Three types of knowledge

By Tobias Buser and Flurina Schneider

1. Tobias Buser (biography)
2. Flurina Schneider (biography)

When addressing societal challenges, how can researchers orient their thinking to produce not only knowledge on problems, but also knowledge that helps to overcome those problems?

The concept of ‘three types of knowledge’ is helpful for structuring project goals, formulating research questions and developing action plans. The concept first appeared in the 1990s and has developed into a core underpinning of transdisciplinary research.

The three types of knowledge, illustrated in the first figure below, are:

1. Systems knowledge, which is usually defined as knowledge about the current system or problem situation. It is mainly analytical and descriptive. For example, if you think of water scarcity, systems knowledge refers to producing a holistic understanding of the relevant socio-ecological system, including aspects like water availability, water uses, water management, justice questions, and their interrelations.

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Researcher activism: A voice of experience

By Dorothy Broom

Dorothy Broom (biography)

In reflecting on my researcher-activist role in women’s health, I’ve come up with six tips that may provide guidance to those embarking on such a role. The lessons I draw can also be relevant in other fields of endeavour, in population health, environmental research and beyond.

Tip 1: Build your legitimacy with those you are aiming to influence and those you are advocating for

My academic research in the 1980s and 90s on the politics of women’s health was distinct from my feminist political activism. Prompted by intellectual curiosity, I developed a research profile that fortuitously prepared me to take on an advocacy role at a time of major policy foment.

My publications and conference presentations gave me legitimacy with public servants charged with policy and program development; while my personal involvement in feminist social action gave me a different kind of credibility with social-movement actors.

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Decentering academia through critical unlearning in transdisciplinary knowledge production / Descentralizando la academia a través del des- aprendizaje crítico en la producción de conocimiento transdiciplinario

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

Gabriela Alonso-Yanez (biography)

A Spanish version of this post is available

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?

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.

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Structure matters: Real-world laboratories as a new type of large-scale research infrastructure

By Franziska Stelzer, Uwe Schneidewind, Karoline Augenstein and Matthias Wanner

What are real-world laboratories? How can we best grasp their transformative potential and their relationship to transdisciplinary projects and processes? Real-world laboratories are about more than knowledge integration and temporary interventions. They establish spaces for transformation and reflexive learning and are therefore best thought of as large-scale research infrastructure. How can we best get a handle on the structural dimensions of real-word laboratories?

What are real-world laboratories?

Real-world laboratories are a targeted set-up of a research “infrastructure“ or a “space“ in which scientific actors and actors from civil society cooperate in the joint production of knowledge in order to support a more sustainable development of society.

Although such a laboratory establishes a structure, most discussions about real-world laboratories focus on processes of co-design, co-production and co-evaluation of knowledge, as shown in the figure below. Surprisingly, the structural dimension has received little attention in the growing field of literature.

Overcoming structure as the blind spot

We want to raise awareness of the importance of the structural dimension of real-world laboratories, including physical infrastructure as well as interpretative schemes or social norms, as also shown in the figure below. A real-world laboratory can be understood as a structure for nurturing niche development, or a space for experimentation that interacts (and aims at changing) structural conditions at the regime level.

Apart from this theoretical perspective, we want to add a concrete “infrastructural” perspective, as well as a reflexive note on the role of science and researchers. Giddens’ use of the term ‘structure’ helps to emphasize that scientific activity is always based on rules (eg., rules of proper research and use of methods in different disciplines) and resources (eg., funding, laboratories, libraries).

The two key challenges of real-world laboratories are that:

  1. both scientists and civil society actors are involved in the process of knowledge production; and,
  2. knowledge production takes place in real-world environments instead of scientific laboratories.
Franziska Stelzer (biography)


Uwe Schneidewind (biography)


Karoline Augenstein (biography)


Matthias Wanner (biography)


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Lessons from “real-world laboratories” about transdisciplinary projects, transformative research and participation

By Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila

Antonietta Di Giulio (biography)
Rico Defila (biography)

In Germany there has recently been a heated debate about the need for, and the justification of, so-called “transformative research”. At the same time, German funders are increasingly supporting research in “real-world laboratories” and these explicitly aim to bring about social change. We lead an accompanying research project (“Begleitforschung” in German) in a real-world laboratory program of research in Baden-Württemberg (see Schäpke et al., (2015) for more information). This has led us to reflect upon the relationship between transdisciplinary research and transformative research, and how this impacts on how we think about participation in research. We share some preliminary ideas here.

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

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.

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Co-producing research: Why we need to say what we mean, mean what we say, and learn as we go

By Bev J. Holmes

Bev J. Holmes (biography)

The co-production or co-creation of research is not new – action based research traditions can lay claim to a long history, but are those of us involved in co-production doing enough to understand what it means?

In their work on public involvement, Antoine Boivin and colleagues (2014) note there is such widespread support for the rhetoric of co-production that we may dismiss (I would add not even acknowledge) the tensions that arise when professionals and lay people work together. Co-production in health research is similar. We need to work harder to say what we mean, mean what we say, and learn as we go.

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Making sense of wicked problems

By Bethany Laursen

Bethany Laursen (biography)

How do we know when we have good answers to research questions, especially about wicked problems?

Simply and profoundly, we seek answers that make good sense. Every formal method, framework, or theory exists, in the end, to help us gain insight into a mystery. When researching wicked problems, choosing methods, frameworks, and theories should not be guided by tradition or disciplinary standards. Instead, our design choices need to consider more fundamental justifications that cut across disciplinary boundaries. A fundamental criterion for good research is that it makes good sense. By making this criterion our “true North” in wicked problems research, we can more easily find and justify integrating disciplinary (or cultural, or professional) perspectives that apply to a particular problem.

So, how do we make good sense in wicked problems scholarship?

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