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


Stephanie Jahn, Judith Kahle

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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.