New doctoral programme “Democracy under Stress” – 7 PhD positions

Leuphana’s Center for the Study of Democracy has been awarded a major grant for funding a total of 14 PhD scholars. The first 7 scholarships are advertised now.

The doc­to­ral pro­gram in­ves­ti­ga­tes how the new po­li­ti­cal, eco­no­mic, eco­lo­gi­cal, and cultural chal­len­ges (‘stress fac­tors’) that mo­dern de­mo­cra­cies en­coun­ter are per­cei­ved, dealt with, and sol­ved in view of the exis­ting ten­si­on bet­ween po­li­ti­cal le­gi­ti­ma­cy and re­stric­ted per­for­mance. It will fur­ther look into the im­pli­ca­ti­ons that dif­fe­rent mo­des of pro­blem-hand­ling have for the ‘sur­vi­val chan­ces’ of de­mo­cra­cy. This two­fold re­se­arch agen­da will be ana­ly­zed in three fiel­ds of stu­dy that re­pre­sent the core func­tions of de­mo­cra­cies: par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on, re­pre­sen­ta­ti­on, and in­clu­si­on.

The first field of stu­dy is con­cer­ned with how ci­ti­zens in de­mo­cra­tic so­cie­ties per­cei­ve cur­rent so­cie­tal – e.g. environmental or sustainability-related – chal­len­ges in light of in­cre­a­sing ’eman­ci­pa­ti­ve’ va­lue ori­en­ta­ti­ons and how the­se per­cep­ti­ons are trans­la­ted into po­li­ti­cal be­ha­viour (participatory democracy).

In the frame­work of the se­cond field of stu­dy, the re­pre­sen­ta­ti­ve ca­pa­ci­ty of po­li­ti­cal in­ter­me­di­a­ry or­ga­niza­t­i­ons as well as po­li­ti­cal in­sti­tu­ti­ons wi­t­hin and outs­ide the na­ti­on sta­te will be ana­ly­zed (representative democracy).

By me­ans of selec­ted po­li­cy fiel­ds (e. g. en­vi­ron­men­tal, cli­ma­te, sci­ence and me­dia po­li­cy) the third field of stu­dy looks into the is­sue of how new forms of po­li­ti­cal par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on in­ter­act with tra­di­tio­nal in­sti­tu­ti­ons, ac­tors, and pro­ces­ses of re­pre­sen­ta­ti­ve de­mo­cra­cy (inclusive democracy).

Deadline for submission of applications is 12 June, 2016.

For more information, please see

Participation and collaboration for sustainable flood risk management?

By Ed Challies

Floods are the most frequently occurring natural disaster globally, and flood damages are expected to increase drastically over the coming decades due to climate change, demographic trends, and on-going development on flood plains. This will play out differently and pose unique challenges in different regions, and Europe is no exception. Floods in Europe inflict greater economic losses more frequently than any other natural hazard, with trillions of Euros worth of assets and millions of people exposed (see Jongman et al. 2012). A recent study reported by the Europe Joint Research Centre predicts annual damages to rise from EUR 5.6 to 40 billion by 2050, and the number of people affected to rise from 200 thousand to over half a million over the same period.

With projections such as these, it is no wonder that the challenge of better managing (and reducing) flood risk is high on the political agenda in Europe. The recurrence of severe floods, like those on the Elbe and Danube rivers in 2013, and the 2015-16 floods in Britain and Ireland, only serve to heighten the sense of urgency among citizens and officials. In some ways this serves to increase awareness and engagement and provide impetus for action at multiple levels – from households and municipalities right up to member states and the European Union. On the other hand, the high stakes and direct threat that floods pose to human wellbeing, present challenges for flood risk management planning. This is particularly so in light of the current policy shift away from the previously dominant paradigm of flood protection and defence, and towards a more integrated flood risk management approach. Most importantly, this entails the management of risk (as opposed to the management of floods), and implies the negotiation of socially acceptable levels of exposure and risk – an issue that is inevitably sensitive and often controversial.

