What is transdisciplinary research?

This field guide defines transdisciplinary research as research that integrates knowledge across academic disciplines and with non-academic stakeholders to address societal challenges. It is guided by the principle that ‘scientific rigor meets societal relevance’.

The mission of Pathways to Sustainability is to create a vibrant community fostering new research collaborations to explore pathways to sustainability, guided by the principle that scientific rigor meets societal relevance.

Like interdisciplinary research, transdisciplinary research produces knowledge that goes beyond the existing disciplines (e.g. Morton et al. 2015 and Tress et al. 2004). Often, it draws from and contributes to what can be called 'interdisciplines', which are hybrid fields that emerge around particular issues (see Klein 2017), such as sustainability science. How transdisciplinary research is defined and how it relates to other concepts remains a heavily debated issue. However, there is broad consensus around seeking to value and integrate the knowledge from non-academic stakeholders. This implies ‘processes of mutual learning between science and society, (...) which embodies a mission of science with society rather than for society’ (Seidl et al. 2013). For that, it builds on established methods to produce ‘reliable knowledge’, but goes beyond that to generate ‘socially-robust knowledge’ (Nowotny et al. 2003). This double accountability makes transdisciplinary research both exciting and challenging!

Schematic representation of transdisciplinary research. Adapted from Morton et al. (2015), originally from Tress et al. (2005).

How does transdisciplinary research relate to other concepts?

See the Research Support Officers page for more on their distinctions and overlaps with

  • Societal impact
  • Valorisation
  • Open science

Caution 1: These definitions are contested, and you may encounter different perspectives. For instance, another definition for transdisciplinarity aims to identify a higher level synthesis or convergence of knowledge beyond disciplinary perspectives (e.g. National Research Council 2014). We do not cover this definition here (Covered in Pohl 2011 and Klein 2013). To know more about the history of transdisciplinarity, check Vermeulen and Witjes (2020).

Caution 2: These drawings are a simplification. In practice, there is considerable collaboration and cross-fertilisation already happening between disciplines (see Jacobs 2013).

Caution 3: Don’t overemphasise consensus! Disagreements and disensus about values, goals, and facts need not be eliminated - quite the opposite. Pluralistic approaches to transdisciplinarity and co-creation can produce much more socially robust outcomes than those that try to eliminate disagreements.

Engaging stakeholders is often critical for addressing problems because we can’t understand or solve societal challenges without their knowledge and action. It is also more likely that research ideas are adopted by stakeholders when we engage with them directly and build trust over time. There is a long history of participatory practice and extensive academic literature that lends rigor to this approach.

Portrait of John Robinson
Prof. dr. John Robinson, Transdisciplinary Visiting Professor

Engaging stakeholders as co-producers of knowledge

Transdisciplinary research means engaging stakeholders in significant ways throughout the research process, rather than collecting data, informing stakeholders or valorising knowledge afterwards.

  • It is not just communication and outreach – It is not telling people about your research in one-way communication such as through media articles, interviews or presentations, nor is it simply providing advice as an expert.
  • It is not just extractive research – It is not the process of gathering data about societal actors through surveys, interviews, observation and other methods.

Both communication and data collection can be a part of a more interactive transdisciplinary process; however, a transdisciplinary process as a whole is about co-producing knowledge with external actors in ways that enable them to shape the research and that value their knowledge.

Experts must now extend their knowledge, not simply to be an extension of what they know in their specialised field, but to consist of building links and trying to integrate what they know with what others want to, or should, know and do. Bringing together the many different knowledge dimensions involved constitutes specific mixes with other kinds of knowledge, experience and expertise.

Helga Nowotny (2003)

Caution 2: Both academic and non-academic stakeholders have very distinct understandings of what working collaboratively requires and provides. Clarifying those expectations, negotiating disagreements and building trust are crucial for building successful collaborations.

Learn more about Stakeholder Engagements

The place of TDR in the University

With growing pressures for the university to pursue impactful and socially relevant research, it may seem as if transdisciplinary research is in competition with traditional, curiosity-driven or disciplinary approaches (Figure 1, a). In effect, funding of research has increasingly prioritised  However, as prof. dr. John Robinson notes, transdisciplinary research does not have to be a threat to scientific core values (b) - there is an opportunity for it  to act as a buffer zone which protects those core values while also addressing societal demands (c). We should remember, as Nowotny writes, “Reliable knowledge remains the in-dispensable conditio sine qua non of the fact that ‘science works’” (2003, p. 155).  In our understanding, transdisciplinary research builds on a rich set of reliable, disciplinary knowledge, and helps to mediate between these disciplines and societal demands, expanding the scope of the University.

John Robinson, “Transdisciplinarity: The limitations of the alphabet”, Presentation at Pathways to Sustainability Workshop on Transdisciplinarity, Utrecht University, May 17 2019.

