By Liz Clarke
As we reach the halfway mark of our Leverage Points project our thinking and rethinking is deepening around the three fundamental “boundaries” which we have identified and wish to challenge and transgress. These fundamental boundaries are 1) the boundary between incremental change and transformation for sustainability 2) engaging with the fuller potential of complex systems thinking and 3) pushing the boundaries of collective and transdisciplinary research practice. In relation to the third boundary in this list, our collaboration and discussions have led us to ask some searching questions about what we mean by transdisciplinarity (which mirrors a ongoing, lengthy debate in the literature). And, unsurprisingly, we discovered a range of different meanings and ideas relating to transdisciplinarity, and no sign of a clear, shared definition.
Let me give some examples. In discussing our collaborations and inquiry in our case study areas (Transylvania, Romania and Oldenburg, Germany), we were struck by how differently the various sub-teams and individuals engage with the case studies. In some cases, researchers are collaborating closely with a core team of local, community-based partners including NGOs, individuals, community groups and associations. In contrast, some of our other researchers are working at the institutional level, engaging in policy, governance in regional or national systems. And then there are others who are working with a broader range of local and regional stakeholders.
Who is “doing” transdisciplinary research and who is not? Are we “in” or “out” of this space? And the discussion gets quite vigorous at this stage, as different definitions and conceptions butt up against each other, which has the potential to create separations or boundaries between the different team members.
Then the penny drops! There IS no one, useful definition, but a series of stipulative meanings or lenses through which we can view our research approach but most particularly our practice. It becomes a matter of what is practical and useful for particular inquiry situations.
So rather than seeing transdisciplinarity as an “in” or “out”, prescriptive set of tick boxes, we start to see some fluctuation in the caste of actors and partners over the life of the project, and we start to use terms like “near” and “far” and think in terms of inter linkages and broader networks, and what is a useful description at the time. Conceptual vagueness or plurality can be an asset (Strunz, 2012). And as Professor Joern Fisher so clearly states in his blog post, “Deep down, transdisciplinarity is about respecting non-research stakeholders, respecting their knowledge, engaging with them, and helping them do better through one’s research. It’s this moral basis of transdisciplinarity that I believe we can apply to just about all settings, because it’s grounded in something so deep that it makes sense irrespective of context”.
And perhaps what is important here is what we mean by transdisciplinary research practice? Perhaps it is a series of principles and practices by which we can extend our inquiry into the realities of sustainability transformation – which is a relatively new and unmapped territory here in the Anthropocene. Where we and other colleagues in the sustainability transformation space are starting to really look at how we can engage in knowledge co-production, how we can be inclusive of the diversity of human inquiry and human justice, and embrace uncertainty and complexity to discover emergent futures.