Transdisciplinarity, transversality, and tensions

Transdisciplinary research integrates methods and concepts of different disciplines in systematic processes that improve on any combination of knowledge produced by specialists in disciplines. It does so to address real world challenges, generating knowledge and action together. (As such, it might be better named transdisciplinary research and engagement.) For action-making to be combined with knowledge-making, other communities with a stake in the issue have to be engaged, which entails integrating their knowledge and knowledge-making systems. Crossing disciplines and engaging with diverse participants in knowledge-making is demanding, so transdisciplinary research and engagement has to support the capacity building required for both, moreover, for ensuring they are sustainable—at personal as well as institutional levels. While akin to participatory action research, what takes it beyond is that the real world challenges addressed are transversal—they cut across levels—they link dynamics—from the personal and local to national and transnational political economies.

Three implications of transdisciplinarity together with transversality:
1. A tension. When research and engagement takes seriously the creativity and capacity-building that arises from well-facilitated participation among people who share a place or livelihood, it also needs to incorporate knowledge-making of non-local or trans-local researchers—including knowledge about the transversal dynamics that produce trans-local decisions about resources—resources being drawn on, or susceptible to being withdrawn from, the specific situation in which the research and engagement is positioned.

2. The ongoing changes in context and constituencies. This issue is explored in the 1985 novel Loyalties by the English/Welsh cultural analyst, Raymond Williams. In one passage, a central character, Norman, argues that political involvement cannot be a simple matter of staying loyal to one’s roots. Given the “powerful forces” that shape social and environmental change, we can “in intelligence” grapple with them “by such means as we can find” and take a deliberate path of action, but “none of us, at any time, can know enough, can understand enough, to avoid getting much of it wrong” (357-8). Or, in the words of a close intellectual and political colleague of Norman, if we “go on saying the things we learned to say… it will be just strange talk, in a strange land” (161).

3. Education and training for transdisciplinary research and engagement has to work on multiple levels. No one teacher can guide students on all the levels, just as no student can expect to address real world challenges without collaboration with many others. Teachers and students can expect to need to continue learning over the course of their careers.

Postscript:
My own framing and exploration of all this is posted here and here. In short, for me, transdisciplinarity and transversality follow from social and ecological complexities being what I call “unruly.” If these complexities are to be addressed, not suppressed, then knowledge, plans and action have to continually be reassessed in response to developments. My teaching as I direct the Master’s programs in Critical and Creative Thinking and in Science in a Changing World—programs that are mid-career personal and professional development—does not cover all aspects of addressing unruly complexities. It centers on fostering “curiosity” and “cultivating collaborators.” The Programs leads students to design an Action Research process, but they are not required to carry it out. Nor are they taught to examine the dynamics of transversal political economic processes. These limitations match #3: no one program can guide students on all the levels. However, something the programs are effective in is important for transdisciplinary research and engagement, namely, a sense that it is impossible to simply continue along previous lines. While it is possible to do so, it is no longer ever simple.

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Transdisciplinary research integrates methods and concepts of different disciplines in systematic processes.
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Nicolescu, B. (ed.) (2008) Transdisciplinarity: Theory and Practice. Hampton Press.

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