Methodologies for Interdisciplinary Research by Stella Veciana

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Text by Stella Veciana

Over the past few decades, a section of leading-edge science has been trying to go beyond traditional scientific methodology, by means of transdisciplinarity. The term transdisciplinarity was first used in the seventies in the context of a reassessment of the university education and research model. There is currently no single definition of transdisciplinarity, a concept that is constantly under discussion and subject to change. The sociologist Thomas Jahn sums it up as follows: “transdisciplinarity is a reflexive research approach that addresses societal problems by means of interdisciplinary collaboration as well as the collaboration between researchers and extra-scientific actors; its aim is to enable mutual learning processes between science and society; integration is the main cognitive challenge of the research process” (Jahn et al. 2012, 4). Transdisciplinary research takes into account three kinds of knowledge that are key to science geared towards sustainability: the analysis of the knowledge of the system, the attempt to reach an agreement on the desired target knowledge, and the required transformation knowledge (Becker/Jahn 2000). The transdisciplinary approach can be described as

- the systems knowledge that contains knowledge about the needs and challenges facing societies, and about the structures and contexts that they emerge from. This means considering questions that have to do with sustainability, such as: what is the relationship between local challenges and global challenges such as planetary limits, the non-sustainable use of the environment, poverty and social injustice? How can we guarantee that future generations will be able to survive and meet their needs? To answer these questions, researchers begin by studying the complex links between the social, ecological, economic, and cultural dimensions of the problem. The analysis of the context clarifies the current state of the problem and its specific conditions. The analysis also looks at the aspects of uncertainty in the problem in question. As such, it helps researchers to understand what knowledge is missing, to define socio-technological innovation, and to assess the possible consequences of innovation and of social actions.

- the target knowledge that makes it possible to integrate many different types of knowledge into a joint vision. For the research team, this can mean questioning pre-conceived ideas in order to arrive at common approaches in a non-hierarchical, intercultural dialogue. This involves pooling the targets of the collaboration between researchers and social actors. Based on the analysis of the current state of particular social problems, researchers study “the situation that should or should not be”. They also consider the desired impact of the project, which can result in laying the groundwork for future regulations, or to proposing sustainable lifestyles. Other challenges are linked to the process of transdisciplinary research itself.

- transformation knowledge refers to knowledge about methods and concepts that can be implemented as possible solutions to the problem in question. Based on this knowledge, researchers specify the personal training, resources, and social interventions required to reach the common objective. Transformation knowledge is knowledge about how to move from the current situation to the desired situation. This means that members of the research team will be required to have certain attributes during the entire transdisciplinary research process. One of these is to be open to dialogue, so as to build relationships based on mutual trust. Others are critical self-reflection, an awareness of co-responsibility, and commitment.

In interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, participatory methodology is a key element for creating more sustainable and resilient societies. On one hand, it promotes critical self-reflection and an awareness of co-responsibility in knowledge-generation and implementation processes. And on the other, it generates non-hierarchical dialogue based on mutual trust, which allows researchers to imagine alternatives to specific problems through common approaches. Notable precursors to the participatory method include Participatory Research-Action, Agricultural Systems Research, Rapid Rural Diagnosis, Participatory Rural Diagnostics, Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation, and Participatory Analysis of Poverty. From the beginning, participatory methodologies have been widely used around the world by different actors in a wide range of sectors. These methods were initially conceived and used by small non-government organisations and agricultural research centres for the design of rural development projects. Nowadays, they are used by universities, cooperation agencies, and even the World Bank. Moreover, their use has spread to projects in very different fields, including natural resource management, conflict resolution, microcredits, and healthcare, to name a few.

Transdisciplinary methodology begins with a study that integrates different types of knowledge. It is based on the idea of a structural change in the relationship between science and society. It uses relational methodology that combines scientific knowledge and practical knowledge. Notable concepts include "Mode 2 Investigation” (Gibbons et al, 1994), “postnormal science” (Funtowic/Ravetz, 2001) and the precursor of “research-action” (Kurt Lewin, 1946).

Perhaps one of the most significant precursors of transdisciplinarity is "action-research" methodology. According to its creator, MD and psychologist Kurt Lewin, the three most important characteristics of action-research are: its participatory nature, its democratic impulse, and its simultaneous contribution to knowledge in the social sciences. During and after World War II, Lewin and his colleagues at the Group Dynamics Centre at MIT embarked on several projects in conjunction with civil servants and community leaders. Their aim was to transform theoretical principles from the field of psychology into practical recommendations for solving social problems such as interracial conflicts (Lewin, 1948). The key ideas behind the participatory aspect were “group decision-making and commitment to improvement”.

Another important forerunner is the “postnormal science” methodology developed by the mathematicians Silvio Funtowic and Jerome Ravetz. This approach aims to resolve social or environmental situations, for example, in which "facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent," (Funtowic/Ravetz, 1991). The uncertainty of the system and the consequent decision-making risks are particularly high in the case of major challenges such as climate change. The complexity of these problems requires preemptive, participatory legislation in order to prevent irreversible change. This means an “extended community of peers” promoting civic participation in order to provide multiple, constructive perspectives on such complex and controversial scientific and political issues.

