Trandisciplinarity in a messy world

By Joern Fischer

In pursuit of sustainability, many have argued for the need for “transdisciplinary” research. Such research, ideally, is meant to be co-defined, and carried out in close collaboration with stakeholders – who double-act as decision-makers and thus solution-implementers. This solution-orientation defines sustainability science. But in a messy world, does this work?

The more I have thought about this, the more critical I have become of the idea of transdisciplinarity as defined above. At the same time, I don’t believe we ought to throw out the baby with the bath water (such a horrible metaphor!), and I think there are many good things about transdisciplinarity that we ought to keep. So in this post, I want to highlight three problems with an overly rigid type of transdisciplinarity, and then give a short outlook of what I think is worth keeping.

Co-defining problems with stakeholders may mean scratching the surface. Stakeholders are often quite specific in their outlook. By definition, they are interested in a given problem from the perspective of how it affects their stake in it. As a result, many transdisciplinary projects appear to work on extremely tangible, but rather simple problems. Messy problems that cannot be resolved via a simple research process often aren’t even targeted because they are not the problems of choice, of either stakeholders or researchers.

There may be no interested stakeholders. The idea of transdisciplinarity often goes hand in hand with the idea of a “decision-maker”. What if there is not one decision maker, but instead, a complex governance system? Or what if the decision-makers are disinterested in what other stakeholders are interested in – or even work actively against it? Reducing oneself as a scientist to wanting to work with (decision-making) stakeholders means reducing oneself to situations where there are “benevolent dictators”. Where those situations exist, by all means, engaging with these good queens and kings and helping them make good decisions is great. But messy systems with a diversity of conflicting views are much more common. Complex problems, quite possibly, can’t be solved but only navigated (with thanks to Dave Abson for this point!).

Stakeholders may be uninformed about some of the most important problems. Related to the first limitation of only scratching the surface, stakeholders may simply not know about certain problems that scientists do know about. For example, scientists knew about climate change long before stakeholders starting being interested in climate change. Letting stakeholders define problems thus is empowering for them – but it can mean ignoring the fact that scientists do know certain things, very well, and possibly much better than many stakeholders. Especially for problems that are looming on the horizon, it’s entirely possible that you won’t find stakeholders to work with on these problems. Yet, those problems ought to be worked on.

So, with these three problems, what’s worth keeping about transdisciplinarity? I think deep down it’s its “vibe” (has anyone seen “The Castle”? Never mind …) that is worth keeping. Deep down, transdisciplinarity is about respecting non-research stakeholders, respecting their knowledge, engaging with them, and helping them do better through one’s research. It’s this moral basis of transdisciplinarity that I believe we can apply to just about all settings, because it’s grounded in something so deep that it makes sense irrespective of context. For processes of transdisciplinarity, this means they have to be flexible and tailored to a given situation. There’s no right way of doing transdisciplinary science, no right level of transdisciplinarity, and no inherently greater value in co-defining problems with stakeholders. Rather, if the motivation underpinning stakeholder engagement is right, the rest will probably follow.

11 thoughts on “Trandisciplinarity in a messy world

  1. I posted this on LinekedIn as well

    This explains a lot of the difficulty I see in getting those who could benefit from the use of complexity methods to take an interest. Planting their feet firmly on existing structures and taking small steps along well worn tracks is more comfortable than diving into the surf and seeing where the waves will take us.

    Any post that works in The Castle and “the vibe” gets an extra vote. The term is still used in discussions of current affairs in Australia and I suspect that it has taken on meaning even for those who never saw the film.

  2. Pingback: Transdisciplinary research is not a solution to environmental problems | The Solitary Ecologist

  3. I share your scepticism of transdisciplinarity, Joern.

    I started writing a comment, but it got too long so I posted it on my site instead:

    Long story short: I think that transdisciplinary research has problems in addition to the ones you list (i.e. it has changed the way we train students in a negative way and it complicates efforts of identifying environmental priorities).

    Interdisciplinarity is, I believe, a better approach to addressing issues of environmental sustainability.

  4. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Joern.

    As I am trying to take an explicitly transdisciplinary approach in my PhD I am also starting to have my doubts about the practical and ethical realities of implementing ‘such a nice idea’ with such a great ‘vibe’.

    One of my biggest hurdles in trying to be true to transdisciplinary principles (whoever decides what that is…) is that as a PhD student, my final goal is academic novelty and a sound academic contribution. Which, given the three points you make, may not be possible if one is to be ‘truly transdisciplinary’.

    The other difficulty, I have found, is that it is often us as researchers who seek out the stakeholders (to make out research ‘more TD’) and that directional start to the project, in my mind, already makes it tricky to navigate the relationship between oneself and the stakeholders.

    I could go on…anyway, thanks for the food for thought. I agree that the best way forward is to aim for maintaining the vibe!

  5. I almost wholly disagree with some of the underlying assumptions of this post, though I agree “overly rigid” anything is almost always problematic.

    The problems you identify, Joern, strike me as falling into two camps: (1) a symptom of systems not set up for transdisciplinarity (as you define it); and (2) a different issue that arises if one insists on applying transdiscilpinarity to all things all the time.

    In terms of my #(1), two of your points fall into it — co-defining may scratch the surface and stakeholders may not be informed.

