On transdisciplinarity

Because transdisciplinarity is radical, in the sense that it goes to the roots of knowledge, and questions our ways of thinking and our construction and organization of knowledge, it requires a discipline of self-inquiry that integrates the knower in the process of knowing.

Nicolescu, B. (ed.) (2008) Transdisciplinarity: Theory and Practice. Hampton Press.

Two extensions:

1. Because establishing knowledge is a process embedded in a wider, dynamic context that changes over time, transdisciplinarity requires contributors in attempts to establish knowledge to build a constituency around the knowledge, indeed build a constituency around the establishing and around addressing ongoing changes in context and constituencies. (See Cycles and Epicycles of Action Research.)
2. Because establishing knowledge involves processes that range from “self-inquiry” to constituency-building to dynamics of change in wider social context, transdisciplinarity is as much about cultivating one’s abilities to traverse these processes as it is about the kind of knowledge that results. (See overview of principles of “dynamic flux ethics”)

14 April 2019
In addressing real world challenges, transdisciplinary research and engagement integrates methods and concepts of different disciplines in systematic processes that:
• Generate knowledge and action together (=”action research”).
• Pay attention to translocal resources that are being drawn on and may be withdrawn from the specific situation in which the research is positioned (=cutting across levels or “transversality”).
• Engage participants across research disciplines.
• Engage other communities with a stake in the issue, which entails integrating their knowledge and knowledge-making systems.
• Support the capacity building required for the above, moreover, for ensuring it is sustainable—at personal as well as institutional levels.

This last bullet matches Nicolescu’s call for “discipline[d] self-inquiry that integrates the knower in the process of knowing.” The extensions above make more sense in light of the whole set of bullets. In turn, the issue of “attention to translocal resources” is important because of the dynamics of change in wider social context. That is, transdisciplinary research and engagement takes seriously the creativity and capacity-building that arises from well-facilitated participation among people who share a place or livelihood, but it also has to incorporate knowledge-making of non-local or trans-local researchers—including knowledge about the dynamics that produce adverse trans-local decisions and about ways to try to mitigate their effects.

The trans-generational dimension of this last 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).

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