How: Transdisciplinary Research Processes

Transdisciplinary research is a process

In the quest to produce knowledge that is both reliable from a scientific perspective, socially-robust and socially relevant, transdisciplinary research requires changes to how we conduct research. We need to distinguish the idealised transdisciplinary research process which helps structure a project, from the actual transdisciplinary research journeys that one goes through when trying to implement a project (see field stories). 

In its essence, the transdisciplinary research process links up two processes of knowledge production (c.f. Bergmann et al. 2005, Jahn et al. 2012, Pohl et al. 2017). That means connecting between practices, discourses and issues of scientific knowledge production on both the scientific and the societal realms. It also means that the research process has to be designed to cater to the kinds of results that are needed in societal and scientific practice.

Adapted from Pohl et al. 2017. The transdisciplinary process is often described as a series of stages (Bergmann et al. 2005, Poh and Hirsch Hardorn 2007, Pohl et al. 2017.

Mediating between the two realms normally requires a more iterative and non-linear research process. To start well, pay special attention to forming a team that has a diverse and relevant mix of disciplines and practical expertise and an open, dialogical mindset.

Societal problems usually don't have definitive boundaries, involve many actors, and are highly interconnected to other problems.

This goes hand in hand with framing the problem and setting the research agenda with attention to the different understandings and perspectives available. This may require expanding the team or engaging with other stakeholders, to find the right mix. Key to this step is matching the research questions to the societal demand for knowledge. Taking ‘framing’ seriously is essential, because societal problems don’t usually have definitive boundaries, involve many actors, and are highly interconnected to other problems. When non-academic actors are involved in this stage, the process can be labeled as ‘co-designed’.

The next stages are analysing the problem and exploring solutions and impacts. In transdisciplinary research these require a degree of interaction and integration between disparate knowledges - both across different disciplines and with stakeholders understandings. When non-academic actors are involved in this stage, the process can be labeled as ‘co-produced’.

How exactly these stages are organised depends on the nature of the problem - e.g. whether these are ‘tame’, ‘wicked’ or ‘unruly’ problems. When the issue at hand is a ‘wicked problem’ the interaction between these two stages is essential, and so is setting the expectation of what ‘problem-solving’ actually is. 

You don’t so much “solve” a wicked problem as you help stakeholders negotiate shared understanding and shared meaning about the problem and its possible solutions. The objective of the work is coherent action, not final solution

(Conklin, 2006, p. 5)

Caution: researchers have to be careful to broaden the inputs that they consider when discussing different options for addressing a challenge, and not automatically privilege expert analysis, nor push too hard for consensus. In many situations, approaches should aim to build ‘

Dilemma: in transdisciplinary research journeys participants bring in different knowledge, assumptions and interests, not all of which are compatible and easy to integrate. Approaching this encounter as a dialogue, with time for the different perspectives to discover one another is crucial. However, it may be hard to balance that with the need to ‘move on’ with the project and advance its objectives. 

A review (OECD 2020) on the topic identified six parameters to consider when designing transdisciplinary research projects:

  • “The diversity of disciplines engaged”
  • “The depth of integration across disciplines”
  • “The degree of interaction with non-academic stakeholders”
  • “The composition of non-academics stakeholders”
  • “The timing of participatory engagement”
  • “The types of knowledge that are emphasised”

Special attention has to be given to stakeholder engagement, in each step of this process, from forming a team, constructing a joint purpose and research agenda, to the methods and collaborating to the point of integration and evaluation of the results. On the methods and resources section you will find specific suggestions for how to address these different phases.

Click here to access the oecd guide

Caution - Often, the process you need won’t fit into a project mold, which may be very constraining, with specific objectives, limited time frames, and emphasis on implementation. In such situations, it is possible to use other approaches to bridge those two realms. Establishing a ‘boundary organisation’ operating with transdisciplinary principles can be much more effective. Similarly, thinking in terms of transformative spaces’ may also be useful. For more on that, check the field stories.

Applying transdisciplinary research

Here are some practical suggestions on how to design and deliver transdisciplinary research. These apply whether you are starting a new research project or process or whether you are in the middle of an existing project.

  • Check whether a transdisciplinary approach is for you with the quick self-assessment below.
  • Consider the mindset and skills that are key to transdisciplinary work.
  • Design your transdisciplinary project as a process.
  • Explore the range of ways to engage external stakeholders.
  • Get practical tips on shaping your research project on the Methods page.