Transdisciplinarity: Challenges, Approaches and Opportunities at the Cusp of History

Authors: Dr. Martha Blassnigg, Prof. Dr. Michael Punt
Advisors: Prof. Roger Malina, Prof. Dr. Jan Baetens, Mr. Mark-Paul Meyer, Dr. Martin Zierold

Transdisciplinarity: Challenges, Approaches and Opportunities at the Cusp of History

Until relatively recently science, engineering, art and design each had their own history. Increasingly they are becoming to be understood as components in the broad sweep of the production of knowledge for the good of humankind and the supporting environment. The most convincing evidence of this is in the shift in concern for the immediate and medium-term to the long-term sustainability of the earth as a nurturing environment e.g. approaches to climate change, water resources, holistic science, the socio-political and economic, as a global problem. The recognition of the interrelation and interdependence of hitherto discrete histories as important, asks for new modes of interaction which are more than opportunist, convenient or problem-driven. This calls for more strategic approaches to transdisciplinarity as the organizing principle for research collaboration.

Survey of concerns

In the last couple of decades voiced discussion around the topic in the literature and in practice, which has been spearheaded by Nowotny and Gibbons et al. with a social science focus and by Niculescu et al. with a science and humanities focus. However, there is a growing slack use of the term in the context of collaborations and points to an urgent need to unravel some of the inherent confusions of the meaning and value of transdisciplinarity in the legacy of some of these interventions if the moment is not to be lost. We propose that a robust framework to think and practice transdisciplinarity is to be developed which, rather than defining it as a goal or achievement, departs from an integrative model of engagement with the aim to facilitate emergent insight, knowledge and interaction that could not have been foreseen or designed in anticipation of a specific outcome or solution to a problem.
In addition, transdisciplinarity is not exclusively an aspiration to move outside disciplinary frameworks, but can just as well be provoked by an involuntary confrontation with insights and concerns intruding into disciplinary practices which stimulates, or in some cases forces, the redefinition of their established scopes, problems and methods.


Aside from imprecise uses of the term, which contributes to a general skepticism, there are real roadblocks to transdisciplinarity which need to be addressed. These are:

* Inflexibility of mobility beyond and between institutional frameworks. The increasing permeability between industry and universities has encouraged interdisciplinarity but has paradoxically led to an increasingly conservative culture of provision which more closely matches the existing (rather than future) employment market.

* National funding for university research recognizes the virtues of transdisciplinarity/interdisciplinarity and multi-disciplinarity but still depends upon evaluation processes that rely on established fiats of experts in disciplines not necessarily fluent in approaches beyond their area of specialism.

* Criteria for existing career and tenure tracks in research are informed by standards and expectations established by professional societies. Individual career tracks in transdisciplinarity are niche pathways in the social sciences and the arts and, at best, excursions from the mainstream in the sciences.

* There is a genuine and significant anxiety that transdisciplinarity (and even interdisciplinarity) will necessarily lead to a loss of focus and a consequent lack of rigour. This roadblock is compounded by the inevitable difficulties of communications between specialists.

* The ambitions of the market with its short- to medium-term risk are more comfortable with discrete disciplines with substantial long-term track-records of research return.


* There is an unprecedented structural change in the production, dissemination and storage of knowledge brought about by a more democratic access to databases. Universities and archives are no longer unchallenged gateways to acquired knowledge. This provides new opportunities/challenges for rethinking the role of the university.

* A significant change in first world demographics (longevity, distribution, mobility and kinship) provides new opportunities/challenges for knowledge exchange, storage and transfer as human capital.

* More permeable national boundaries, mass transport, electronic networks, linguistic dominance of English, provide new opportunities/challenges for exchange and comprehension.

* Interdisciplinarity and multi-disciplinarity have facilitated comparative methodologies which have provided a framework for the management of large, disparate data-sets. Transdisciplinarity offers a more systematized way of management, synthesis and evaluation of knowledge.

* The increasing focus on transparency and knowledge exchange as a consequence of research is being met by radical approaches to publishing platforms. This follows a trend in the Arts and Humanities which has had the effect of closing the gap between the university and the public.

Proposed actions for enhancing collaboration between sciences and engineering with practitioners in arts and design

* Universities should consider themselves more as a locus for criteria in relation to methodological practices than arbiters of values informed by tradition.

* If funding regimes wish to pay more than lip-service to transdisciplinarity they will need to consider radical changes to their review processes in order to include equal weighting for transdisciplinarity. For this they may need to consider the value of the network above its outcome.

* There should be investment in research network developments that regard
transdisciplinarity as a topic and concern relevant to new research in traditional silos.

* There should be investment in soliciting meta-approaches to transdisciplinarity informed by grounded research in the Sciences, Humanities and Arts.

Position statement RE: Transdisciplinarity:

Since 2010 the International Network for Transdisciplinary Research (INTR) led by Transtechnology Research, Plymouth University, has brought together eminent researchers to consider more precise and useable understandings of transdisciplinarity in response to the urgency of high-grade collaborations led by immediate and burgeoning needs. It has proceeded from the inherent confusions and problems arising from a generalized and unreconstructed use of the term as a fashionable synonym for versions of multi-disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. We take the view that the aim of transdisciplinarity is to facilitate emergent insight, knowledge and interaction that could not have been foreseen or designed in anticipation of a specific outcome or solution to a problem.

In this sense the model of transdisciplinarity proposed here takes a more modest approach, in which the emergence of a new or differently posed question, an unexpected facet of perspective or a entirely new question completely independent of the inquiry in process, are valued in their own right and not sidelined through the common problem-driven approaches that limit the inquiry through the pressures on short-term, or immediately economically or materially viable, outcomes. It calls for the development of theoretical, conceptual and practice-oriented approaches to transdisciplinarity as both, a post-hoc analytical process for the qualitative synthesis of collaborative research in interdisciplinary frameworks, and as methodological framework to forge innovative approaches to research collaboration that is inquiry-driven and seeks to identify new topics and concerns. In this way transdisciplinarity is sought to bridge disparate areas of discourse and research topics not merely by transcending or transgressing disciplinary boundaries around problem-driven inquiries, but by letting the inquiry in itself drive the methods, tools and theoretical formation in order to stimulate the identification of new concerns, insights and topics that emerge from this cross-fertilisation of rigorous as much as imaginative scholarly research.

An emphasis in this approach to transdisciplinary lies on ‘transformation’ in the sense of the transformative potential of transdisciplinarity: in the recursive reflective impact on disciplinary practice, the dynamic interaction between researchers and objects of study that are conceived as integrative processes rather than disparate entities, in the consequential flatter model that breaks down certain hierarchical power-structures of the dominant institutionalised frameworks, as well as in the contingencies that dynamically shape the original research question from which the inquiry departed.

Martha Blassnigg, Michael Punt
August 09 2012