Three tasks for transdisciplinary bridge builders

Community member post by Roderick J. Lawrence

roderick-lawrence
Roderick J. Lawrence (biography)

Human groups and societies have built many kinds of bridges for centuries. Since the 19th century, engineers have designed complex physical structures that were intended to serve one or more purposes in precise situations. In essence, the construction of a bridge is meant to join two places together. What may appear as a mundane functional structure is built only after numerous decisions have been made about its appearance, cost, functions, location and structure. Will a bridge serve only as a link and passage, or will it serve other functions?

In discussing three things the transdisciplinary research community can do to build bridges, I use “building bridges” as a metaphor. I discuss a bridge as a human-made artefact that is attributed meaningful form. It is created intentionally for one or more purposes. I step along a path I sketched in a recent publication (Lawrence, 2017) in order to explain why bridge building is fundamental for transdisciplinary inquiry, and three tasks that are necessary in order to effectively build bridges across academic, institutional and professional divides.

1. Build cultural bridges

The transdisciplinary research community has given little attention to the culture of transdisciplinary inquiry. I am using the world ’culture’ to denote a multi-dimensional (plural) and evolving (change) concept rather than a monolithic and static one. This interpretation of culture enables us to explain why there has been an increasing division and specialization of disciplinary knowledge and professional know-how since the 19th century.

Today, for example, the word ‘environment’ (which only came into public use from about 1970), has been attributed different meanings by biologists, chemists and geologists, as well as anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists. Beyond these discipline-based groups, there are other trades and professional groups as well as policy decision makers who have specific interpretations too.

This example shows that there are no longer “two cultures” as C.P. Snow (1961) claimed, but multiple cultures, sub-cultures and micro-cultures, in a broad field concerned about the environment. Consequently, a fundamental task for the transdisciplinary research community is to develop capabilities and skills to build cultural bridges, and especially conceptual and linguistic bridges, between key concepts and their meanings used during specific projects. This is not a simple task.

The diversity of coexisting cultures today is only one reason why a trans-anthropo-logic of transdisciplinarity requires a commitment by funders and researchers for more in-depth research. In order to respond effectively to this challenge, a major shift is required from inward looking perspectives common to disciplinary-based education, training and research, to outward looking perspectives with vision beyond disciplinary divides. Today, beyond the walls of universities and professional institutions, there are a growing number of international organizations and foundations that support knowledge networks founded on such outward looking perspectives.

2. Use dialogue and negotiation to build bridges

A second task for the transdisciplinary research community stems from a commitment to the co-definition of the purpose of the bridge. It is worth emphasizing again here that the bridge is not a physical structure, but a cultural artefact with meanings, uses and values. Participants in transdisciplinary projects need to agree on the shared concepts, data, definitions, information, meanings, rules and methods that will be used. Dialogue and negotiation are the means for the construction of a bridge across common divides. These processes can bring together academic and non-academic actors and institutions to tackle real-world concerns and situations that may require change. Building bridges across conceptual divides, institutional borders and social barriers takes time rarely allocated sufficiently in project proposals.

3. Use the bridge to challenge perceptions

The third task is to creatively use the bridge not just as a passage but as an artefact that can challenge the way the transdisciplinary research community and others perceive and interpret real world situations that require some kind of intervention for the common good, especially:

  • to challenge our thinking in terms of dichotomous categories (eg., either disciplinary or interdisciplinary);
  • to replace reductionist and normative interpretations of the challenges we face in the world today by admitting diversity, complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability; and,
  • to remember that the bridge we have co-created expresses the way we act, perhaps not just during a research project but during our daily lives.

In essence, the way we think will influence our decisions about the purposes of building bridges, or whether we construct a bridge at all! Are you a transdisciplinary bridge builder? If so what do you think the next steps should be to bridge over academic, institutional and professional divides? Do you know of positive bridge building by the transdisciplinary research community?

To find out more:
Lawrence, R. (2017). A trans-anthropo-logic of transdisciplinarity. In: D. Fam, J. Palmer, C. Riedy and C. Mitchell (eds.), Transdisciplinary research and practice for sustainability outcomes, Routledge: London, United Kingdom, pp: 253-259.

Reference:
Snow, C. (1961). The two cultures and the scientific revolution: The Rede Lecture, 1959. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, United Kingdom. https://www.routledge.com/Transdisciplinary-Research-and-Practice-for-Sustainability-Outcomes/Fam-Palmer-Mitchell-Riedy/p/book/9781138119703

Biography: Roderick Lawrence is Honorary Professor at the Geneva School of Social Sciences, in Switzerland, Honorary Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture and the Built Environment, University of Adelaide, Australia, and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Environment and Development (LESTARI) at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, in Malaysia. He is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research at the Swiss Academy of Sciences. His current research is about transdiciplinary planning of the built environment in the context of global, regional and local changes in order to promote and maintain health and well-being of all.

Sharing mental models is critical for interdisciplinary collaboration

Community member post by Jen Badham and Gabriele Bammer

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Jen Badham (biography)

What is a mental model? How do mental models influence interdisciplinary collaboration? What processes can help tease out differences in mental models?

Mental models

Let’s start with mental models. What does the word ‘chair’ mean to you? Do you have an image of a chair, perhaps a wooden chair with four legs and a back, an office chair with wheels, or possibly a comfortable lounge chair from which you watch television? Continue reading

Productive multivocal analysis – Part 2: Achieving epistemological engagement

Community member post by Kristine Lund

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Kristine Lund (biography)

In a previous blog post I described multivocalityie., harnessing multiple voices – in interdisciplinary research and how research I was involved in (Suthers et al., 2013) highlighted pitfalls to be avoided. This blog post examines four ways in which epistemological engagement can be achieved. Two of these are positive and two may have both positive and negative aspects, depending on how the collaboration plays out.

Once a team begins analyzing a shared corpus from different perspectives — in our case, it was a corpus of people solving problems together — it’s the comparison of researchers’ respective analyses that can be a motor for productive epistemological encounters between the researchers. Continue reading

Models as ‘interested amateurs’

Community member post by Pete Barbrook-Johnson

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Pete Barbrook-Johnson (biography)

How can we improve the often poor interaction and lack of genuine discussions between policy makers, experts, and those affected by policy?

As a social scientist who makes and uses models, an idea from Daniel Dennett’s (2013) book ‘Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking’ struck a chord with me. Dennett introduces the idea of using lay audiences to aid and improve understanding between experts. Dennett suggests that including lay audiences (which he calls ‘curious nonexperts’) in discussions can entice experts to err on the side of over-explaining their thoughts and positions. When experts are talking only to other experts, Dennett suggests they under-explain, not wanting to insult others or look stupid by going over basic assumptions. This means they can fail to identify areas of disagreement, or to reach consensus, understanding, or conclusions that may be constructive.

For Dennett, the ‘curious nonexperts’ are undergraduate philosophy students, to be included in debates between professors. For me, the book sparked the idea that models could be ‘curious nonexperts’ in policy debates and processes. I prefer and use the term ‘interested amateurs’ over ‘curious nonexperts’, simply because the word ‘amateur’ seems slightly more insulting towards models! Continue reading

Harnessing analogies for creativity and problem solving

Community member post by Christian Schunn

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Christian Schunn (biography)

What is an analogy? How can analogies be used to work productively across disciplines in teams?

We know from the pioneering work of Kevin Dunbar (1995), in studying molecular biology labs, that analogies were a key factor in why multidisciplinary labs were much more successful than labs composed of many researchers from the same backgrounds. What is it about analogies that assists multi- and interdisciplinary work? Continue reading