By Sara K. Phillips
I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.
Plato, The Republic
In 2015, Jay Hillel Bernstein described transdisciplinarity as “a change in thinking about research and education challenging the division of academic labor into traditional disciplines such as English, sociology, or geology” (p. 1). In essence, transdisciplinary research questions conventional pathways of knowledge creation and, despite its name, aspires to a space of non-disciplinarity. Participants are encouraged to work outside the confines of specific discipline-oriented academic training and embrace a “socially robust” (Nowotny, 2001, p. 4) epistemological approach, where research methodologies are combined and questions bloom from what Nowotny refers to as contextualization, or “bringing people into knowledge production” (p. 3). Transdisciplinarity is an inclusive approach to the pursuit of knowledge; however, for the trained researcher, the process may feel enigmatic, like walking into the abyss, armed with little more than one’s positionality in the world. This unconventional approach to research can seem like a messy and chaotic symphony of methodological approaches; yet, within this forest, you find the trees, and the approach reveals itself to be adaptive and responsive, albeit time intensive and somewhat mystifying.
Before continuing further, it should be noted that my own experience with transdisciplinary research is limited. Limited to two weeks, in fact. The first week spent in training and the second, in the field. I liken myself to an experimental case study: pluck the discipline-oriented academic from behind the desk, drop her into the deep end of the pool, and see how long she can tread water. However, as a trained legal professional and social science researcher, the transdisciplinary approach was not a large intellectual leap for me. Within the field of jurisprudence, legal pluralism and the study of society-law relationships reveals the complex dynamics within which the law operates. It is not simply a group of principles born from the four walls of a courtroom or the hallowed halls of the legislature (though that is part of it), but rather layered and socially constructed concepts that emerge over time and space. Like the transdisciplinary approach to research, the law is anchored to people, and the production of knowledge occurs in a pluralistic, multileveled fashion.
I am not here advocating that law is somehow created or conceptualized in the way that a project rooted in the transdisciplinary approach would be, only that characteristically, there are similarities between the two. Nevertheless, the law also exists as a unique and separate discipline. This discipline includes rigorous training in the analysis and reading of the law, the writing and construction of arguments, and a complex and purposeful space for philosophical contemplation of the field. Hence, the law has specific research methodologies and ethical considerations when a trained jurist chooses to undertake fieldwork and conduct research which directly interacts with, or impacts upon, people. It is thus as much a specific discipline as anthropology or engineering, among others, and includes its own version of knowledge production, research methods, ontologies, and epistemological approaches.
What I have described above could apply to any number of specific disciplinary fields. Each discipline may have overlapping characteristics that can be drawn upon to more readily embrace the transdisciplinary approach to research. Similarly, every field of study will entail a certain ontological structure and likely, a definitive means by which knowledge is generated. It is perhaps these two contrasting aspects of disciplinarity that provide space for the transdisciplinary project to grow. If we are cognizant of our own positionality as researchers, then perhaps we can find areas where our training will help, not hinder, our efforts in breaching barriers, confronting bias, and embracing inclusivity as a research method.
The process of incorporating (and accepting) knowledge generated from outside academic and scientific communities has long been in the making. In Canada, the incorporation of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) into environmental impact assessments is a specific, delineated legal requirement. Despite this, TEK is often not recognized as an equally authoritative form of knowledge as compared with other science-based inputs. TEK may be information that is gathered over generations – able to provide pertinent historical details of the natural ebb and flow of a particular ecosystem; whereas, for example, scientific measurements may be limited to a specific point on the long and rich timeline of a given biome.
In Southeast Asia, the Thai Baan approach is perhaps the most well-known example of transdisciplinary research in practice. The approach creates citizen researchers, where community members document their own social, ecological, and economic conditions, ultimately creating an informational narrative that is produced by the individuals themselves. As the Living River Siam Association explains:
Thai Baan research … has recently emerged as a counter-hegemonic approach, aiming to reveal local knowledge about the environment and how villagers interact with it. It reveals their practical understanding of the complexity and dynamics of natural resources, the way resources have been used, and the moral economy of those who depend on them for their livelihoods (Thai Baan Research, n.d.).
The Thai Baan approach does not negate the role of the formal researcher, but rather, elevates the function of the community participants. This has several benefits for all research contributors. The body of knowledge generated is more robust, with an increased likelihood to generate practical uses and informed outcomes. The process also works to defy entrenched power dynamics, creating new pathways for empowerment and solution-making.
