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.

Five principles of holistic science communication

Community member post by Suzi Spitzer

Suzi Spitzer (biography)

How can we effectively engage in the practice and art of science communication to increase both public understanding and public impact of our science? Here I present five principles based on what I learned at the Science of Science Communication III Sackler Colloquium at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC in November 2017.

1. Assemble a diverse and interdisciplinary team

  1. Scientists should recognize that while they may be an expert on a particular facet of a complex problem, they may not be qualified to serve as an expert on all aspects of the problem. Therefore, scientists and communicators should collaborate to form interdisciplinary scientific teams to best address complex issues.
  2. Science is like any other good or service—it must be strategically communicated if we want members of the public to accept, use, or support it in their daily lives. Thus, research scientists need to partner with content creators and practitioners in order to effectively share and “sell” scientific results.
  3. Collaboration often improves decision making and problem solving processes. People have diverse cognitive models that affect the way each of us sees the world and how we understand or resolve problems. Adequate “thought world diversity” can help teams create and communicate science that is more creative, representative of a wider population, and more broadly applicable.

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Ten steps to make your research more relevant

Community member post by Christian Pohl, Pius Krütli and Michael Stauffacher

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research often aims at broader impact in society. But, how can you make such impact happen?

A researcher might face a number of questions (s)he was not necessarily trained to address, such as:

  • How can I be sure that my research question will provide knowledge relevant for society?
  • Who in this fuzzy thing called society are my primary target audiences anyway?
  • Are some of them more important for my project than others?

Over the last several years, we developed 10 steps to provide a structured way of thinking through how to improve the societal relevance of a research project, as summarised in the table below.

When working with researchers to plan their impact, we usually go through the 10 steps in a workshop format, as follows:

  • Before each step we provide a brief account of the underlying theory and clarify why the step matters.
  • Then we ask the researchers to complete a concrete task, reflecting on their own project
  • Researchers usually also discuss their reflections with each other and learn about different approaches to address societal relevance.
  • They also discuss the tasks with us, but we are not necessarily the ones who know the right answers.

The ten steps work best in a context where a research project leader, for example, provides detailed project knowledge and the whole group is interested in discussing the societal impact of research.

In our experience, the ten steps trigger reflection on one’s own research and allow for fruitful coproduction of knowledge in the project team on how to improve the societal relevance of projects.

What techniques have you used to plan, and reflect on, making your research socially relevant?

Christian Pohl (biography)

Pius Krütli (biography)

Michael Stauffacher (biography)

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Four questions to guide arts-based knowledge translation

Community member post by Tiina Kukkonen and Amanda Cooper

Tiina Kukkonen (biography)

Arts-based knowledge translation refers to the process of using artistic approaches to communicate research findings to target audiences. Arts-based knowledge translation continues to grow in popularity among researchers and knowledge mobilisers, particularly in the health sector, because of its capacity to reach and engage diverse audiences through the arts. But how might researchers, with or without experience in the arts, actually go about planning and implementing arts-based knowledge translation? Continue reading

Two lessons for early involvement of stakeholders in research

Community member post by Obasanjo Oyedele, Martin Atela and Ayo Ojebode

Obasanjo Oyedele (biography)

A fundamental principle for conducting research that is easily put to use by stakeholders is to involve them in the research process as early as possible. But how can the inertia and lack of interest that stakeholders often have at this stage be overcome?

We provide two lessons from our experience of involving stakeholders as early as the research launch. Continue reading

Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure

Community member post by Andrew Campbell

Andrew Campbell (biography)

When we think of research infrastructure, it is easy to associate astronomers with telescopes, oceanographers with research vessels and physicists with particle accelerators.

But what sort of research infrastructure (if any) do we need in order to do more effective multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research on big, complex, ‘wicked’ challenges like climate change or food security?

Some eminent colleagues and I argue in a new paper (Baron et al., 2017) that the answers include: Continue reading