BLOG: "Transdisciplinarity as a Modern Approach for Global Challenges: Experiences from 2017 Summer School and Fieldtrip, Vietnam" Written by Veng Seang Hai

Transdisciplinarity as a Modern Approach for Global Challenges: Experiences from 2017 Summer School and Fieldtrip, Vietnam

Written by Veng Seang Hai 

If you think just giving money to the poor and building a great wall are ready-made answers to issues of poverty and migration, you may knock on the wrong door. An answer should be more critical since current global challenges have arrived at a wicked and complex system whereby there is no fixed recipe or final solution. Expertise is not always applicable to all contexts since knowledge can be co-produced and reproduced by other forms of knowledge and actors such as the non-trained or non-experts.  

This paradigm shift allows seven universities in Europe and Asia to tie together and create a multilateral program called Fostering Multi-Lateral Knowledge Networks of Transdisciplinary Studies to Tackle Global Challenges (KNOTS). The seven universities include the University of Vienna (Austria), Charles University, (Czech Republic), University of Bonn (Germany), Chulalongkorn University (Thailand), Chiang Mai University (Thailand), Ho Chi Minh City Open University, Southern Institute of Social Sciences (Vietnam) and Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (Vietnam).

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Photo: Opening remark for KNOTS summer school at Vietnam Academy of Social Science (VASS)

Global challenges change so rapidly that they require new innovations in teaching and research methodologies. Besides methodological framework, KNOTS is to build a network of transdisciplinary studies by drawing a platform which represents close collaboration between the academic and non-academic actors, particularly focusing on 1) Environmental Degradation 2) Migration and 3) Social Inequality.

From 18 September to 1 October 2017, KNOTS team organized a hybrid program comprising of summer school in Tam Dao and a field trip in Duong Lam commune, Son Tay town, Hanoi. The idea is to facilitate students from concerned universities to put conceptual information about transdisciplinarity approach into practices during the fieldtrip.

This essay covers information, experiences and reflections that I have learned from the event. What’s more is about challenges faced while applying transdiciplinarity approaches in Duong Lam commune.

Tam Dao National Park: Found by the Occident, Consumed by the Orient  

The summer school was held in picturesque Tam Dao National Park, not far from Ha Noi. The side hides itself in the ocean of green jungle covered by blanket of white cloud underneath amusing blue sky. Such the breathtaking landscape made me no doubt why the French colonists were so deep in loved in this site decades ago that they territorized the site as their legacy. Are there any Frenchmen now?

Photo 1: Tam Dao National Park, view from my hotel

Photo 1: Tam Dao National Park, view from my hotel

Thanks to the French, who tried their best discovering such the recreational heaven on earth, Tam Dao, but now it is more popular to Chinese, Korean and local Vietnamese tourists and businessmen. In context of increased number tourists, supply of accommodations and tourist services has reached the peak—peak of price and peak of mountains. New buildings have emerged getting taller than mountains somehow. It seems to me that the massive emergence of tourist infrastructure could be potential threats to authenticity of the beautiful site. This is Tam Dao in 2017, which is being replaced by modern structures and touristy landscape over its former well-known French legacy. Not all gone. We still find some remained French architects—French ancient stone church, for example.

Photo 2: French ancient stone Church, erecting in the middle of new taller buildings and surrounded by power lines

Photo 2: French ancient stone Church, erecting in the middle of new taller buildings and surrounded by power lines

Photo 2: French ancient stone Church, erecting in the middle of new taller buildings and surrounded by power lines

Photo 3: Development sees no exhaustion. It was about 7 P.M while an excavator was still preparing a new construction site.

Photo 3: Development sees no exhaustion. It was about 7 P.M while an excavator was still preparing a new construction site.

Photo 4: Mushroom of old and new buildings including tourist accommodations and residential houses

Photo 4: Mushroom of old and new buildings including tourist accommodations and residential houses

Staying in Tam Dao for one week, I not only learned about the transdisciplinarity but also realize a part of potential issue represented by rapid growth of tourism infrastructure in the National Park. Not to claim I am 100 % correct, I only raise an alert for related stakeholders to think about construction and building regulation for Tam Dao in avoiding losing its authentic beauty of magnificence and ensuring sustainability of the site.

KNOTS Summer School: The Enlightenment in 21th Century

This section focuses on content I learned from the intense summer school on transdisciplanarity as a new paradigm for researchers and teachers in development and in general. One sentence to reflect all my thoughts is “from now on it comes to the second-path of Enlightenment where experts and academics are taken down to meet non-trained and non-academic knowledge producers and where no single discipline is dominant on a platform of mutual respects.”

