Towards transdisciplinarity – which route to take?

By Michel Wahome, Jeremy Hills and Elisa Morgera

In recent years, “bringing together the right kind of available knowledge with the necessary and practical know-how in view of solving a concrete problem” (p 1) [1] has enjoyed immense popularity in research and development funding regimes[2]. The Hubs are an experiment. All the GCRF Hubs represent a test of the hypothesis that intractable problems can be resolved by combining varied, relevant expertise (see Fig 1).

Figure 1: Obtained from GCRF Evaluation Foundation report

In pursuit of its goals for sustainable ocean governance, the One Ocean Hub has espoused a commitment to go beyond interdisciplinarity and take a transdisciplinary approach. Transdisciplinarity is often seen as a means for developing holistic, human-centred solutions (see Fig. 2). There are case studies on its value for sustainability[3], technology production[4], neuroscience[5], and small scale fisheries governance[6].

Figure 2: A way of conceiving of transdisciplinary research

Ideally, this blog will be the first in a series of call and response dialogues on transdisciplinarity that not only make a case for experimenting with it, but that also point to how it can be achieved. A recent, vibrant email exchange on the topic of transdisciplinarity between Hub researchers, Jeremy Hills, Elisa Morgera and Michel Wahome, raised several points which are captured in this blog post and which Michel reflects on in her role of Responsible Research and Innovation Fellow of the Hub. The dialogue captured here suggests that moving from implicit to explicit and finally, shared expectations about what transdisciplinarity should entail, is a good first step in implementing the approach.

What is transdisciplinarity?

That several papers have been published on the taxonomy of transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research is an indicator that the answer to this question is not straightforward[7]. In our email dialogue, Elisa took the view that in the pantheon of projects that might view themselves as interdisciplinary; many fail to achieve disciplinary integration in a manner that fits the her view of interdisciplinary research:

While there is a lot of self-declared inter-disciplinary projects, the reality they are really just multi-disciplinary projects- different disciplines provide insights that are juxtaposed and combined, but the disciplines themselves and their findings are not integrated (and through that, they do not critically challenge one another with a view to arriving at more transformative findings).

For a deeper dive into Elisa’s perspective on interdisciplinarity as a continuum, based on an earlier research project funded by the European Research Council, follow this link.

Characterisations of research that cuts across disciplines often include an element of integration[8] and alchemy where a variety of knowledges are transmuted into a singular but unique knowledge form that is greater than the sum of its parts[9]. The sense is that researchers have transcended their disciplines and created a novel discipline where any potential hierarchies have been resolved, or at least shelved is key to this perspective. This is what Max-Neef might call strong transdisciplinarity[10]. In the context of the Hub where the goal is to solve a complex development challenge, and as decolonial scholar, I am drawn to thinking about transdisciplinarity as an approach to knowledge production that includes non-academic expertise in problem-solving[11]. The Neuro School at Aarhus, on the other hand, views transdisciplinarity as means of creating a new discipline. I would consider this view to be a commendable interdisciplinary outcome, but not a transdisciplinary one—because they have not gone beyond academia to include other ways of knowing[12]. Perhaps what I am aspiring to is better labelled as trans-academic.

Equally importantly, rather than a focus on the aftermath, I am drawn to evaluating a transdisciplinary experiment according to how it begins. Who is present at the research design stage (or when the problem is identified)? It is also not only important that people have a seat at the table, the level of their input is also important in determining whether transdisciplinary research is occurring, and how the collaborations unfold from one moment to the next matters too.  Appropriate setting of the transdisciplinary research question is a prerequisite, although transdisciplinarity never stops. In the email exchange I note:

The transdisciplinary approach is one that requires us to be fully intentional as it is unlikely to happen spontaneously. How do we actively work to achieve these aims, is the ongoing question. […] ensuring that they [participants] contribute substantively requires engaging them at the earliest opportunity so that they can inform the research questions, and not only the answers.

Hub researchers collaborating on goals
Photo: One Ocean Hub

Can interdisciplinarity be a staging post from where we incrementally move towards transdisciplinarity?

In the course of our exchange, Jeremy noted that my current thinking on transdisciplinarity seemed to convey it as a next step, after interdisciplinarity:

It is also interesting (very risk averse?) the incrementalism model for transdisciplinary approaches you condone, with interdisciplinarity a staging post on the way to transdisciplinary approaches. For me, interdisciplinary approaches are proven and widespread – if you get lots of scientists from different disciplines together working on common issues and bung in some millions it will happen in various ways. There is value in that in understanding the lessons and finding more effective ways to do that better in the future. But that is a whole more traditional terrain to be working in….and evidence for creeping incrementalism is not strong…and the Ocean gets less unstainable by the day… For me the incrementalist model has not proven effective and so I frame the Hub challenge more of a Kuhnian paradigm shift.

