In recent decades, transdisciplinarity has emerged as a new principle of scientific inquiry and received much focus in the researcher community. But what exactly is meant by “transdisciplinary” and how did the concept originate? How does it differ from similar terms such as “multidisciplinary” and “interdisciplinary”? What are its defining characteristics?
Transdisciplinarity at a glance
The prefix “trans-“ in “transdisciplinarity” represents a critical notion within the term: Transdisciplinarity concerns the space of research that is at the same time between different disciplines, across disciplines, and beyond each single discipline. Transdisciplinarity provides a way of looking at the research problem at hand as a complex system of inter-connected facets, instead of seeing them as belonging to a single branch of science. Transdisciplinarity also seeks to bring in different parts of society to inquire into and solve complex problems that involve various groups of stakeholders. Through discussion and interaction between different participants, new understandings of the world are co-produced to deliver solutions to the increasingly wicked problems that transcend boundaries of scientific disciplines and stakeholder groups.
The transdisciplinary approach to research was first raised in the 1970s when scientists started to rethink about the practice of compartmentalizing disciplines into separate, fragmented fields of science. Thinkers questioned the validity of structuring knowledge into disciplines, recognizing that disciplines, during the course of history, were socially constructed and customarily divided. In other words, the boundaries between them were drawn not by any legitimate rule of nature, but rather by previous scientific movements. Thus, disciplinarity is, as it turns out, loosely defined, and boundaries between disciplines can be redrawn.
But the term “transdisciplinarity” did not receive adequate attention until the 1990s when demands for looking beyond boundaries unfolded. In the course of 20 years, several developments in the world took place. First, there was the eventual realization that the world is a complex system, interwoven by diverse knowledge fields with different beliefs and methods, and stakeholders with own voices and values. Second, the globalization process that spelled out after the Cold War has brought with it a number of problems, such as pandemic spread, poverty, terrorism, and climate change. The third development that is also related to the previous two is the rise of global challenges, especially in the environmental domain, that require efforts from more than one single nation or expertise from a single discipline. These three developments in the late twentieth century have established the demand for a new approach to inquiry that traverses disciplines and voices. From then on, transdisciplinarity is taken and discussed seriously as a new principle for research and education.
Into the verse of “multiple disciplinary”
There is clear contrast between “mono-disciplinary” and “multiple disciplinary”. “Mono-disciplinary” means concerning only one branch of knowledge when doing research. Using only a subset of knowledge in inquiry may confine the researcher to limited understanding of the research problem, especially when problems are becoming more dynamic and complex in nature. In contrast, “multiple disciplinary” refers to the presence of more than one specialization in research and practice. The term concerns with bringing in a plural number of disciplines into investigating and solving research problems. Within “multiple disciplinary”, there are 3 more concepts that are worth discussion: multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary.
Multidisciplinarity takes us to the realm of several disciplines. This approach brings in two or more disciplines, but boundaries between those fields remain. Put differently, although there are now multiple lens from different branches of knowledge, these lens tend to be grounded in one discipline, and the others are only additive to this root. Participants of multidisciplinary research maintain their own goals in different professions. Multidisciplinarity does not challenge boundaries between specializations, but it provides the first step on the “multiple disciplinary” continuum.
Interdisciplinarity takes us to the next degree, working between several branches of knowledge. It involves at least two disciplines and stresses the interaction and reciprocity between them. Unlike multidisciplinarity that surrounds a root discipline, interdisciplinary gives equal weights to all of them. Boundaries blur as research efforts are coordinated to create unified outcomes or perspectives. Members of interdisciplinary research projects share common goals and roles, but maintain a discipline-specific base. This approach goes beyond being additive and becomes interactive, integrative, and collaborative as it links different disciplines together into a coherent whole.
The highest level of working with multiple disciplines is transdisciplinarity, concerning the space across and beyond individual branches of knowledge. Transdisciplinarity transcends traditional boundaries of different science fields while also draws in perspectives from diverse groups of both science and non-science participants. The aim of transdisciplinarity is not only understanding problems, but extends to providing solutions to them, recognizing them as becoming more dynamic and complex. Transdisciplinarians work together using a common conceptual framework, bringing to the table their discipline-specific bases for synthesis. The approach stresses the integration, unification, and harmony of different disciplines, views, and methods.
