By Chol Bunnag
The terms multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary have been known to me more than a decade now. However, it was at the KNOTS summer school that I gained better understanding of the differences between these approaches and of the transdisciplinary research. I think the key difference of transdisciplinary research is the “knowledge co-production” not only between disciplines but also different forms of knowledge in order to solve complex societal and environmental problems. This implies that the transdisciplinary approach does not only recognize and accept scientific knowledge but also other forms of knowledge, such as experience-based knowledge, local and traditional wisdom, as important elements in knowledge production. Such recognition also leads to more equal relationships between actors in the research process, since other actors are not only subjects in the research but co-producers of research questions, input, analysis, outputs and outcomes of the research.
The fact that this approach became the main theme of this international cooperation between universities reflects that this approach is recognized by the scholars of these institutions. The approach is taken seriously by scholars from several disciplines. Discussion papers, book chapters, research articles, even academic conferences were written and organized about this approach. The transdisciplinary approach has become not only an approach but another school of thought as it has its own core assumptions, community platforms (conferences, journals, etc.), and transdisciplinary scholars recognizing themselves to be doing this.
In Thailand, we do have similar research approach to the transdisciplinary research. Originally it is called “Thaibaan research”. I believed that later on it was adopted by the previously Thailand Research Fund (TRF) to be one of its programs, called “Community-Based Research” or CBR. This is a research approach where a researcher(s) is working with the locals as a coach or facilitator. The locals are the ones who propose a set of questions for research. The researcher helps the locals by discussing with them to shape the questions to be research questions that lead to practical and sustainable solutions for local problems. Then the researcher also guides the locals on the design of the research methodology and let the locals execute their methods. The researcher is only an advisor in this process and may also links the locals with experts related to the research questions. The analysis and research output and outcome are done by the locals with the researcher facilitating the process and giving some reflections and inputs to the analysis. After 2 decades, there are locals who did or have been doing research with CBR program all over Thailand.
Although CBR is well received by the locals as it is very powerful in bringing people together to learn and collectively solve local problem, it is not recognized as another epistemological approach but only a way to make research useful for the local. I believe that this is because the CBR has never been philosophically deliberated by Thai scholars regarding its epistemological contribution, since the philosophical and epistemological discussions and debates in Thai academic communities have never been very limited, if not non-existent. As a result, when the TRF was (and has been) reformed into a new organization, the CBR was not even recognized as an element of the new national research facilities. It is important to note that not every CBR projects were producing sustainable solutions as well as academic contributions. Some of them even failed in the process. But I think that is problem of implementation. However, with proper implementation, CBR is a very powerful approach to produce knowledge and solutions to tackle the complex problems.
All in all, different treatments given to Transdisciplinary research and Community-based research, which are very similar in their approach, are leading them to different directions. Transdisciplinary research became a new epistemological approach for complex sustainability issues. Thaibaan and CBR are now forgotten by Thai research policies.