This response was correct about my being conservative with respect to my expectations about whether the Hub (as a whole) will be able to claim that it had engaged in transdisciplinarity research. The Hub represents a variety of different ongoing and emergent experiments, therefore I do believe that there are opportunities to engage in transdisciplinarity at many levels. However, I am still conservative in my expectations due to time constraints and existing path dependencies. (See this to paper from Elisa’s previous project that raises the issue of timelines set by funders). This of course, is based on my perspective of transdisciplinary research as requiring the inclusion of non-academic experts from the outset. Arenas within the Hub that could take a more sedate and deliberative approach to research design because of the nature of the research have the opportunity to include experts both near and far. Having to book a deep-sea research ship two years in advance does not lend itself to long, iterative consultations. Whereas Hub researchers working on the customary law and/or on fisheries science are not only required to consult but have much more leeway with respect to time pressures. Distance, both geographic and relational become more significant when there are time constrains. Proximity allows considerable possibility for extensive pre-engagement and refinement of the research questions prior to actual implementation, even if such opportunities are not taken. I also do harbour the assumption that perhaps in the future researchers would naturally gravitate to transdisciplinary research after having forged relationships with non-academic project partners. In that case, I do think that interdisciplinarity does often precede transdisciplinarity.

Defining transdisciplinary research as a process of transcending one’s research and collaborative integration of other approaches, seemed to agree with me but because of a different point made by Elisa:

Seems to me that inter-disciplinarity is essential to properly scaffold trans-disciplinarity – without genuinely integrating the social sciences, how can we work respectfully, robustly and responsibly with non-academic partners, notably those that have been marginalised? I (and many others at the inception workshops) have genuine concerns that without building on the research insights, ethics and methods from the social sciences, researchers may not be sufficiently prepared to engage in transdisciplinarity and could inadvertently contribute to negative impacts on our non-academic partners.

This is a perspective on interdisciplinarity as scaffolding that is not based on my own pragmatic calculations about time and capacity constraints. Instead, it makes the argument that a preliminary step for ‘trans-academic’ research is inter-disciplinary engagement where researchers whose disciplines prime them for research across different knowledge areas can share their methodologies with those who have not received this particular training.

Indeed, some social science disciplines like anthropology and sociology have historically had a methodological mandate to engage in constant self-reflection about one’s position, standpoint and identity, particularly in relationship to their research subjects and the conclusions one is drawing in their research[13]. Unlike the physical sciences, some social sciences do not take their objectivity for granted—in fact, they argue that all researchers are subjective. The assumption is that this habit of examining power dynamics, one’s position and context-specific needs leads to the production of ethical and, transdisciplinary research. This has not always been the history of these disciplines, and every so often there is evidence that they are still grappling with notions of hierarchy in terms of developed-developing country knowledge production[14][15][16][17][18].

We should also note that for those who are not bound to these perspectives and approaches by discipline, they tend to become important as a result of the individual choice. While no researcher can be required to take on another discipline’s priorities[19], physicist and astronomer Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, for example, is also known for her work on intersectional feminism. She developed expertise in this field in order to analyse her experience as a black woman in a predominantly white, male field[20]. In this way, she embodies interdisciplinarity. We can speculate that this is also what has led her to engage in transdisciplinary research with Native Hawaiians and to bridge a contestation that emerges from the location of numerous astronomical observatories on Maunakea[21]. The reasons to seek out other ways of interpreting the world do not have to be this personal, but they are ultimately a matter of individual choice—even if the choice is incentivised by funding regimes.

While noting the use of interdisciplinary as scaffolding for future emergent transdisciplinarity, Jeremy retorted that for the Hub the transdisciplinary approach was not just of research relevance but of purposeful intent:

I can see the argument and logic of inter-scaffolding leading to transdisciplinarity. […] However, we are using research as a tool for development outcomes – this is a much more purposeful pursuit where we have Hub beneficiary impacts to deliver and urgency in contributing to the ocean’s health which we are addressing. With this lens of purposeful transdisciplinarity to solve intractable challenges we have a more process-orientated focus – to me this seems less about just moulding the disciplines together. […] Discipline-based information can flow into this – but it is about the setting out the mixing pot of this process of co-joining. So part of the focus is not introspection on the disciplines themselves but on the arena in which purposeful transdisciplinarity plays out – for example ensuring objective leadership for synthesis management of ideas (can we produce guidelines for this? See list on p10 of attached paper in Journal of Creativity and Business Innovation which I quite like).[22]

The context in which we in the Hub are undertaking transdisciplinary research does indeed shape how it will unfold. Indeed, it is important not to inadvertently reinforce the social science versus natural science dichotomies that we intend to eliminate. The goal ultimately is not to reverse any disciplinary hierarchies, but to eliminate them altogether. Transdisciplinary efforts likely have the best outcomes (in utopias) where knowledge hierarchies do not exist.

Hub researchers collaborating on goals
Photo: One Ocean Hub


Our conversation allowed us to understand further the underlying standpoints driving our interpretations of transdisciplinarity, and our views on the feasibility of the approach within the Hub. This was not the end of the conversation, and a follow-up blog will address how we can measure success in transdisciplinary working. Integration of disciplines to form inter-disciplinarity has been slowly evolving over decades. This blog has focussed on how well-founded interdisciplinarity should be considered as a prerequisite to transdisciplinarity. One view is that further honing of interdisciplinarity is necessary prior to transdisciplinary approaches, to avoid reinforcing existing intractable problems or creating new ones. An alternative view is that urgency and development purposefulness tasks us with focussing on the formulation of transdisciplinary arenas in which intractable problems can be addressed.


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