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.