Engaging with transdisciplinary methods

If you are research-active in sustainability science, there is a point where you have to deal with the notion of transdisciplinarity one way or the other. Often referred to as a key characteristic of sustainability science, it is transdisciplinarity that makes this sort of research a paradigm change. But how do you deal with it?

The notion of problem- and practice-oriented approaches marked the initial point of the influential scientific movement that is transdisciplinary research. Two basic assumptions define the proclaimed paradigm shift. The first describes a general evolution, from a science that is completely academic in nature, monodisciplinary and technocratic, towards a science which is both inter- and transdisciplinary, and in which scientists are part of a heterogeneous network and participate in an extensive process of knowledge production. The second assumption acknowledges uncertainty as an integral part of decision-making processes and therefore calls for the management of uncertainty in decision-making through participatory processes in which different forms of knowledge are considered. Based on this understanding, transdisciplinary research is a new mode of the production of knowledge. At the centre is a strong link between researchers and practitioners: researchers and their potential knowledge must be linked to practitioners, who are working on strategies to be used to solve societal problems and at the same time bringing with them their own potential knowledge. This link can only be achieved by a continuous process of knowledge integration.

So, if successful transdisciplinary research in sustainability science ultimately relies on ways to integrate knowledge, the crucial question is: where do we find such methods and how can we use them? The good news is, a number of recent publications deal with exactly that question and networks have arisen which bring together researchers that are dealing with these issues. One book I found particularly helpful, and as it was recently translated into English and is now available to an international audience, I thought it was worth looking at in a bit more detail.

It is called Methods for Transdisciplinary Research, written by Bergmann and his colleagues. The book rose from the need of researchers for support in their actual research work to describe successfully tested methods for the integration of knowledge in such a way that these methods can be used in transdisciplinary research projects. As Klein puts it in the preface:

Informed choice is crucial. Methods for transdisciplinary research build capacity for informed choice at every turn in its unique structure.

The main task of the book is to identify, describe and order these methods so that you can search for integration methods, learn more about them and see how to use them when tackling real-world problems. This is done in a really accessible and logically structured way to serve you if you are looking for a specific method or if you want to read it cover to cover.

I have been lucky enough to be involved in the pretesting of some of these methods and participated in one of the workshops that were based on an early version of the book. I was fascinated by the thoroughness of the approaches and the thoughtful structure the authors put into the presentation. I certainly benefited enormously from both the workshop and the handout that has now become a book and I hope you will be able to take as much out of it as I did.

Methods for Transdisciplinary Research

Bergmann, M., Jahn, T., Knobloch, T., Krohn, W., Pohl, C., & Schramm, E. (2012). Methods for transdisciplinary research: A primer for practice. Frankfurt: Campus-Verlag.

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