I make the claim after Richard Barnthaler and Petra Dannecker kicked off the ball toward history of science and research paradigms in relation to transdiciplinarity. According to Richard, the Western history during 18th and 19th century was marked by “Western Enlightenment Project” during which Western scientific revolution took its root.

In this context, boundaries amongst scientists with different disciplines were drawn, and flawed understanding of objectivity existed. There were problematic assumptions with regard to standard science. While people started to question science more and more, sharp distinction between lay (not trained) and expert knowledge arouse. Therefore, it called for a promotion on epistemology goal aimed to have social conventionality of research. What Richard Barnthaler shared fascinated me in the sense that we could not over distinguish between scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge produced by the untrained since people in different cultural, social and political context tend to contextualize problems differently.

   Photo 5: Richard Barnthaler giving a presentation on History of Science

   Photo 5: Richard Barnthaler giving a presentation on History of Science

Photo 6: Petra Dannecker giving her presentation on Research Paradigm and Transdiciplinarity

Photo 6: Petra Dannecker giving her presentation on Research Paradigm and Transdiciplinarity

In consequence to Richard, Petra Dannecker proceeded to update the momentum of research paradigm with emphasis on pragmatism. In this sense, researches are expected to be more conventionally important and need neutral context and partnership between development researchers and practitioners.

More importantly, Petra further gives insights into three phases of conducting transdisciplinarity. They include (1) framing, (2) research process implementation, and (3) outcomes. Firstly, a planner should ask a question for what and whom his research is designed, empathizing on aims and beneficiaries. To put in other word, research issues and questions should be amendable or feasible to scientific inquiry and ideally co-designed with non-academic actors. Secondly, transdisciplinarity implies that appropriate roles of practitioners or the non-academics and researchers have to be assigned with reference to the interests, needs, wishes and fears of all actors (i.e. there might be political threat for non-academic actors to participate). Thirdly, it acknowledges different forms of knowledge produced through transdisciplinarity. In detail, “system knowledge” reflects a complex problem; “target knowledge” is important for orientation of what a certain issue should look like. What’s more is transformative knowledge which is co-produced by other knowledge. More importantly, transdisciplinarity produces knowledge which can be used by non-academic actors and contribute to policy-making discussions or actions.

Despite fascinating elements of transdisciplanarity, challenges are inevitable. One of the challenges relates to potential conflicts of epistemologies of actors in addition to contestation of values, interests and expectation. It would be a hard work to manage the difference. Another challenge is explained by symbolic participation since not all actors are guaranteed to have intrinsic motivation or inspiration to get things done. Related to this, we should go back to participant selection process whereby each participant has to be ensured of their motives and responsibilities.

Overall, notwithstanding difficulties in transdisciplinary, I still hold strong optimism since it serves as a new turning point for searchers and scientists to rethink their roles in making better deal for global challenges. That is why I call it 21th century Enlightenment.

Duong Lam Commune: Trajectories of Human Mobility       

The idea behind having a fieldtrip in Duong Lam is to translate conceptuality into practicality. At the beginning, we had a chance to meet with leaders of Duong Lam and union leaders. I was fascinated to stories related to historic heroes born in Duong Lam. For this reason, the place became a sacred place, and 9 villages in Duong Lam became cultural heritage in 2006 due to their ancient houses.

Photo 7: KNOTS team having a meeting with leaders of Duong Lam commune

Photo 7: KNOTS team having a meeting with leaders of Duong Lam commune

Photo 8: KNOTS migration group having focus-group discussion with villagers and union leaders

Photo 8: KNOTS migration group having focus-group discussion with villagers and union leaders

General issues faced by Duong Lam relate to social inequality, conservation of ancient houses and human mobility. 70 % of total populations are farmers while 30 % of people are local business owners and traders. Therefore, migration and movement of people in the village became remarkable. Since there are different issues to focus, three different groups were divided in accordance to different issues. Particularly, I am in migration group joined by other four students from Vietnam and Thailand, under helpful supervision of ajan Naruemon Thabchumpon, Alexandra Heis, Bara Jirkova.

For benefit of broader understanding of the issue, my group decided to extend the inquiry into general nature of mobility and movement of people. Three sample groups include farmers, non-farmers and entrepreneurs who were aimed to give diverse perceptions on mobility. Our case studies lie in two villages in Duong Lam: Dong Sang and Doi Giap. 2 in-depth interviews and 4 focused-group discussion were conducted, plus observation and informal talk.

