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Transdisciplinary research: how are context dependencies, innovative formats and methods, societal effects, and scientific effects connected?

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During the last decades, the transdisciplinary mode of research has attracted growing interest among those research communities striving for societal effects via collaboration between academic and non-academic actors. Context dependencies, innovative formats and methods, societal effects, and scientific effects are key aspects of transdisciplinary research which have been discussed at length since the 1970s. Context dependencies are factors influencing both the research design and the interpretation of results (e.g. stakeholders, social/cultural/political conditions, and research setting). Innovative formats structure entire transdisciplinary research processes (e.g. real-world labs) and include various methods such as interviews or workshops. Societal effects describe changes induced within the closer and wider spatial and temporal contexts of transdisciplinary research processes. Scientific effects describe changes in the structure of research problems, research practices, results, and scientific institutions.

However, what has been missing is an integrative perspective which combines these four key aspects, potentially shedding light on synergies. In our recently published paper “Transdisciplinary research: towards an integrative perspective”, we briefly summarise the current discourse on the four aspects and illustrate what an integrative perspective could look like (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The figure shows an ideal transdisciplinary research (TDR) process consisting of the problem-framing, co-production, and (re)-integration phases (in the middle) (based on Jahn et al. 2012, Lang et al. 2012). In addition, the figure shows four aspects of TDR: context dependencies, innovative formats and methods, and societal and scientific effects.
First published in GAIA 30/4 (2021): 244

In the paper, we reflect on three integrative approaches to stimulate research and debate. These are: 1. exploring and strengthening interconnections and synergies; 2. enhancing quality criteria as a cross-cutting element; and 3. capacity building and providing guidance for scientists and practitioners.

Integrative approaches to advance transdisciplinary research

1. Exploring and strengthening interconnections and synergies

Example: context dependencies of transdisciplinary research objects have a huge impact on research processes and their societal outcomes. Understanding how context dependencies are interconnected and which synergies they generate can inform the selection and adaptation of formats and methods.

2. Enhancing quality criteria as a cross-cutting element

Example: enhancing the quality criteria of transdisciplinary research on all four aspects would advance theory, methods, project designs, and capacity building. This is essential to assess potential, to evaluate progress and accomplishments, and to guide funding, management, and development.

3. Capacity building and providing guidance for scientists and practitioners

Transdisciplinary research has been developed further by scientists from different fields during the last decade. Scientists and practitioners alike can sometimes be overwhelmed by the complexity and diversity of theories, formats, and methods. Capacity building is key in dealing with these issues and broadening appreciation of the need for an integrated perspective, as is the offer of guidance for scientists and practitioners to advance transdisciplinary research.

An integrative perspective on context dependencies, innovative formats and methods, societal effects, and scientific effects can realise the full transformative potential of the transdisciplinary research mode. We invite the research community to engage in discussions and research that provide clarity on interconnections.

tdAcademy – a platform for transdisciplinary research and studies

The paper is the first joint publication of the tdAcademy project. As a project, we conduct research on central topics of transdisciplinary research and strengthen the joint production of knowledge. But tdAcademy is more: a research and community platform for transdisciplinary research and research on transdisciplinarity. With our website we support the direct exchange between researchers via new community offerings and information on events and projects.

Why have we set up an online platform when there are already great initiatives in place that bring the community together? Take, for example, the Global Alliance for Inter- and Transdisciplinarity (ITD), the td-net or the i2insights blog. The fact is we saw a gap in the community: what was still missing was an easy-to-access meeting point specifically for the transdisciplinary research community to get an overview about who is in the community, to search for people, expert opinions and experiences that can help support their own transdisciplinary work, or to start collaborations – and then make direct contact.

On the tdAcademy online platform, the transdisciplinary research community can meet directly by creating profiles, announcing events, and sharing their research projects. Overall, we are not only striving for a comprehensive and interactive ‘address book’ of the community but in future want to fill it with life, knowledge exchange and capacity-building opportunities. Additionally, we want to provide an overview of what is going on and what is being worked on in the transdisciplinary research community by means of a project database.

All in all, tdAcademy is working towards an integrative perspective on transdisciplinary research as well as integrating the community. We look forward to you joining the discussion!

Register as a tdCommunity member and fill out your individual profile:

Read our new paper in GAiA (open access): 
Lam, David P. M./Maria E. Freund/Josefa Kny/Oskar Marg/Melanie Mbah/Lena Theiler/Matthias Bergmann/Bettina Brohmann/Daniel J. Lang/Martina Schäfer (2021): Transdisciplinary research: towards an integrative perspective. GAIA 30 (4), 243-249


David P. M. Lam

Studies in sustainability science and environmental studies. Scientific and managing director of tdAcademy – Platform for Transdisciplinary Research and Studies, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany. Fellow of the Postdoc Academy for Transformational Leadership from Robert Bosch Stiftung. Research interests: transformation dynamics (scaling, leverage points) and transformative transdisciplinary research.

Josefa Kny

Studies in political sciences and futures studies. Researcher at the Center for Technology and Society, Technische Universität Berlin, Germany. Researcher and online editor with tdAcademy – Platform for Transdisciplinary Research and Studies. PhD in social-ecological transformation research. Research interests: societal effects of transdisciplinary research, trans- formation research, participatory methods.

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  1. […] questions related to new land management practices. Ideally, research to improve this knowledge is transdisciplinary in nature and incorporates the practical knowledge of stakeholders in the development of […]

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