 

A Paradigm Shift in Knowledge Production: Related Concepts

Transdisciplinary research is part of a wider shift in the ‘knowledge landscape’ of society, in which the role of science and the assumptions held about how knowledge is produced and put to use are changing.

A transdisciplinary orientation is an important aspect of distinct paradigms of knowledge production. Consider this definition: “Transdisciplinary refers to different types of knowledge production for social change which are based not only on the integration of knowledge from different disciplines (interdisciplinary), but also on the inclusion of values, knowledge, know-how and expertise from non-academic sources” (Klein, 2010).

These characteristics – interdisciplinary, integrative, reflexive, problem-focused, interactive and emergent, collaborative beyond academia (Robinson, 2008)–  also overlap with other concepts you may be familiar with.

Other terms that relate to problem-solving transdisciplinary approaches include:

  • participatory research,
  • interface management,
  • issue-driven interdisciplinarity,
  • interactive social research,
  • transformative or participatory sustainability science.

Related concepts also include post-normal science (Funtowitz and Ravetz 1993); mode-2 knowledge production (Gibbons 1994, Nowotny et al. 2001). There is overlap with concepts including triple-, quadruple- and quintuple helix and ‘joint knowledge production’, which speak of the ways in which academia can collaborate with other societal actors in innovation. Furthermore, transdisciplinarity can be seen as one of many approaches operating at the science-policy interface.

More recently, the term ‘co-production’ has been gaining traction in the domain of sustainability and global change research (Van der Hel, 2016). It can be defined as “Iterative and collaborative processes involving diverse types of expertise, knowledge and actors to produce context-specific knowledge and pathways towards a sustainable future.” (Norström et al. 2020). 'This emerging discourse emphasises context-based, pluralistic, goal-oriented and interactive as key characteristics. That term, however, is also used to refer to how science and society co-produce social orders (Jasanoff, 2004).

Transdisciplinary research, as a field, draws from and contributes to these different notions, while trying to make these processes more intentional and explicit. Such different perspectives provide a rich substrate in which we can ground transdisciplinary research.

 

Problem-solving transdisciplinary research

In the context of sustainability,  problem-solving transdisciplinary research is particularly relevant. This concerns research that directly addresses societal issues including sustainability.  As Prof. Arnim Wiek notes, this requires a different perspective on the purposes of knowledge we co-produce. We are seeking to produce knowledge for different purposes (see also Hirsch-Hadorn et al. 2008) :

  • Enhancing our understanding (what is/will be) - system knowledge
  • Providing us with direction (what is sustainable) - target knowledge
  • Guiding action (how do we get there) - transformation knowledge 

 What a problem-solving orientation means for practice:

  • Facing the complexity of these problems
  • Considering the diversity of scientific and societal views about the problems
  • Producing actionable knowledge
  • Bridging scientific and societal understanding of an issue
  • Developing outputs that are both academic and functional

For more: In Practice: Transdisciplinary Research, Methods & Resources

A variety of experimental approaches play a central role in this kind of transdisciplinary research. This includes both experiments on sustainability problems (usually analytical, descriptive and explanatory) and experiments on sustainability solutions (usually synthetical, prescriptive and procedural) (see Caniglia et al. 2017).

Caution 4: Transdisciplinary researchers need to be humble when approaching issues, and not assume they ‘know exactly what the problem is’, which shuts down the discovery of other perspectives [see Mindset & Skills].

Caution 5: Transdisciplinary research, as presented here, draws heavily on theories developed in and for the context of wealthy, western European nations. Van Breda and Swilling (2019) have argued that these methodologies ‘cannot merely be replicated and transferred’ to developing world contexts’. Instead, they propose an ‘Emergent Transdisciplinary Research Design’.

 

Comparing Transdisciplinary, Valorisation and Societal Impact terms

How do the terms ‘valorisation’ or ‘societal impact’ compare with transdisciplinarity?

Valorisation includes any process of creating value from knowledge that makes that knowledge suitable for societal use. This includes many different forms including science communication and indirect contact with ‘end-users’ [see Valorisation review & Societal Impact Report]

Transdisciplinary research is part of valorisation but it is specifically a form of research that directly engages external stakeholders.

Societal impact is the end goal of transdisciplinary research to contribute to the development of society and the challenges facing society. [See the Societal Impact Report]

  • Creating and applying knowledge together with stakeholders and collaborating can lead to innovative solutions with more robust and socially desirable outcomes.

There are also increasing opportunities for pursuing high-quality research through engaging with those outside of academia who hold key knowledge about societal challenges. 

  • Addressing society’s problems and needs through research benefits from insights from external stakeholders holding valuable knowledge and implementation capacities.
  • Learning from stakeholders about their understanding and knowledge of an issue can enrich research and lead it into unexplored territories
  • Increasingly funding agencies are requesting that research projects engage social actors as partners in research proposals [See the Horizon 2020 call for proposals]
  • The Standard Evaluation Protocol for evaluating research also emphasizes societal impact [See the Societal Impact Report]