Transdisciplinary action research: A guiding framework for collaboration

By Steven Lam, Michelle Thompson, Kathleen Johnson, Cameron Fioret and Sarah Hargreaves

author-steven-lam
Steven Lam (biography)

How can graduate students work productively with each other and community partners? Many researchers and practitioners are engaging in transdisciplinarity, yet there is surprisingly little critical reflection about the processes and outcomes of transdisciplinarity, particularly from the perspectives of graduate students and community partners who are increasingly involved.

author-michelle-thompson
Michelle Thompson (biography)

Our group of four graduate students from the University of Guelph and one community partner from the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, reflect on our experiences of working together toward community food security in Canada, especially producing a guidebook for farmer-led research (Fioret et al. 2018). As none of us had previously worked together, nor shared any disciplines in common, we found it essential to first develop a guiding framework for collaboration. Our thinking combined the following key principles from action research and transdisciplinarity:

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Kathleen Johnson (biography)
  • reflexivity,
  • participation and partnership,
  • methods and process, and
  • integration.

Reflexivity

Reflexivity was designed to support the on-going scrutiny of the choices made during the research process; this occurred in the form of reflexive journaling and weekly meetings for collective reflection and sense-making. The self-reflections helped ensure that our goals, needs and expectations were met through the decisions made.

author-cameron-fioret
Cameron Fioret (biography)

Participation and partnership plus methods and processes

Partnership and participation refer to the quality of the relationship formed with stakeholders and the extent to which stakeholders are appropriately involved in the project. Methods and processes refer to the extent to which the action research process and related methods are clearly articulated and illustrated.

author-sarah-hargreaves
Sarah Hargreaves (biography)

In practice, we found that these two principles were inseparable. Because we four students didn’t know each other before this project started, we invested the first two-months of the project in relationship building, attending workshops and meeting weekly to talk about motivations, previous experiences and expectations for the project. It was not until after that process that the collaboration with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario started. That involved similar conversations around expectations and priorities, as well as new conversations around community needs and potential solutions. By month four, a clear workplan was co-designed.

The last four months of the project focused on co-developing the farmer-led research guidebook. Roles and responsibilities based on our strengths and interests were assigned. The students contributed to data collection and analysis, while the community partner shared local knowledge, relevant reports and a guidebook outline, as well as connecting the students with farmers and other farmer-led organizations. Co-authorship was achieved through all of us contributing equally to the conceptualization, writing and dissemination of the guidebook.

Integration
Sharing responsibility for the project design, implementation and outcomes created strong avenues for partnership, participation, and knowledge integration within different aspects of the project. In particular, we experienced strong collaboration in the joint designing of the project, its methods, technical content and delegation of tasks. Since the project dealt with the need for supporting farmers in research, the community partner (as a farmer herself) was more familiar with the problem context and the actors involved than the students. Her expertise was helpful in framing the report in a way that is useful, relevant and accessible to farmers and farmer-led organizations. The guidebook is considered to be a success and an important document.

Nevertheless, most of us expressed frustration with different aspects of co-generating the farmer-led research guidebook and our expectations for integration were not entirely met. For example, Steven felt uncertain about “the relevant tools or paradigms from different disciplines and how to integrate them to address a shared problem in the context of food security.”

Conclusion
Based on our reflections, we note that the success of this joint inquiry depended on certain conditions, such as individual team member’s reflexive ability, sense of mutual responsibility, humility and deep respect for one another. Furthermore, the time invested in dynamic weekly exchanges between students and community partners was essential to build relationships and led to an enhanced understanding of community partner needs and solutions. Early delegation of roles and tasks led to high levels of efficiency and prevented the risk of one perspective taking over the research process. Finally, we found early efforts of “opening communicative space” to be helpful, whereby issues were opened up for discussion, experiences were shared and we all strived toward “mutual understanding, intersubjective agreement and unforced consensus about what to do in any given practical situation.”

Overall the framework helped us, to a ‘good enough’ extent, integrate our work which led to the co-publication of the Farmer-led Research Guidebook.

For us, engaging in reflection has made a substantial difference in the quality of our work. If you have worked in transdisciplinary teams, especially as (or with) graduate students, what framework or guiding principles did you follow? What did you achieve and what felt missing?

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(photo credit: Kelly Hodgins)

To find out more:
Lam, S., Thompson, M., Johnston, K., Fioret, C. and Hargreaves, S. K. (2019). Toward community food security through transdisciplinary action research. Action Research (OnlineFirst, Open Access): https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1476750319889390

Reference:
Fioret, C., Johnston, K., Lam, S., Thompson, M. and Hargreaves, S. (2018). Towards farmer-led research: A guidebook. Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario: Guelph, Canada.

Biography: Steven Lam is a PhD student in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph in Canada. His research focuses on how evaluation can better support efforts toward food security, climate change adaptation and gender equity. He also works as an independent evaluation consultant.

Biography: Michelle Thompson is a PhD student in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph in Canada. She is currently researching endophytes (beneficial microbes) in corn that provide a natural immune system-like defense against disease.

Biography: Kathleen Johnson is a Master of Applied Science student in the School of Engineering at the University of Guelph in Canada. Her research is conducted through the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research and focuses on understanding the flow and fate of contaminants in the fractured bedrock aquifer beneath the city of Guelph.

Biography: Cameron Fioret is a PhD student in the Philosophy Department at the University of Guelph in Canada. His research focuses on property, political philosophy and environmental philosophy.

Biography: Sarah Hargreaves PhD is currently research director with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO), where she launched Canada’s first Farmer-Led Research Program to help farmers combine their curiosity with scientific rigour to answer their most challenging on-farm questions.

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author-catherine-lyall
Catherine Lyall (biography)

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Author - David McDonald
David McDonald (biography)

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Author - Rachel Kelly
Rachel Kelly (biography)

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Helen Percy (biography)

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James Turner (biography)

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Bruce Currie-Alder (biography)

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