From the nineties onwards, theorists such as the sociologists Helga Nowotny and Michael Gibbons began to make a distinction between the development of “mode 2 applied research” and “traditional mode 1 science”. Research problems in mode 1 arise exclusively from internal disciplinary scientific interests, while research lines in mode 2 seek “robust solutions” to social problems in a particular context. In order to increase the robustness of solutions, a deeper knowledge of the context is required. For example, the appropriate design and materials for a robust building will depend on whether the site on which it will be built is earthquake prone. Meanwhile, scientific quality in mode 2 is bound to social responsibility. The added value is the “integrated social value”, or in other words, the fact that it considers the social consequences of scientific production. Nowotny also proposes open communication between science and society, and advocates setting up an “agora” in which to discuss the knowledge required for the robust solutions that we need.

From Disciplinary Methodology to Methodology of Fields of Action

See the recently published SEAC study Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation. Enabling New Forms of Collaboration among Sciences, Engineering, Arts, and Design

Cross-cutting Issues

1. The methodological interrelation of all parts of the protocol.

2. The attribution of names of individual/institutional participants in the protocol over the last two years.

3. Bibliography.

Action Clusters and Methods

The concept of “action clusters” discussed in this protocol was developed in the publication "Steps to an Ecology of Networked Knowledge and Innovation. Enabling New Forms of Collaboration among Sciences, Engineering, Arts, and Design". This study is framed within the STEM to STEAM[1] movement that grew out of a renewed interest in how the arts, design, and humanities can contribute to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and how it can help to set up new kinds of collaborations for resource-sharing, education and innovation projects, and transformative transdisciplinary initiatives. Action clusters are groups of activities, key processes, and implementation processes. The idea of “clustering” is a way of going beyond the concept of disciplines as delimited sets of knowledge. The action clusters identified in the study are:

- translating (problem-driven connections among academic, commercial, and civil societies; project formation and translational value)

- convening (overcoming transdisciplinary thresholds)

- enabling (sustained balanced SEAD relationships forming safe, productive environments for hybrid individuals and practices)

- including (spurring innovation through the diversity of communities addressing global issues and local solutions)

- situating (an emerging ecology of creative spaces; “alt spaces”)

- sense-making (multimodal knowledge and ways of knowing; integrating understandings through the STEAM perspective)

- documenting (recording and transmitting: capturing, publishing, curating, archiving)

- sharing (tapping into the passion and creativity of lifelong curiosity and learning)

- collaborating (working across disciplines, organisations, individuals)

- thriving (ethics and values, well-being)

Basically, the method for approaching new forms of collaboration is based on action clusters that do not arise from the branching of the “tree of science” but from “knowledge networks” based on structures with multiple relational connections. The protocol describes action clusters as accessible spaces that go beyond the notion of disciplines and can be used, for example, to investigate conflicts and make the value of dissent visible, etc.

Transdisciplinary Methodology and Social Responsibility: “Responsible Innovation and Science”

At the European level, the idea of social responsibility applied to science is currently discussed under the concept of “responsible innovation and science”, particularly in the framework of the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme. In scientific research, “responsibility” originally referred to the professional ethics of scientists in regard to the accuracy of their results, to guaranteeing the safety of those directly affected by their studies, and to the management of the public funds made available to them. Now, however, responsible science also refers to the social consequences of research and of the publication or results: this includes destructive, unpredictable repercussions, the lack of control, and conflicts with the society’s values, as in the case of genetic engineering for example.

There are currently different notions of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). The RRI Tools Project funded under the Framework Programme FP7 aims to develop a set of digital resources for the community of practice. This project understands RRI as “a shift in responsibility: the shift from thinking in terms of individualist and consequentialist notions of responsibility to thinking in terms of collective and distributed responsibility and processes.” This means that it “specifies both outcomes and process requirements of the responsible research and innovation process.” This protocol suggests taking into account the methods developed by the project, including its repercussions, as a commitment to create the appropriate conditions[2] for a responsible action process. At the same time, it raises questions about how, from what context, and who (co-)decides on the distribution of responsibility.

Methods and Ethics

The concept of “responsible science and innovation” covers different aspects of the relationship between science and innovation and society: ethics, gender equality, free access, citizen participation and scientific education. (…)

*Visualisation – Transparency

Minimum objective: (One of the possible minimum objectives): to generate (DIWO) tools (empowerment) through learning-research

Ideal: management of usage, to rule out improper use Forschungswende method Community Building method


  1. From STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics), which includes art
  2. “As far as process requirements for RRI are concerned, we agree that RRI should have four integrated dimensions: anticipation (envisioning the future and understanding how present dynamics of promising shape the future), reflexivity (which occurs as first-, second- and third-order learning), inclusion (the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders, such as users, NGOs, etc. in the early development of science and technology) and mutual responsiveness (responding to emerging knowledge, perspectives, views and norms). In addition, we suggest adding another three process requirements in our conceptualization of RRI: diversity (key criterion for the evaluation of interactive policy-making processes), meaningful openness (rephrasing transparency) and adaptive change (describing how an RRI process must leave room to adaptation)”. See RRI Tools: