New concept in sustainability science: Reverse transdisciplinarity


(Health Warning: this is to be read with your sense of humour switched on.) As you can see from Aisa’s very nice last post on this blog, we are currently in the second year of field work for our project on food security and biodiversity conservation in southwestern Ethiopia. So far, we have done hundreds of interviews, dozens of focus group discussions and workshops on a wide range of topics through which we involve stakeholders in the research process. This involvement of stakeholders in sustainability science is usually referred to as transdisciplinarity and it is meant to enrich the research process, to co-create knowledge, to increase relevance and finally to facilitate joint problem solving.

As opposed to this concept, this blog post introduces the concept of reverse transdisciplinarity, which is completely new to sustainability science. Reverse transdisciplinarity means the active involvement of researchers in real world processes, as for example in farming activities (see Fig. 1). This involvement truly empowers local stakeholders and I am pretty confident that it promises to become a key method in sustainability science in the very near future.

I am looking forward for many examples of how to implement it posted in the comments section below.

Fig. 1: Girma, one of our PhD students, demonstrates the concept of reverse transdisciplinarity in SW Ethiopia. While just a few minutes earlier he was trying to find interviewees for a survey, he spontaneously switched his role and started to actively improve food security in our study region. His ploughing saved important calories for local farmers and also helped to build trust among the local people. (Unfortunately, it didn’t help to find participants for the survey and we had to go somewhere else afterwards. Maybe it was because he didn’t plow in a straight line.)

9 thoughts on “New concept in sustainability science: Reverse transdisciplinarity

  1. Thanks Jan! This is very useful concept, with deep implications including on personal health and reshaping free time activities (i.e. no need for jogging after 1 day of plouging).

  2. Nice new scientific term! You might have just renamed the existing approaches of action-based research and action learning, though. Within this frame, actually (and physically) experiencing the perspective of your stakeholders might be the only valid way to understand and explore their role in your transdisciplinary research setting! Perhaps your contribution is less ironic than intended… 😉

  3. Hi Jan, nice one – thanks – you guys rock 🙂
    Once you start operationalizing the concept more systematically for the sustainability science crowd ;-D, you will find quite a bit of supportive evidence for your ‘reverse transdisciplinarity’ from the research done in Indigenous communities in Canada – a colleague of mine said she helped write numerous hunting license applications and do other tasks she never pictured would be part of doing research on northern land management: – and there’re also some great stories in International Development (I believe that at least Amy lived and actively participated in the communities she was studying):


    PS BTW this can be recommended also for any TDR work in Lower Saxony – says the deep voice of experience 😉

    • Thanks, Paivi! Yes, in Ethiopia it would be “I spent the first year drinking coffee”, which is not the worst way of spending your time…

  4. Hear hear. This is, perhaps, what I’ve been struggling to articulate when I’ve commented on transdisciplinarity here in the past.

    As others have commented, I think you’ll find much support for this idea from many quarters. One interesting potential example was discussed a bit back on my facebook page:

    Regarding this article:
    Excerpt from the abstract:
    “Here we present an innovative approach for enabling smallholders to achieve yield and economic gains sustainably via the Science and Technology Backyard (STB) platform. STB involves agricultural scientists living in villages among farmers, advancing participatory innovation and technology transfer, and garnering public and private support. We identified multifaceted yield-limiting factors involving agronomic, infrastructural, and socioeconomic conditions. When these limitations and farmers’ concerns were addressed, the farmers adopted recommended management practices, thereby improving production outcomes.”

    My friend and former boss Jim Harkness points out “…he [Zhang Fusuo] really does seem to park a student in a village for months or a year, during which time the learning goes both ways…” And Leah Samberg offers a great additional analysis (which, in part, critiques ‘yield gap’ framings!) :

    I also, personally, have a suspicion that this kind of “reverse transdisciplinary” likely takes advantage of some common human characteristics in terms of reciprocity:

    Indeed, I suppose I would never have viewed what you describe as “reverse transdisciplinarity” so much as, perhaps, “deep” or “true” transdisciplinarity!

  5. Hi Jan, thank you such concept!!!
    I am very much happy with two events i.e. first I participated on two hours transdisciplinary workshop I think organized by transdisciplinary project office of Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, which strengthen my understanding of the social wings of action oriented research; second I came across this blog post dealing with reverse transdisciplinarity. Yes, I agree that in sustainability science empowerment and engagement of local community in joint problem identification and solving is not a matter of having participatory project, conducting interviews, group discussions and workshops rather it need the active involvement of practitioners (researchers and development workers) in real world processes that they are involved with, knowing and respecting their values, objectives and norms. As to my thought, this might be particularly pertinent for developing countries’ local community (e.g., Ethiopia) who have so many locally interlinked social e.g., lack of transparency and good governance; economic e.g., land grabbing; and ecological e.g., climate change problems to truly participate on joint problem solving activities or processes facilitated by outsiders be it is researchers or development workers.

  6. I come back to this post often, as it (to me) is at the crux of much of what we are trying to do (as I comment on briefly in my “Deep Thought (on the moral/utilitarian relevance of strong reciprocity)” post I linked to above).

    It reminded me just now of a post several years ago on how to “save” the university, which the author joyfully called “Everybody drives a truck” (EBAT):

    I think this idea (EBAT) is a large part of what I was trying to get at in my comments on diversity here: . Perhaps it gets again at the “time” dimension: a regular influx of people from *completely* different backgrounds (e.g. the university custodian of EBAT working in a lab for a couple days a year) is, I think, key to progress forward and building the kind of networks and solidarity essential for sustainability. By the same token, this relieves some of my personal feelings about not putting an arbitrary limit on how much diversity is the right amount, by institutionalizing a certain kind of “totally from left field” diversity and crossing of class lines that I think is very problematic in current institutions.

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