    Co-definition usually scratches the surface because almost all transdisciplinary attempts I see these days are relatively young. They do not have long pedigrees either in terms of existing transdisciplinary relationships between the specific researchers and the institutions; nor in terms of the methodologies of transdisciplinarity being well-developed, tested, elaborated, and refined. It seems to me, in essence, to be judging transdisciplinarity by whether or not it has achieved the goals it is meant to address, simply by virtue of having existed as an idea for a little bit of time, now.

    Stakeholders are actually able to get quite, quite beyond “the surface” in many structures, including participatory budgeting and citizens’ juries, neither of which are used or terribly usable in current academic environments. In other words, we do not have structures set up that would usually allow us to get beyond the surface, nor do we have the history of doing so to allow many stakeholders to trust academics enough to spend time and patience doing so.

    Similar, not being informed–this seems to me to call for the exact *opposite* of your conclusion. Scientists knew climate change was real long before average stakeholders, but the public acceptance and knowledge of it almost certainly lagged/lags so far behind because citizens were NOT engaged as partners from any early stage. I guess, actually, this goes to the heart of where I’m differing–I’m not talking about talking to “stakeholders” in terms of individual leaders (or groups of leaders) as opposed to communities. Communities exist almost everywhere, multiple ones, overlapping, and we should be working with them as stakeholders. Where we work with “leaders” it should be those chosen through participatory processes within communities.

    Communities/people *do not listen to* people who have not deigned to directly engage with them. I heartily endorse NOT looking for benevolent dictators to work with. Doing so can create any number of backfire effects, as people usually respond poorly to any dictator, benevolent or not. (I assume you meant “benevolent” literally, more or less, as in well-meaning or seeking the greatest good. This does NOT mean this person has a mandate, the love of the people, or is able to maintain love throughout implementing any new reforms.) Ample research shows that people are more likely to abide by rules/regimes that they have had direct say in creating.

    So going back to your second point, there may be no interested stakeholders–well, I agree that there is likely not a singular dictator or decision-maker. This is exactly why scientists must embrace being citizens as being much larger part of our day-to-day work (as must everyone, in my opinion) rather than trying to influence or negotiate with “decision makers”. I maintain, as I always have, that regardless of whether we are right or not about a particular thing, scientists who believe in democracy have an obligation to get change to come about through engagement with their own society and community, not through attempting ever more strongly to go around to find or create a benevolent dictator. Because even if you and the dictator are right, I do not believe anyone should have unrestricted rights to impose “the right thing to do” on others. CERTAINLY, I do not think we earn that right by getting a PhD. No, we should have to vie for our priorities along with everyone else.

    So if there is no person (not dictator) interested in your work, and you cannot convince anybody to be, what does that mean? I mean, we already accept it as a necessary evil that if no grantor or journal is interested in our work, then we have to just deal with that. We can rail against the way said decision is made, or the specific work/decision at hand, but no one thinks we have infinite resources or should have everything published.

    So having to convince a wider community than just one’s scientific peers of the worth of our work is, to me, part of our job. One that many academics are failing to do — through both discincentives from their own organizations, and lack of interest or (to my mind) dereliction.

    Long story short, if transdisciplinarity means trying to recreate a top-down structure but now with researchers involved, I think, “well, of course that won’t work, and shouldn’t be tried.”

    My own definition of transdisciplinarity actually means a synthesis that “transcends” established discplines (after all, disciplinary boundaries are very significantly arbitrary anachronisms of the social history of any given field), and in the best of cases, transcends researcher/community boundaries. I think there is very little future for scientific work that does not do the latter: the way (to me) to generate interest in and enthusiasm for science is through engagement. I think many citizens are turned off not because they don’t care about abstract science, but because abstract science (In the US at least) has too often told citizens “WE don’t care about YOU.” Or more accurately, “Yes, we know you think this may be a lower priority than other issues. But if you understood properly, you would realize ALL MY INTERESTS are important enough for you to continue to fund with your taxes and tuition. No, I don’t have time to explain it to you at any length–read my paywalled peer-reviewed literature that is not written to be accessible to you, and THEN come talk to me about whether my field is worth the investment. Wait, where are you going…? Are you going to read them…?”

    It seems to me the choices are either that we are able to convince fellow citizens that our work is worth doing, or we accept not getting well-supported to do it. Or, we try to undemocratically cut them out of decisions on how we spend (often but not always) public resources.

    When it comes to science, I way too often hear “but, what about vaccines and climate change, and who knows what science will find next?” and not “Ok, yes, I’m willing to have a discussion about priorities, because even given vaccines and climate change, not everything can be supported publicly, and science should be a high priority, but I recognize that in the real world, it is only one among many.”

    • Thanks Jahi, good to see you disagree with me, when so often we seem to agree! Unfortunately, I suspect we disagree less than we had hoped 🙂
      I think a lot depends on the definition or framing of what is transdisciplinarity. The idea that science that is not somehow endorsed by the community will carry less weight makes sense to me, and I agree about that part. So, I agree that communication with the community should be important for most of what we do. I’ll leave it at that for now, though I’m sure there’d be much more to say or write! — Cheers — J

  6. Pingback: TD or not TD, that is the question (or one of them …) | Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

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