Blog by Ruth Welters.
If you came to the Methods workshop in June 2015 and have read the workshop report then you will already be familiar with the term ‘transdisciplinarity’ and what is meant by it. But just in case you missed the workshop or are wondering what academics mean by this term, I thought it would be worth going back to Andy Stirling’s discussion paper, which he wrote before the event.
Andy works through a very clear explanation of what is meant by different terms from mono- to trans- disciplinarity and the rest of this blog draws heavily from Andy’s discussion paper. Of course, this blog can’t possibly bring the full depth of the analysis and argument so please do read the full discussion paper.
Can one person or approach tackle the ‘nexus’
The issues of the nexus of food, energy, water and the environment are enormous and global; no-one would argue that one person or even one research discipline from either natural or social sciences, could possibly address Nexus questions on their own (that would be a mono-disciplinary approach).
There is a general acknowledgement that people from different research backgrounds need to work together and perhaps even work with people from outside of academia. This applies to many big-issue areas, not just for the Nexus of course.
Various terms have developed to encompass this approach of working together. But are the terms just a bit of jargon or are there more important philosophical and practical issues behind the terms, the way of working they encapsulate and the outcomes they lead to?
Andy’s paper says that multidisciplinarity is often used to mean efforts to ‘join up’ the contributions of different disciplines.
In this approach, each discipline will tend to carry on with its own ways of going about research, with clear boundaries between different groups. Efforts are made to ‘bridge divides, illuminate interfaces and fill gaps’ to make sure all aspects are covered. Component parts are then added up to deliver a ‘definitive’ result.
This approach is typically led by natural science, with social science seen to provide additional support and validity in the parts where it is ‘needed’.
Pressures to use a multidisciplinary approach
Decision makers, especially in the public sector, are driven by the need to carry out ‘evidence-based decision making’. But although the issues may be complex and varied, policy makers need a clear decision point. The pressure ‘to deliver apparently simple and objective policy justifications’ therefore mean that the ‘crucial nexus-related complexities and uncertainties’ are not addressed; in fact they can’t really be addressed in this type of approach.
Criticisms of a multidisciplinary approach
- Rigid and hierarchical structures
- Dominance of certain disciplines
- Complexity and criticism are met with increasing elaboration
- Overly simplistic or erroneously definitive outcomes
- Used to justify tricky political decisions, by asserting an unassailably prescriptive picture – backed up by the authority of all the included disciplines.
Andy’s paper says ‘Of course, such initiatives can play significant roles, like catalysing onward critical debate. But with global stakes so high, it is precarious to give too much latitude to such political pressures in nexus-related research.’
Andy argues that ‘attention must be given to the dynamics of interests and power in the ways Nexus understandings are produced and structured, as well as implemented’ and an interdisciplinary research approach is a way to move towards this:
Interdisciplinary research aims to
- be less regimented
- get disciplines to engage closely together, in a more equal way
- overcome the bias or dominance of specific disciplines, theoretical frameworks, specific methods or favoured solutions
- bring ‘greater flexibility and robustness in systematically exploring different ways of framing and interrogating the focal problems’, leading to greater openness and transparency
- enable (rather than suppress) scepticism and criticism, to make policies more robust, responsible and accountable.
This is more likely to be achieved within small teams, or even individuals, rather than through large programmes.
An interdisciplinary approach can
- yield unexpected insights and possibilities
- facilitate more radical interactions between different styles of knowledge
- foster potentially transformative solutions
- link scientific and technological advances with marginalised interests and social innovations.
Despite funders calling for it, and researchers claiming to carry it out, interdisciplinarity can be hard to achieve in practice. This can be due to the structure of research organisations, personal incentives and the fact that disciplinary interests will be challenged. In addition, Andy notes that ‘sponsoring political interests can find the resulting transparency about complexities and uncertainties highly inconvenient’.
So what next? A way to address the limitations of interdisciplinarity, is to engage ‘beyond formally accredited academic disciplines and specialist agencies’ thus expanding to transdisciplinarity.
Andy argues that ‘key insights are often provided by other kinds of tacit, nonspecialist or general knowledge – as often held by local communities, affected people, workers, small businesses, social movements, street level bureaucrats or many different kinds of practitioner’.
Aims of transdisciplinarity
- bring a diversity of people and views to re-frame and re-focus how nexus-related challenges are addressed
- bring in non-specialist perspectives to ‘help avoid narrow disciplinary or institutional blinkers’
- open up space for ‘wider and deeper forms of critical discourse and challenge’
- lead to improved policy making, there the most vulnerable people, those who have the most lose have not been excluded and marginalised
This sounds great but how can it be achieved?
One way to move towards this is to expand the mix of methods use, to include many more social science methods. Andy’s paper explores a number of methods such as ‘plural photovoice’, ‘participatory sensitivity analysis’ and ‘innovation histories’ which can be used to both ‘broaden out’ and ‘open out’ research and appraisal. But, given the complexity of the issues, and the strength of political and economic structures, can adding some extra methods sort out the problem?
Andy argues ‘Referring to socio-cultural changes, like unfinished and faltering moves away from slavery, serfdom, worker exploitation, colonialism, racism, sexism and homophobia, it can be appreciated… that successful progressive transformation of systems of practice and provision around water, food and energy needs, will be driven by collective action in wider political arenas’
‘The target arena for nexus-related related methods is not just policy, but politics’. ‘This is the only position to take, that is truly consistent with academic responsibilities for independence and disinterested rigour.’