Flood 2013Photo: Flooding in Passau (Inn/Danube), Germany, 2013. Licence CC BY-SA 2.0; Stefan Penninger.

Flood risk is commonly defined as comprising (1) the magnitude of flood hazard (frequency and severity), (2) the exposure of human activities, and (3) the vulnerability of exposed elements. There are, therefore, multiple points for intervention to address and mitigate flood risk, ranging from information and awareness-raising campaigns and early warning systems, to flood protection measures, land-use planning and ‘ecological’ measures such as wetland restoration and afforestation. In this sense, efforts to confront flooding touch on a wide range of activities, policy fields and stakeholders within river basins. No wonder, then, that flood risk management is typically characterised by high stakes, competing interests, and conflict!

With the aim of improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of flood risk management, participatory and collaborative approaches are increasingly advocated, which should bring stakeholders and the affected public on-board in planning and decision-making. One prominent development in this direction in the European context is the 2007 Floods Directive, which aims to reduce the effects of flooding through an explicitly participatory approach to cyclical planning. Under the Directive, member states are legally obliged to encourage the active involvement of all interested parties in the planning process. Because every country and responsible authority is starting from a different baseline in terms of flood risk management and participatory governance, however, an array of approaches are currently unfolding across the EU. The rationale behind this ‘mandated participatory planning’ approach (Newig & Koontz 2014) is very much an instrumental one: The European Commission expects that it will produce better plans, more widely accepted and implementable measures, and more effective flood risk management.

Precisely because so much stock is put in participatory approaches to deliver improved and effective planning and management, there is a need to examine how participatory public decision-making is playing out in the field of flood risk management, and to consider what potential participation holds. Participatory and collaborative approaches in environmental planning and management more widely have certainly had mixed success in terms of achieving legitimacy and effectiveness. What about the field of flood risk management poses particular challenges for participatory planning and implementation? What potential do participatory approaches hold for fostering sustainable and just flood risk management? These questions motivate a recent special issue of Environmental Science and Policy jointly edited by members of our research group here at Leuphana University, and drawing together twelve contributions from leading scholars in the field. The collection examines, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, some of the key issues around justice and power, acceptance and legitimacy, social learning, multi-level governance and policy integration, and governance learning in flood risk management.

With climate change and developmental pressures continuing to exacerbate multiple drivers of flood risk, it will be crucial for research to focus on how policy and governance responses perform in mitigating this risk. As authorities like the EU increasingly advocate participatory approaches, but recurring flood events continually trigger calls to revert to expert-led planning and engineered flood protection solutions, researchers must also critically examine collaborative planning. This should ideally be done in partnership with authorities and practitioners in ways that can support transdisciplinary learning and adaptation – not only about effective measures for sustainable flood risk management, but also about how to conduct effective and legitimate participatory planning towards this end.

Special Issue: Check out the special issue in Environmental Science and Policy: Participatory and Collaborative Governance for Sustainable Flood Risk Management: An emerging research agenda (Edited by Ed Challies, Jens Newig, Thomas Thaler, Elisa Kochskämper, and Meike Levin-Keitel).


  • Jongman, B., Ward, P. J., & Aerts, J. C. J. H. (2012). Global exposure to river and coastal flooding: Long term trends and changes. Global Environmental Change, 22(4), 823-835.
  • Newig, J., & Koontz, T. M. (2014). Multi-level governance, policy implementation and participation: The EU’s mandated participatory planning approach to implementing environmental policy. Journal of European Public Policy, 21(2), 248-267.

Wind energy conflicts in forested landscapes- Insights from stakeholder interviews in Maine, USA and Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany

Abbildung 1_Blog

By Nataly Jürges

Renewable energy projects are increasingly realized worldwide as part of a global strategy to reduce emissions from fossil fuels and to reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil. However, the transition towards renewable energies is not without problems. For example, wind energy projects in forests are an emotional topic in different parts of the world, and can develop into serious conflicts. Conflicts about renewable energy projects are an important topic from a sustainability governance perspective. The governance of wind energy conflicts is an important issue in the transition towards renewable energies. As part of my PhD project, I examined wind energy conflicts in forested landscapes in Maine, USA and Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Between summer 2014 and beginning of 2015 I spent 8 months at the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine, where I did a case study on wind energy conflicts in forested landscapes as part of my PhD research.

Conflicts over wind energy projects in forests are complex, often involving many stakeholders, such as forest owners, local residents, wind energy companies, nature conservationists and recreationists. Forty-six interviewees from Rhineland-Palatinate and Maine shared their experiences and perspectives on wind energy conflicts with me. Surprisingly, the arguments of involved parties were similar in both regions. Even though differences in the overall governance structure made for some slight differences in decision-making processes in the case study regions, wind energy conflicts turned out to be quite universal (at least in the cases of Maine, USA and Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany).

For example, transparency, or rather a perceived lack of transparency in decision-making, was mentioned in stakeholder interviews in both cases as an important factor in the development of conflicts and controversies around wind energy projects:

“What we’re speaking to is really a sore spot in this town because we would argue and we wouldn’t never back down on that, they kept it secret for a year, they kept it secret for as long as they could to get the ordinance in favor of the developer, and the developer kept it secret to build his alliance and that really matters in terms of how everybody feels about it once they come aware. It would have been much more respectful of the town government to once they were being asked by a developer to consider a huge project, which is way, way out of proportion out of anything that’s ever been going on in [name of the town]. If you’re a small town in Maine and a gigantic development project is coming into town, I feel that they are absolutely obligated to make that as public as possible from the first idea. From the conception of it and they did absolutely the opposite. There was nothing and we are 3,000 feet away from the project. We would be hugely impacted if they went up and they had, they never showed us any respect at all in that regard.”

(Interview quote from an interview with residents near a planned wind energy project)

The most appropriate level or scale for decision-making about wind energy projects was an important aspect in discussions on how to govern wind energy projects most efficiently, effectively, and legitimately. Different perceptions existed in both case study areas as to whether higher or lower administrative governance levels are more appropriate to decide about controversial wind energy projects.

Local decision-making tradition was mentioned as an important argument for the choice of the most appropriate decision-making level, particularly in Maine:

“We’re a state that loves its local control, so, for better or for worse, that’s what we have. You know, there are times when local control is great because those communities understand the needs, wants and desires of their community. Sometimes it can be a draw back if you’re trying to make sort of a systemic change in the way a society operates. So, for example, if you’re trying as a society to move away from fossil fuels and into more clean energy, sometimes local control can be challenging. But that doesn’t mean that we should do away with it.”

(Interview participant from Maine)

However, other interview participants did not share the preference for local decision-making. Consideration of nature conservation interests was seen as being better realized at higher governance levels:

“Everything concerning the protection of species cannot be considered at the local scale. Especially if it is a mobile species, as bats and birds, then you just have to have the greater perspective. Check main occurrence, where are the main migratory lines.”

                (Nature conservationist from Rhineland-Palatinate)

The perception of the most appropriate level or scale for decision-making about wind energy projects was often based on conflicting frames about what wind energy projects are about. For example, some interviewees saw wind energy projects mainly in the context of nature conservation and species protection, while others saw wind energy projects as a topic related to local regional development. These conflicting issue frames quite often resulted in different understandings about the most appropriate decision-making level.

If at first you don’t succeed.. Institutional Failure in the Public Sector

A review of Public Policy and Administration’s special issue on policy failure

By Pim Derwort

In many ways, failure is an inevitable part of life. In many cases, it is also something we would rather not be reminded of and may be hard to accept. Some of the most inspirational movies and stories teach us how to accept or ‘let go’ and ‘move on’ from failure, or to learn from our mistakes on a personal level and generally become better persons for it. But what happens when failure occurs in the public sector?

In the public sector, ‘getting it wrong’ can have significant (and damaging) consequences for those affected. It can significantly damage the public’s trust in the political system, damage individual’s careers and, in extreme cases, may even lead to injury or loss of life. While failure may be just as inevitable, it is all the more important to prevent or learn from mistakes. Yet, in the public policy realm, plenty of examples remain of cases where important lessons remain unlearned, mistakes are buried, responsibility is deflected and the causes of the original failure continue unchallenged. Often, the same – or at least similar – mistakes are repeated time and again.