Neoliberalism in Socialist Vietnam?: A Case of a Local Chicken Business

I would consider what I learned here as a success story of the summer school because I was able to reflect to the content that Petra Dannecker talked about outcomes of transdisciplinarity related to transformative knowledge and co-produced knowledge. I also leant this content from discussion and literature on political ecology from ajan Carl Middleston and ajan Chusak Wittayapak. 

Photo 9: Group photo with the chicken farmer family. I am in the middle in black. The farmer is on my left hand and his wife is on the right hand. They are showing us a small vacuum sealer used for chicken packaging.  

Photo 9: Group photo with the chicken farmer family. I am in the middle in black. The farmer is on my left hand and his wife is on the right hand. They are showing us a small vacuum sealer used for chicken packaging.  

In theory, common knowledge of neoliberalism relates to state level of analysis on such principles as Keynesian economic model, deregulation, privatization, free trade and cross-border relocation of cooperation and territorization as touched by David Harvey.

However, I seem to have learned a new thing related neoliberalism theory after meeting with Gia Mia (sugar can chicken) business owner in Dong Sang village. An implication I learned is that neoliberalism is not always the matters at state level, but it is also village level and individualistic matter.

One aspect I found related to neoliberalism is concerned with business relocation. Gia Mia (sugar can chicken) enterprise have located in the village for generations because the owner inherited the chicken raising and breeding technology from his ancestors who had lived in the village. Since Dong Sang is enlisted to cultural heritage, the business is under strict regulation and intervention by the central Vietnamese state. The owner is not allowed to expand his farm due to concern of smell and environmental pollutions to the village. Thus, expansion of the business is not possible unless it is relocated outside the protected village. 

What fascinates me is the business owner’s future plan to expand his business by relocating the farm to another village with no regulatory restriction by the Vietnamese state. It means that he can move to outside locality beside the cultural village if he wants to make the farm bigger and more profitable. To put in other word, this case represents “laissez-faire” economic system at micro-level where the chicken farmer aims to liberate his business from government intervention such as regulatory restriction based on cultural village protection. Hence, I argue that Vietnamese individuals have neoliberal nature as reflected from relocation view.

Another neoliberal aspect relates to Gia Mia association which seemed to play a different game from the central government. What I mean by a different game is that members have different specialized roles and resources used to exchange and trade with one another due to agreed terms and price. Association serves as financial resources for the chicken business since it received limited fiscal support from the Department of Agriculture. Moreover, the association has various cooperatives which sell chicken products outside the village.   

I cannot say my preliminary analysis is sorely correct due to time and knowledge constraints. By the way, I personally come up with uncertainty since seeing it as a paradox of socialism in Vietnam. On state level, it is obviously socialist system, but at individual level, it is more related to neoliberal economy system and principles. For me, the case of Vietnam has a unique definition of socialism if analyzing state and individual perspectives.

Emotional Involvement in Transdisciplinarity: “He thinks you are his father”

Going to a field study gives you not only cultural knowledge but also something beyond. That something is what I call “emotional knowledge” gained through direct engagement with local people. However, tracking back to what Richard Barnthaler mentioned, we will think of why researchers lost their trust by public because of emotional involvement in their scientific analysis.

Here I have no means to say that it is a bad idea to have emotional connection with the local people. Actually I just share my experience in Duong Lam where I had chance to be thought as a father to a kid whose parents left him to work in Malaysia since he was 6 months old.  

Photo 10: I was spoon feeding the kid with lemonade. Ladies beside me uttered that he would consider me as his father indeed. 

Photo 10: I was spoon feeding the kid with lemonade. Ladies beside me uttered that he would consider me as his father indeed. 

That kid kept looking at me and started to touch my hand. Again and again, he came closer to me before I smiled back at him. At first, I felt normal .But later on while he kept playing with my hand, I played with him and lifted him up. The chubby kid was heavier more than I expected. I took him down and continued spoon feed him with my almost-finished lemonade. He has the same age of my niece and nephew back home. I do not know how to describe my feeling. I just started to feel happy cracking open my smile unconsciously.

According to this situation, I may say that emotional connection a researcher has with local people would be an unexpected consequence which tends to overwhelm a researcher to be unintentionally or subconsciously biased when analyzing his findings. Also, the researcher would have absolute rejection or denial against other different views and interests which do not serve the local people, which is problematic to transdisciplinarity implementation. That is what I can reflect to skeptical challenges to scientific sciences and transdisciplinarity.