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Transdisciplinarity Matters

The discussion paper commissioned by the International Science Council (ISC) presents core characteristics of transdisciplinarity. It presents fundamental differences between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, and explains why transdisciplinary projects are pertinent.[1] This is a contribution of hope; much-needed hope in a world of complex emergent risks and persistent communal challenges that require effective societal responses to improve and sustain our habitat and our lives.[2] This is no mean feat in the global, national, and local contexts of unknowns, uncertainty, and unpredictability that coexist with divergent opinions, conflicting intentionality, and incommensurable values.[3]

Transdisciplinarity – both noun and verb – has not become mainstream in academia and scientific research owing to structural reasons including conceptual, ideological, and institutional factors presented in the discussion paper. Nonetheless, numerous cases of innovative teaching and training, theoretical and applied research, and community-led projects are documented in all regions of the world; some are presented in the Handbook of Transdisciplinarity: Global Perspectives.[4] Based on my editorial work for this new publication, this commentary briefly presents some fundamental concerns that I think should be addressed in the immediate future if transdisciplinary projects are to be upscaled and have a larger societal impact.

First, transdisciplinarity is a creative human activity that is cultivated. Cultivation denotes the cognitive and behavioural activities of individuals and groups in precise situations that define and mutually defined by beliefs and ideas, knowledge and know-how, language and meanings, norms and rules, and opinions and values that change over time. The cultivation of transdisciplinary projects should embrace these cultural predispositions. This requires scaffolding that facilitates complex interpersonal dialogue between participants with divergent sometimes conflicting viewpoints. [5] However, scientists are rarely trained to pilot projects including multiple stakeholders from different sectors. Using their competences and skills, trained facilitators are needed to pilot transdisciplinary projects. 

Second, transdisciplinarity is inclusive and transcultural. It acknowledges diversity and differences in contrast to calculated averages and medians. Transdisciplinary projects incorporate disciplinary specialization and interdisciplinary collaboration. Transdisciplinary thinking requires open-mindedness of the participants rather than intellectual confinement grounded only in discipline-based thinking and methods. Transdisciplinary frameworks complement and enrich scientific knowledge with fundamentally different types of knowledge and other ways of knowing.[6]

Third, transdisciplinary projects are influenced by the positionality of all participants. Positionality denotes how humans perceive, interpret and attribute meanings to being in the world.[7] It includes our perceptions, intentionality, and values that influence our sense of purpose being in the world. Positionality acknowledges imbalances of influence and power between individuals and groups of different ethnicity, gender, education, nationality, religion, and worldviews. The positioning of the researcher in relation to the cultural and political context of a project should be explicit and made known because it influences each phase of the research process.

Finally, I have proposed whether transdisciplinarity will become mainstream in research and professional practice is dependent on how it will be positioned in a broad philosophical and societal context that influences the interconnections between research, public policies, and professional practice.[8] This requires rethinking the contribution of science to respond effectively to problematic situations and persistent problems in our complex world.

Contact:
Email: roderick.lawrence@unige.ch

References

  • [1] Kaiser, M., & Gluckman, P. Looking at the Future of Transdisciplinary Research. Centre for Science Futures 2023.
  • [2] Lawrence, R.J. Oecumene: Repositioning Ourselves in Our Habitat. World, 4 (1), 2023: 95–109. https://www.mdpi.com/2673-4060/4/1/7/pdf
  • [3] Doherty, P. The Knowledge Wars. Melbourne University Press, 2015.
  • [4] Lawrence, RJ. (ed.) Handbook of Transdisciplinarity: Global Perspectives. Edward Elgar, 2023. https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/gbp/handbook-of-transdisciplinarity-global-perspectives-9781802207828.html
  • [5] Andersson, P. & Palmer, H. The Promise of Scaffolding: A metaphor and living practice for transdisciplinary inquiry. In Lawrence, RJ. (ed.) Handbook of Transdisciplinarity: Global Perspectives, pp. 28-43. Edward Elgar, 2023.
  • [6] Brown, V. Collective inquiry and its wicked problems. In Brown, V. A., Harris J.A., & Russell, J.Y. (eds), Tackling wicked problems through the transdisciplinary imagination, pp. 61-83. Routledge, 2010.
  • [7] Holmes, A.G.D. Researcher Positionality—A Consideration of Its Influence and Place in Qualitative Research—A New Researcher Guide. Shanlax International Journal of Education, 2020, 8, 1–10. http://www.shanlaxjournals.in/journals/index.php/education/article/view/3232
  • [8] Lawrence, R.J. Transdisciplinarity: Science for the public good. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1519, 2023: 5-6. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.14940
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