So what exactly do we understand by ‘failure’? Failure is often defined as the “lack of success”, or alternatively, as a “lack or deficiency of a desirable quality”. Judged by this definition, ‘failure’ is a negative concept, defined largely by the absence of concepts with more positive associations like ‘success’ or ‘quality’. As with general definitions of ‘failure’, definitions of ‘policy failure’ vary, and there have been considerable conceptual difficulties in providing a commonly accepted definition of ‘policy failure’. In its simplest form, failure has been defined as the ‘mirror image of success’ (McConnell, 2010). The difference between success and failure is, however, not always clear-cut. In many cases policies are not an outright success or outright failure, and may succeed in some respects while failing in others. There are many reasons why a policy may fail. A policy may be poorly designed and fail to tackle the problem it was intended to solve or largely be symbolic (e.g. Newig, 2007). Alternatively, a well-designed policy may unexpectedly fail due to unforeseen circumstances or simply not have the effect intended.

Failure can be measured in different ways, and is often subject to interpretation. Disagreement over whether a policy actually should be considered to have failed may arise depending on who is asked (see e.g. Bovens & ‘t Hart, 2011). Policy failures, inevitable or not, are not necessarily problematic. If it is possible to identify the causes of the failure, it may also be possible to adapt the policy or to replace it with one that is better suited. More problematic, however, are persistent policy failures, in which the same type of failure is repeated over time

In July 2015, Public Policy and Administration dedicated a special issue to the topic of ‘policy failure’. In this issue, the authors argue that, despite the volume of literature on policy success and failure, much of it has so far focused on conceptualisations of (different types of) failure, with considerably less attention for the sources of the problems leading to recurrent failures (Howlett, Ramesh & Wu, 2015, p.209). In addition, it is argued that a great deal of the research only examines the causes and characteristics of failed policies in individual cases, rather than looking at the broader political or socio-economic environment in which these policies are embedded (Peters, 2015, p.261), thus limiting our ability to learn from past mistakes. Therefore, the goal of this special issue is to improve our understanding of recurring failures by “examining a wide range of factors both within and beyond a policy subsystem” (Howlett, Ramesh & Wu, 2015, p.209).

Some of the contributions in this issue help improve our understanding of ‘policy failure’. In an attempt to overcome some of the conceptual difficulties, McConnell develops a ‘working definition of ‘failure’, arguing that “a policy fails, even if it is successful in some minimal respects, if it does not fundamentally achieve the goals that proponents set out to achieve, and opposition is great and/or support is virtually non-existent (2015, p.221). Failure is not only limited to policies and other contributions focus on failure in terms of, e.g. ‘state failure’, ‘governance failure’ and ‘implementation failure’ Importantly, Peters (2015, p.264) argues specific failures may only be “a symptom of a broader failure in governing”, and that, to be able to identify these forms of failure, it is important to look beyond just the proximate causes of observed policy failures per se, instead aiming to identify the more deeply seated roots of failure.

In my opinion, there are two main “lessons” to take away from this special issue:

  • Firstly, future research should continue to build on Peters’ thoughts and look beyond individual categories of failure, instead developing a better understanding of the bigger picture. To this end, I would like to propose that it is important to look at the concept of ‘institutional failure’.
  • Secondly, throughout the special issue, and indeed the wider literature, ‘failure’ largely continues to be regarded as something negative. McConnell is the only author to briefly refer to possible “positive benefits” that might ensue from failure in his contribution (2015, p.227), unfortunately without going into further detail. Further attention should be paid to the ways in which failure can allow us to learn important lessons and act as a driver for positive change.