It is at this juncture that it is perhaps most prudent to consider the potential challenges to utilizing a transdisciplinary approach in research. I have thus far painted a picture of the method through a somewhat rose-coloured lens. In truth, it is difficult to argue with the approach when applied to research that seeks a greater understanding of the human condition. Who, after all, is better equipped to tell one’s story than the community and individuals themselves? What better way to decipher the narrative of an issue than to ordain multiple authors? If only it were so simple.
Despite the above-described successes and inclusive nature of the approach, transdisciplinary research can still result in muddled power dynamics, questionable data, and unclear expectations. Moreover, transdisciplinary research will necessitate time, lots of time. The approach emphasizes the notion that the research question will emanate from research participants themselves. Thus, while an awareness of the issues facing a target community is undoubtedly required, identifying what the community needs, or what challenges are a priority to them, will emerge from the individuals with whom a researcher is engaged. It is a recipe that requires equal parts patience, time, funding, and trust (which is usually the result of time).
As stated above, power dynamics, positionality, and expectations are also potential obstacles to achieving reliable research results when undertaking transdisciplinary fieldwork. It may often be the case that a researcher is unable to escape the positionality of one’s place in the world, creating dynamics that complicate interactions amongst participants. Further, research participants may be unable to embrace the transdisciplinary process due to social, cultural, or political factors that negate the ability to candidly discuss issues related to a given topic. This may mean that identifying research objectives is an impossibility due to barriers to free expression or other forms of formal and informal censorship. There may also be cultural and social practices that prevent certain persons from engaging in research activities, and it may be difficult to determine and interpret the nuances of interpersonal interactions.
Despite the potential hindrances, there is much to be gained from undertaking a research project utilizing transdisciplinary methods. In the brief time I spent in the field attempting to implement such a project, I was readily made aware of its potential. As an approach to research, transdisciplinarity provides the ultimate flexibility to improvise techniques that meet the needs or desires of research participants. Perhaps it can best be described as creative in that it is, in essence, a creation of the circumstances and persons with whom the approach interacts.
In the Field
As we drove our van deeper into the Mekong River Delta region, I wondered what awaited us. Armed with my preparatory knowledge of the issues we would investigate, I still felt I knew relatively little about what lay ahead. The topics of research were salinity intrusion and climate change adaptation, but as the study progressed, it became clear that the issues were actually: salinity intrusion and climate change; and land ownership; and agrochemicals; and migration; and livelihoods; and gender; and ethnicity; and structural; and cultural; and more. The question then became, what can we accomplish in the short time that we have? To undertake a substantive examination of the area would take months. We were given days. It would thus seem beneficial to let nature take its course, so to speak, and see where the research led us.
The uniqueness of the transdisciplinary approach was that we were no longer confined to the strictures of a predetermined course of research. We were gumshoe investigators of a sort, led by the people with whom we interacted. These interactions introduced us to the complexities that are inbuilt to the climate change challenge. Through interviews with various stakeholders, including government, community leaders, farmers, laborers, and small business owners, a narrative of the area began to emerge – one built on multileveled knowledge input that was guided by the process rather than a specific research question.
The flexibility that is inherent to the transdisciplinary approach provided the opportunity to delve into related issues that may otherwise have been omitted or neglected. For example, during an interview of a land-owning farmer, a female farmhand sat beside me and quietly told me her story. Her story was not one specifically related to salinity intrusion, but rather a narrative of the ways in which changes to the climate and ecological environment had impacted her life. The stability of her livelihood became altered, necessitating migration and separation from her family, which she unhesitatingly linked to the changing climate conditions. Thus, our transdisciplinary research project assumed various subtopics, shaped by the context of our interactions with people.
I close this blog posting with a final thought. The inclusive character of transdisciplinary research is arguably of paramount importance when addressing expansive and broad reaching issues, such as climate change. Transdisciplinary research should not be seen as a challenge to existing forms of research and knowledge generation, but rather as complementary and evolutionary. There is a strong argument to be made for research that is firmly situated within a certain discipline and that follows the rigors of that discipline; however, it cannot therefore be understood that only knowledge generated through a specific pathway has value. This is, at its very core, a logical fallacy. What transdisciplinarity offers us is innovation. Like the universe itself, perhaps approaches to research, whether mono, inter, multi, pluri, or trans, should always be growing.
Bernstein, J.H. (2015). Transdisciplinarity: A review of its origins, development, and current issues. Journal of Research Practice, 11(1), Article R1. Retrieved from http://jrp.icaap.org/index.php/jrp/article/view/510/412.
Living River Siam Association (n.d.). Thai Baan Research. Retrieved from http://www.livingriversiam.org/en-tbr.htm.
Nowotny, H. (2001). The Potential of Transdisciplinarity. Retrieved from http://www.helga-nowotny.eu/downloads/helga_nowotny_b59.pdf.