Overline: Publication
Headline: “Transdisciplinary research” – what does that mean?

The wicked problems of the Anthropocene present major challenges to traditional scientific methods. Transdisciplinary research is a way to overcome these challenges as it involves both non-academic societal actors and academics from various disciplines. Despite its increasing popularity, the transdisciplinary approach still has not quite caught on everywhere – and it is often misunderstood. A publication from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) summarises definitions and characteristics of transdisciplinary research and outlines an exemplary three-phase model that transdisciplinary teams can use to carry out their research successfully.

Constructive collaboration between science and business can unlock potentials for sustainability transformations that enjoy broad support.
Constructive collaboration between science and business can unlock potentials for sustainability transformations that enjoy broad support. Shutterstock/gerasimov_foto_174

It has been 50 years since the terms “transdisciplinary” and “transdisciplinarity” were introduced to describe a certain kind of research. The long-standing interest in transdisciplinarity from a wide range of perspectives explains why many different definitions and approaches now exist.

To overcome this problem, the IASS team proposes seven key characteristics:

  1. a focus on the theoretical unity of knowledge;
  2. the inclusion of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary academic research;    
  3. the involvement of (non-academic) societal actors as process participants;    
  4. a focus on complex, real-world situations or problems;    
  5. working in a transformative manner;
  6. an orientation toward the common good;    
  7. and reflexivity, which means consciously contemplating the broader context throughout the course of the project.

The phase model of transdisciplinary research

Transdisciplinary research can often be described and carried out according to a three-phase model. The first phase of this model sets the framework for the project. A societal challenge is identified, initially explored to arrive at a basic understanding, and then reframed so that it is of concrete interest to all of the societal and academic actors involved. This process is called “problem transformation”. During this phase the main knowledge gaps are determined and a collaborative research team is formed.

The second phase focuses on developing and applying integrative methods for jointly using and co-generating knowledge. In this phase, it is important to define “who contributes what, supported by which means and to what end”. In the third phase, the co-generated knowledge from the second phase of the project is documented and applied in societal processes. Scientific reintegration occurs mainly through familiar forms, such as scientific publications and presentations, but it can also contribute to the development of new fields of research and even shifts in scientific paradigms.

Integration into societally relevant structures occurs through processes like hearings, political debates, and negotiations, among others. Due to the involvement of societal actors, this application of knowledge often experiences a different degree of legitimacy than the traditional form of primarily one-way transfer of knowledge from science to politics or other societal groups.

In their article on “OneEarth”, the authors give some examples which illustrate approaches to engaging non-academic actors in IASS projects. The DiDaT project (“Digital Data as Subject of Transdisciplinary Processes”), for example, relied on existing process knowledge to integrate academic and non-academic actors.

The key component is process knowledge

The authors emphasise the importance of "process knowledge" and the need to make this knowledge available to non-specialized research communities as a form of guidance. "This knowledge, we also call it ‘process expertise’ or catalytic knowledge, is helpful in the selection of tools, methods and project structures that are suitable for transdisciplinary research," explains lead author Prof. Mark Lawrence. The IASS has conducted its own study on this topic and its findings are outlined in "What expertise is needed to design collaboration?”. This process knowledge plays an important role in transdisciplinary projects, whereas it is less in demand in the larger, traditionally disciplinary and interdisciplinary research landscape.

What is the need for "transdisciplinary" research?

In the context of increasingly complex and interconnected societal and ecological challenges such as climate change, digitalization, and pandemics, a purely linear "if-then"-style of knowledge transfer is no longer useful. In contrast, for decision-making around problems with few ambiguities, such science-based policy advice can be very effective: An example might be the question of the right place for a measuring device to effectively monitor air pollution.

The heightened complexity of contemporary societal challenges is evident in so-called "wicked problems." These problems are not only complex, they also occur unexpectedly, transcend systemic and national boundaries, and are intertwining. As a result, there are no clear-cut solutions to these challenges. Instead, there are diverse ways of dealing with the costs and benefits for the involved actors and populations. Consequently, tackling problems of this kind requires a new approach, which transdisciplinary teams can provide.

Ultimately, we need a better understanding of what transdisciplinarity is, especially among the community of researchers investigating sustainability-related topics. On this, first author Lawrence: “An improved community-wide understanding will become more important in the coming years as many large research funding sources, such as the EU Horizon, 2020 programme, are focusing more on impactful research, and sometimes specifically transdisciplinary research – with the issue of sustainable development playing a key role.”

Mark G. Lawrence, Stephen Williams, Patrizia Nanz, Ortwin Renn: Characteristics, potentials, and challenges of transdisciplinary research, OneEarth One Earth Volume 5, Issue 1, 21 January 2022, Pages 44-61. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2021.12.010