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Transdisciplinarity is Knowledge Democracy

“…we get enough rains to grow food and look after cattle in this area; but engineers want to supply pipe water; we just harvest and store water efficiently; and, we grow millet and fruit trees like jackfruit, mahua, tamarind,”….words spoken to me last month by a local tribal woman in Dumka region of eastern India. Her anguish was about ‘imposition of universal solutions without understanding the context” by external experts.

The conversation took place when we were building capacity in participatory research of 41 researchers from a nearby university. Though not theorised adequately, the semi-literate tribal woman essentially referred to practical challenges in the practice of transdisciplinarity.

This paper on ‘Looking at the Future of Transdisciplinary Research’ captures essential meaning of and contemporary need for engaging in ‘science as if people matter’. While acknowledging the significance of engaging with different knowledge systems and publics to produce knowledge solutions for a host of wicked problems of our times, it underscores the criticality of context and placed-based knowledge solutions. In so doing, it does somewhat indirectly question the limitations of the ‘universal and linear’ hegemony of ‘modern science’.

I am pleased to read about relevance of participatory research methodology in the paper as a potentially useful approach to co-construction of actionable knowledge. Yet, the literature cited in the paper is void of volumes of articles and books produced on the subject over past five decades. This is manifestation of a deeper phenomenon where researchers trained in ‘modern science’ do not have any understanding of other systems and cultures of knowledge production and dissemination, even when they are interested in co-constructing research with no academic stakeholders. In a recent international study of “Bridging Knowledge Cultures” (forthcoming book of UNESCO Chair in Community-based Research & Social Responsibility of Higher Education), it was found that academic researchers had no recognition or understanding of community knowledge cultures. In doing co-construction, they assumed that there is a universal academic knowledge culture as practiced in ‘modern science’.

Therefore, a critical task in promoting transdisciplinarity is ‘education’ of academically trained researchers to acknowledge, value, and explore community knowledge cultures in all steps of the research process. UNESCO Chair has built a global consortium of 26 Knowledge-for-Change (K4C) Hubs in 15 countries of the world over past five years. Each Hub is a partnership between an academic research institution and local practitioner organisation (s). They jointly prioritise contextually relevant SDGs to co-construct actionable knowledge solutions involving multiple stake-holders.

Our practice and research in co-construction of such knowledge made us realise that academically trained researchers need to develop new set of competencies if participatory research methodology is to be deployed professionally. Most critical of these competencies is listening… other perspectives, different ways of describing realities, and cultural/linguistic diversities of meanings of what is knowledge. More significantly, such researchers interested in undertaking transdisciplinary research need to inculcate values of humility (I do not know everything) and cooperation (I can not do it alone)! Interestingly, Third World Higher Education Conference of UNESCO held in Barcelona a year ago concluded likewise.

It is our experience over past twenty years of working with young academics that they ARE interested in co-construction of actionable knowledge solutions. But, they face institutional and funding constraints which have been adequately analysed in this paper. Recent boom in business of global and national rankings reinforces prevalent structures and culture of individualism, paywalled journal articles and rapidly repeating universal ‘truths’. Building partnerships of trust with dissimilar others and ‘meddling through’ diversity of stake-holders takes patience, time, innovation and flexibility.

Finally, the accelerating trends towards ‘privatisation’ of knowledge and patenting, reinforced through theories of ‘knowledge economy’ over past 25 years, has eroded support to ‘knowledge for public good’ and ‘knowledge commons’.

The movement towards effective transdisciplinarity, therefore, must embrace the growing movement of ‘knowledge democracy’!


Dr Rajesh Tandon  

Founder-President, Participatory Research in Asia, New Delhi

UNESCO Co-Chair on Community-based Research & Social Responsibility of Higher Education

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