The concept of ‘institutional failure’ has been interpreted in different ways, depending on the disciplinary perspective adopted. From a neo-classical economics perspective, it has been defined as “private and government sector failure” (Pitelis, 1992). Alternatively, from a sustainability perspective, it has been defined in terms of resource sustainability or the inability to conserve resources (Acheson, 2006). The innovation approach (Woolthuis et al., 2005) divides institutional failure into ‘hard institutional failure’ (failures in the framework of regulation and the legal system) and ‘soft institutional failure’ (failures in social institutions such as political culture and social values). Finally, while not everyone agrees (see e.g. Stacey & Rittberger, 2003), another perspective refers to institutions as organisations, regarding institutions as actors/players in their own right. Following these different definitions, the concept of ‘institutional’ failure is sufficiently broad to capture all of the different concepts mentioned above.

In his work, Newig (2013) identifies these as “productive functions” of failure, in that they may allow for valuable lessons to be learned, can trigger adaptations towards sustainability or purposefully destabilise existing unsustainable structures. Currently, these ideas are not yet sufficiently developed and there appear to be few systematic studies into the lessons that (institutional) failure can provide to scholars and practitioners. Focusing on institutional failure and its productive functions will therefore be at the heart of my PhD project over the next three years.



Acheson, J.M. (2006). ‘Institutional Failure in Resource Management’. Annual Review of Anthropology, 35, pp.117-134.

Bovens, M. and ‘t Hart, P. (2011) Understanding Policy Fiascoes. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Howlett, M., Ramesh, M. & Wu, X. (2015). ‘Understanding the persistence of policy failures: The role of politics, governance and uncertainty’. Public Policy and Administration,30(3-4), pp. 209-220.

McConnell, A. (2010). Understanding Policy Success: Rethinking Public Policy. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

McConnell, A. (2015). ‘What is policy failure? A primer to help navigate the maze’. Public Policy and Administration,30(3-4), pp.221-242.

Newig, J. (2007). ‘Symbolic Environmental Legislation and Societal Self-Deception’. Environmental Politics, 16(2), pp.279-299.

Newig, J. (2013). ‘Produktive Funktionen von Kollaps und Zerstörung für gesellschaftliche Transformationsprozesse in Richtung Nachhaltigkeit’. In: Rückert-John, J. (Ed.)(2013). Soziale Innovation und Nachhaltigkeit, Innovation und Gesellschaft. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien.

Peters, B.G. (2015). ‘State failure, governance failure and policy failure: Exploring the linkages’. Public Policy and Administration,30(3-4), pp.261-276.

Pitelis, C. (1992). ‘Towards a Neo-classical Theory of Institutional Failure’. Journal of Economic Studies, 19(1), pp.14-29.

Stacey, J. & Rittberger, B. (2003). ‘Dynamics of formal and informal institutional change in the EU’. Journal of European Public Policy, 10(6), pp.858-883.

Woolthuis, R.K., Lankhuizen, M. & Gilsing, V. (2005). ‘A system failure framework for innovation policy design’. Technovation, 25, pp.609-619.

Do we all agree on the importance of learning and knowledge integration for environmental governance?

By Jens Newig

A couple of days ago, I received the report of a symposium I was invited to earlier this year. The symposium, held in May at the Stockholm Environment Institute, was about “Environmental Governance in an Increasingly Complex World: An Interdisciplinary Exchange on Adaptation, Collaborative Learning and Knowledge Integration”, gathering some 25 researchers and practitioners (You can access the website here, and the report here).

Learning and knowledge integration were the key issues discussed by speakers like Ryan Plummer (adaptive co-management), Bernd Siebenhüner (transdisciplinarity), Arjen Wals (social learning in education), Stephen Elstub (deliberation) and myself (governance learning). There certainly was a lot of interesting detail from empirical and conceptual studies. One key insight, however, emerged more implicitly: There seemed a remarkable consensus in the whole group that more learning – either through participation, co-management, or transdisciplinary interaction – would benefit sustainability and environmental governance. To quote from the report, knowledge integration and learning were even seen as “a necessary precondition for transformative change toward more sustainable futures”.

