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.

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Community member post by Greg Schreiner

Greg Schreiner (biography)

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Community member post by Ioan Fazey

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Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

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

Obasanjo Oyedele (biography)

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Let’s stop measuring and start improving

Community member post by Louise Locock

Louise Locock (biography)

When we’re trying to improve the experience of health care, social care and other services users, is there a fast, rigorous way to include their perspectives that doesn’t involve repeatedly collecting new data from them and their families?

Measuring, understanding and improving people’s experience of services has become a priority. There is now an international focus (at least in the West) on person-centred care. The English National Health Service has led the way among health systems by introducing the first nationally mandated patient survey.

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