collaboration as well as the collaboration between researchers and extra-scientific actors” (Jahn et al., 2012: 4).
  • “and actors from different scientific disciplines (interdisciplinarity) and from civil society and the private and public sectors (participation) collaborate in the production of (…) knowledge” (Krueger et al., 2016: 371).
  • “Joint problem solving (involving researchers, practitioners, policy makers, stakeholders, social groups, and individual citizens in the design and implementation of research and leading to a solution that is greater than the sum of its parts)” (Martin 2017: 21).
  • “Secondly, the transdisciplinary approach treats ordinary citizens who experience forms of social exclusion as valuable actors and sources for problem identification, analysis and the implementation of negotiated solutions” (Haddock 2013: 427).
  • “By harnessing contributions from each of research experts, laymen and the public, TDR challenges fundamental principles of scientific research” (Rudhumbu et al., 2017: 14) and “Algebraically TDR is defined as interdisciplinary research + interested groups (stakeholder, problem owners) who are involved in all phases of the research process” (ibid., 16).

We argue that this diversity mirrors a heterogeneity of conceptions concerning what transdisciplinarity is ultimately about. And this in turn impacts the criteria for identifying the actors to involve in projects, as well as how the projects’ relationship to societal change is framed.

We provide three examples to demonstrate the point:

Stakeholders” is, broadly speaking, a socio-political term. Defining transdisciplinary research participants as stakeholders suggests that transdisciplinarity is primarily about involving different interest groups. Thus, a transdisciplinary project is at least implicitly perceived to be a socio-political activity integrating different interests. Only those with socio-political interests are eligible to participate.

Practitioners” provides a particular link to the topic investigated in a project. Defining transdisciplinary research participants as practitioners presupposes that the topic investigated relates to a discernible field of praxis and that working in this field makes individuals or organisations eligible to participate in the research.

Non-certified experts” refers to individuals and their expertise in the topic investigated in a project. Defining transdisciplinary research participants as non-certified experts implies that those participating are selected because they have an experience-based expertise complementing the (academically) certified expertise of researchers. Thus, a transdisciplinary project is perceived to be an activity integrating the worldviews, approaches and knowledge of different experts and producing new knowledge.

We adopt the last term. In our conception of transdisciplinarity, the group of people involved in a transdisciplinary project does not, and does not have to, represent society. Nor does it have to represent a specific professional field or an area of practice. It is not about integrating interests but about integrating specialised knowledge.

Further, we conceive transdisciplinarity first and foremost as research and not as a socio-political activity to engineer social change. Its primary goal is to produce new knowledge (answering a scientific or societal question) addressing both academic and non-academic audiences. Actual social change can be a goal of a transdisciplinary project, and the members of a project team might do a lot to achieve it, but it is a subsidiary goal.

What transdisciplinarity is about and the criteria applied to identify those who should participate impact on how the relationship between transdisciplinary projects and societal change is framed. We argue that transdisciplinary projects are not per se entitled to be transformative.

We explore the relationship between transdisciplinary research and social transformation further in two companion blog posts, one on whether it is legitimate for transdisciplinary research to set out to change society and one which will be published on Thursday March 22.

Our message here is not that others should adopt our approach, but that all those speaking and writing about transdisciplinarity should be aware of the underlying implications linked to how they conceptualize participation.

How do you define transdisciplinary research participants and conceptualize participation?

Burton R., Ronningen K. and Wedderburn L. (2008). Conducting integrated research. A critical literature review of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. Report 12/08, Centre for Rural Research, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway.

Defila R.and Di Giulio A. (2015). Integrating knowledge: Challenges raised by the “Inventory of Synthesis”. Futures, 65: 123-135. Online (DOI): 10.1016/j.futures.2014.10.013

Di Giulio A. and Defila R. (2017). Enabling university educators to equip students with inter- and transdisciplinary competencies. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 18, 5: 630-647. Online (DOI): 10.1108/IJSHE-02-2016-0030

Haddock S. V. (2013). Introduction: The pillars of social innovation research and practice. In, F. Moulaert, D. MacCallum, A. Mehmood and A. Hamdouch (eds.), The International Handbook on Social Innovation – Collective Action, Social Learning and Transdisciplinary Research. Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, United Kingdom: 427-429.

Jahn T., Bergmann M. and Keil F. (2012). Transdisciplinarity. Ecological Economics, 79: 1-10.

Klein J., Grossenbacher-Mansuy W., Häberli R., Bill A., Scholz R., Welti M. (Eds.) (2001). Transdisciplinarity: Joint Problem Solving among Science, Technology, and Society. Birkhäuser Verlag: Basel, Germany.

Klein J. (2014). Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity: Keyword meanings for collaboration science and translational medicine. Journal of Translational Medicine & Epidemiology, 2, 2: 1024.

Krueger T., Maynard C., Carr G., Bruns A., Mueller E. N. and Lane S. (2016). A transdisciplinary account of water research. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water3: 369-389. Online (DOI): 10.1002/wat2.1132

Martin V. (2017). Transdisciplinarity Revealed. What Librarians Need to Know. Libraries Unlimited: Santa Barbara, California, United States of America.

Rudhumbu N., Zhou L. and Nhundu K. (2017). Transdisciplinary research in higher education: Towards a paradigm for sustainable development. IOSR Journal of Business and Management, 19, 1: 13-19.

Walter A., Helgenberger S., Wiek A., and Scholz R. (2007). Measuring societal effects of transdisciplinary research projects: Design and application of an evaluation method. Evaluation and Program Planning, 30: 325-338.

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.

Three schools of transformation thinking

Community member post by Uwe Schneidewind and Karoline Augenstein

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.

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

A primer on policy entrepreneurs

Community member post by Jo Luetjens

Jo Luetjens (biography)

In the world of public policy, it is interesting to consider how and why particular policy ideas catch on. What is it that makes some ideas succeed and others fail? By examining the role of policy entrepreneurs we may come closer to an answer. In making policy change happen, what – and who – are policy entrepreneurs? Why are they important? What strategies do they use to effect change? And finally, what are the attributes of a successful policy entrepreneur?

The what

Policy entrepreneurs are energetic people who work with others in and around policymaking venues to promote significant policy change. Continue reading

Three theories to help overcome change resistance in service design implementation

Community member post by Ricardo Martins

Ricardo Martins (biography)

How can service designers improve implementation of their projects and overcome resistance to change?

According to the Service Design Network, “Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service to improve its quality and the interaction between the service provider and its customers. The purpose of service design methodologies is to design according to the needs of customers or participants, so that the service is user-friendly, competitive and relevant.”

Although service designers have hundreds of methods to map the current state of a service, to elicit requirements from stakeholders and to propose new processes for services, they often spend little effort on implementing the ideas they generate. Many service designers ignore the implementation challenges they will face, especially resistance to change. Continue reading

Getting to a shared definition of a “good” solution in collaborative problem-solving

Community member post by Doug Easterling

Doug Easterling (biography)

How can collaborative groups move past their divisions and find solutions that advance their shared notions of what would be good for the community?

Complex problems – such as how to expand access to high-quality health care, how to reduce poverty, how to remedy racial disparities in educational attainment and economic opportunity, and how to promote economic development while at the same time protecting natural resources – can’t be solved with technical remedies or within a narrow mindset. They require the sort of multi-disciplinary, nuanced analysis that can only be achieved by engaging a variety of stakeholders in a co-creative process.

Bringing together stakeholders with diverse perspectives allows for a comprehensive analysis of complex problems, but this also raises the risk of a divisive process. Continue reading