I certainly agree that without learning no major leap forward can be achieved – whether this concerns sustainability or not. I just have this slight unease with the high level of consensus on the issue. Are we still asking the right questions? Are we as reasearchers still learning (sic!) enough when studying learning? Going against the grain, a couple of contributions appeared to indeed question the dominant focus on standard models of learning. Arjen Wals, for example, brought forward the idea of un-learning. While this is not new as such, I believe it would be worth discussing more thoroughly in this community. (In the Leverage Points project – WP 2 “Re-Structure” – we will focus on related topics of de-institutionalisation for the benefit of sustainability). Perhaps it is as important to study what kind of (unsustainable) beliefs, convictions, practices, institutions we need to do away with, as it is essential to examine what new things we need to learn.

New perspectives on a society beyond oil

By Lisa Fischer

Norway is a country with an interesting energy profile. It is known to be rich on oil and gas, which now account for about a quarter of Norway’s GDP and almost half of its exports by value (The Economist, 2015). Despite rich oil and gas reserves, Norway’s domestic energy supply is dominated by hydropower (nearly 40%) (IEA, 2011). In light of a recent encounter with Norwegian energy transition researchers, however, it seems to me that Norwegians are starting to redefine their relationship towards oil. In October 2015 I attended the conference “Beyond oil” in Bergen ( The conference name itself suggests that Norwegians are starting to seriously think about alternatives and ways to realize a transition to a society beyond oil.
Joining the conference, I was especially inspired by three new perspectives that I believe are worth sharing:

1.) Respect for oil workers
I learned that Norwegian professionals in the oil sector, once a highly respected and prestigious workforce, have lost their good reputation. One of the two speakers, who mentioned the current “shaming” of oil workers in Norway, was arguing for showing respect for those employed in the industry. He mentioned the pioneer oil divers, who installed pipelines, took samples etc. – some of whom died in the course of doing their job. The idea of acknowledging work done by oil workers seems rather new in the current energy debate. Could we possibly introduce this way of thinking into the German discussion about energy supply, e.g. in the case of coal workers or workers in the nuclear power sector? The speakers went even further, and explained the idea to create new climate jobs and to address the dilemma of losing traditional jobs along the path to climate neutrality. I do like the idea of acknowledging what has been done by the (oil) workers for us, not only have they worked and sometimes still work under precarious conditions, but by doing so they secure(d) our energy supply and push(ed) economic prosperity. By taking care of them we would possibly enhance the acceptance of renewable energies and counteract resistance as we take a new and more sustainable energy pathway. It might be one way to actually work together and not against each other. It would also demonstrate that we implement the idea of sustainable development more holistically, by also taking care of the social pillar.

2.) Leaving the oil in the ground.
This is a radical and challenging idea. There is no global agreement of regulating or maintaining resources in the ground in individual states. The international community has no legal jurisdiction to decide how e.g. oil and gas discoveries should be regulated. Every state has the right to development (“Declaration on the Right to Development” by the United Nations, 1986). I learned that Kenya has just recently (2012) discovered oil. Companies are still in the exploration phase, so not actually extracting the oil from the ground. While discussing with Kenyans the idea of leaving the oil in the ground, researchers discovered that it is considered a rather absurd idea. Leaving resources in the ground seems quite a radical idea compared to the current way of thinking, but I do think that it is an idea worth discussing, and one which also arises when we think about new methods such as fracking for shale gas or extracting oil from tar sands.

3.) Broadening the discussion for a society “beyond oil”
It seems that in Norway the discussion about a society beyond oil is taking place on a relatively large scale, and taking a holistic view on things. In Germany, in contrast, the debate appears to be narrowed down to a few aspects, with energy supply by renewable energy dominating the public debate. However, speakers and participants at the Bergen conference had an even broader view on the issue of a society beyond oil, also thinking about production and consumption, corruption and justice with respect to energy access, among others. I think that the discussion in Germany could benefit from such a broader perspective on a society beyond oil.