Defining characteristics of transdisciplinarity
The following four traits of transdisciplinary research provide more details of this approach. They also make up a short list of requirements that transdisciplinary researchers should keep in mind to self-assess their understanding and practice of transdisciplinarity.
Research problems are socially-relevant
Transdisciplinary research draws problems from the real world and seeks to address issues in the society. In other words, research problem does not just emerge within the academia, but from real life. This characteristic stresses the ethics of transdisciplinarity in that research needs to be first and foremost responsive to the urging matters in our society. Without this relevance, research problems only stay in the research domain and lack practicality.
Transdisciplinary research design transcends disciplines
Transdisciplinary research goes beyond crossing disciplinary boundaries to seek a unity of knowledge. It integrates different views, literature bodies, and methods of many related disciplines into a common conceptual framework. This characteristic responds to the demand of a new inquiry approach to tackle wicked and multidimensional problems, which often requires understanding of several issues in all social, economic, political, and environmental domains. As wicked problems are also considered inter-connected with other problems, transdisciplinarity can provide a more well-rounded perspective for diagnosing and solving their causes and consequences.
Transdisciplinary research has a participatory element
The participatory element of transdisciplinary research is shown through the inclusion of different groups in the research team or as research subjects. Team members from diverse backgrounds can bring in expertise from their respective discipline; such arrangement adds to the richness of angles and dimensions of the transdisciplinary research project. In addition, because research problems are real-life issues, research efforts should not concern only researchers, but should also involve non-scientist stakeholders, such as users, beneficiaries, policy makers and project implementers, in the research process. It is also advised that different sectors are engaged, such as actors from the government, private sector, and civil society, alongside with scientists and academicians.
Results of transdisciplinary research are applicable
Finally, transdisciplinarity calls for practicality and applicability of results to solving real-world problems. Implications from the research should inform relevant stakeholders and as well call for further actions. If research results are only on paper, the research fails to fulfil its ultimate goal of diagnosing and providing solutions to social problems. This final characteristic of transdisciplinarity ensures that results of transdisciplinary research are brought to fruition as it is expected in the first place.
Examples of transdisciplinarity in research
Concept Note: Eco-Innovation from Indigenous Knowledge for Creative Economy in Mekong River Basin
This research seeks to assess the potentials of eco-innovation and creative economy in the Mekong River Basin using local indigenous knowledge. The research idea stems from real-world need for innovative solutions for indigenous people to autonomously cope with environmental changes instead of waiting for external assistance. To do so, it employs a transdisciplinary approach, drawing in aspects of indigenous knowledge and postcolonial approach to understand the local socio-cultural context of the Mekong regions. The research recognizes the role of indigenous people in providing contextual intelligence, thus embracing them as both the study objects and participants. As the research takes into consideration local specificities, it can be expected to deliver results that are applicable to the indigenous context of the Mekong River Basin.
Concept Note: Increasing Resilience to Water Scarcity in Agricultural Production: A comprehensive social-economic impact assessment and coping strategies for the lower Mekong River Basin
This research seeks to build resilience of agricultural producers to water scarcity by assessing its impacts and evaluate possible policy options and coping strategies. The research is among ongoing efforts to respond to more severe droughts in the lower Mekong River Basin due to climate change and dense upstream hydroelectric network. The team identifies gaps in policy design and implementation, pointing to insufficient attention to local specificities and the lack of social, institutional, physical, and ecological considerations on the problem. Recognizing the complex nature of the problem, the research team adopts a transdisciplinary approach that integrates hydrology, geosciences, social-institutional science, and economics. Results from this research is expected to provide inputs for policymakers to design solutions for more efficient and equitable water use.
Although transdisciplinarity only emerged in the last few decades, it has quickly gained attention and momentum as a new approach to research and education. The approach recognizes the multi-faceted nature of real-world problems, which requires more than one perspective to solve for. It also calls for the participation of different actors to provide well-rounded understanding of the problem at hand. Going beyond bringing together multiple disciplines, transdisciplinary research: (1) is driven by urging matters from the society, (2) transcends and integrates different disciplines into common conceptual framework, (3) engages relevant stakeholders in the research process, and (4) produces applicable solutions. In a world with rising volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, transdisciplinarity is increasingly needed in inquiry and teaching to better respond to modern social and environmental challenges.
By Le Anh Khanh Minh