International Energy Agency (2011) Energy Policies of IEA Countries- Norway 2011 Review, (accessed 31.10.2015)

The Economist (2015) Norwegian Blues, (accessed 10.10.2015)

United Nations (1986) Declaration on the Right to Development, (accessed 31.10.2015)

A community between integration and fragmentation. Observations from the International Transdisciplinarity Conference (ITC) in Basel, 8 to 10 September 2015


Stephanie Jahn, Judith Kahle

FOTO 151001_td_conference

The delegation from Leuphana University at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference in Basel, 08-10 September 2015

Julie Thompson Klein’s keynote opened this year’s International Transdisciplinarity Conference (ITC) in Basel, Switzerland, tracing back the beginning of the transdisciplinarity (td) discourse to the 1970s. Navigating through almost half a century of discourse, Julie Thompson Klein named and connected key publications, key terms and concepts as well as key players in the field.

Her lecture suggested that there is a shared understanding of td-research and that there might be even something like a td-community.

However, the following three days of conference left us with the observation that this is not the case: With regard to presentations, workshops and panel discussions, the field of td-research appears as a kaleidoscope of diverse understandings of transdisciplinarity as well as of different transdisciplinary research approaches – with no coherent use of terms.

Consequently, in the course of the conference one question was repeatedly discussed: Is it possible to find a common conceptualization of transdisciplinarity as a common conceptual ground to start from?

While some argued that, comparable to a boundary object, something like a td-body of knowledge and commonly used td-concepts already exists (e.g. Schläpfer, University of Zurich), others feared that a common td-theory could become so big and complex that it is no longer possible to apply. Yet others argued that a universal td-theory is an impossible goal to reach due to the fact that td-research is always context-driven (e.g. Engbers, Leuphana University Lüneburg). Instead td-scientists shall embrace and make use of the conceptual td-pluralism as well as of its context-dependency, saying: There is no one transdisciplinarity (DiGiulio, University of Bern).

As part of this discourse three major claims were brought up by the participants of the conference to handle the fragmented field of td-research:

  • No need to reinvent the td-wheel over and over again: There already exists a growing body of knowledge and experience in td-research from which we could learn when shaping current and future td-research (Julie Thompson Klein, Wayne State University, United States).
  • Ensuring a high quality standard in td-research: Shared quality criteria as well as qualitative and especially quantitative indicators are essentially necessary to better grasp, frame and measure the field (Session 13: Evaluating transdisciplinary collaborations, suggested and confirmed by several participants of that session).
  • Beyond knowledge exchange: Td-researchers need to go beyond mere capacity building and information sharing. Instead efforts towards building a td-community are necessary (e.g. Bergmann, Institute for Social-ecological Research, Germany; Bammer, Australian National University, Australia).

To sum up, one could say that the research presented and the discussions on the conference reflected this on-going definitional debate of both the transdisciplinary research mode and the persisting plurality of practical approaches to transdisciplinarity quite well.

But we (together with Herberg, Leuphana University Lüneburg) recognized at least one joint characteristic of the td-community: despite the many ambivalent concepts and approaches, the conference was shaped by a culture of agreement and tolerance. The reactions on a presentation for instance would almost entirely be benevolent, with very few or no critical inquiries, comments or questions on research practices, methods etc. being made. While such a culture provides a great basis for mutual knowledge exchange on the one hand, it leaves only limited space for constructive confrontation and fruitful contestations on the other.

Picking up on this observation and linking it to the fragmentation of the td-research field we propose a culture of critical and constructive contention instead. We see great potential for the td-community by developing a respectful form of scientific criticism as it is common within “classical” disciplines (even though the “respectful” is not always given in every context). Adopting the perspective of Karl Popper* we would like to strengthen: Scientific quality (regardless of the particular research mode) can only be enriched by mutual critique, by contesting each other and each other’s concepts. Appreciative critique could also help the community to get into a constant practice of clarifying quality criteria than to just claim them and discuss about them on an abstract, theoretical level.

If you are interested in the plurality of td-research, but also in indicators and patterns: stay updated with our research project MONA, find our presentation at ITC-Conference here.

See also our blogpost on the Sustainability Logbook, where we published a post introducing five online tools that collect and structure literature and other resources in the context of inter- and transdisciplinary research: Disentangling the huddle of literature on inter- and transdisciplinarity research: 5 online tools offer perspective.


*freely adopted from: Popper, Karl. The logic of scientific discovery. Routledge, 2005.