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.

Linking transdisciplinary sustainability research with governance

By Jens Newig

On attending the 2nd International Conference on Public Policy (ICPP 2015) in Milan, I would like to share some thoughts on the relationship of transdisciplinary research and the governance of science-policy interactions.

For those of us working in sustainability and environmental studies, transdisciplinarity (Hirsch Hadorn, Pohl, Scholz, Lang, Bergmann, …) has become an important feature. Some prefer the terms “mode 2 science” (Nowotny, Gibbons) or “post-normal science” (Funtowicz and Ravetz). They all refer essentially to the participation of non-academics in academic processes, aiming to democratise research and to produce better and societally more relevant (“socially robust”) research outputs. Whether we see it as a new mantra, or as a mere necessity to produce knowledge relevant to solving today’s looming environmental sustainability problems – it is virtually impossible to ignore transdisciplinarity when engaging in sustainability-relevant research.

Connecting academia and practice

At the well-attended ICPP 2015 plenary session on “Academics and practitioners, opposed or complementary?”, established scholars and policy-makers discussed different venues through which the academic sphere and that of policy-making are or could be linked.

The following list blends those points raised in the panel discussion, mainly by Leslie A. Pal and Rob Hoppe, with some of my own thoughts that immediately followed this. (For the purposes of simplification, I call those people outside academia who are to some degree influential in what they do “decision-makers”).

So what are those interfaces between academia and practice?

  • Decision-makers have typically themselves gone through a university education, perhaps up to PhD level or beyond.
  • Some decision-makers publish in (academic) journals.
  • Some decision-makers even read academic journals.
  • Countless think tanks, established by policy-makers themselves, consult policy-makers
  • Decision-makers selectively draw on consultants for particular purposes, and those consultants sometimes engage more with the academic sphere than do policy-makers in their day-to-day practice.
  • Some decision-makers attend (academic) conferences and exchange here with academics.
  • ‘Public intellectuals’ publish their ideas in newspapers, bridging academia and public opinion.
  • Boundary workers who, through participation in academia and in practice, facilitate co-production of knowledge.

Why is transdisciplinarity not mentioned?

Surprisingly, to me at least, transdisciplinarity, mode 2, post-normal science – those concepts that appear as the epitome of science-practitioner interaction – none of them were even mentioned in this 90-minute plenary panel.

How can this be? Perhaps most obviously, different academic discourses do not diffuse evenly into scholarly communities. Transdisciplinarity might in comparison still be a niche discourse. This does not mean that it should not be important to other fields of research, too. Exchanging about this is of course why conferences such as ICPP are important.

Another reason could be that the discourse on transdisciplinarity is much focused on (funded) research projects. Projects are limited in scope and time, often short-term, which makes on-going interaction between science and practice more difficult. Hence what Rob Hoppe – one of the plenary speakers – calls the preoccupation of transdisciplinary sustainability scholars with trust-building, whereas classical ‘policy analysts’ in other areas tend to have more stable relationships with decision-making (see http://works.bepress.com/robert_hoppe1/2/).

Third, as someone with experience in leading and studying transdisciplinary projects (→ project MONA), my impression is the following: By calling for an involvement of non-academics into research, and even an empowerment of practitioners (Brandt et al. 2013), transdisciplinary researchers (often implicitly) assume academic research to be on the side of those who are in power to decide. The plenary discussion at ICPP showed, however, that practitioners tend to see things quite differently. For public decision-makers, the point of departure is public decision-making (quite naturally), into which academics can or should be involved (through think-tanks and other mechanisms listed above). In their view, decision-makers have the power to decide, whereas academics just do research. Someone at the panel even mentioned a certain angst on the part of academics of being left out of decision-making.

The final point connects to the previous one. In response to my question of why transdisciplinarity did not figure in the said plenary, one of the panellists (I think it was Rob Hoppe) mentioned the typical normative stance of sustainability researchers in their desire for changing the world for the better, in Germany now hotly discussed under the label of “transformative science”. The general tendency at the panel was, however, to keep academia and policy-making apart (referred to as ‘demarcation’) lest we run into important legitimacy issues if researchers engage in decision-making themselves. Nevertheless, both worlds should of course connect, which is then referred to as ‘coordination’.

What role for governance?

These thoughts might sound awfully critical of transdisciplinary sustainability science. They are not. But perhaps they help us put transdisciplinarity into perspective and remind us that this is just one of many ways in which research and practice can connect. After all, we are still struggling to understand the pathways though which transdisciplinarity actually leads to an effective co-production of knowledge. This is what colleagues and I are trying to find evidence for, comparing 100 completed sustainability-related research projects (→ MONA).

So how does all this concern governance? As sustainability governance scholars, we should be aware of the multiple avenues through which we can interact with practitioners. Transdisciplinary research projects are one important way (with many different facets). Others are listed above. In particular, we might want to engage in boundary work, or connect with boundary organisations such as consultancies.

Regarding public sustainability governance, research funding organisations in particular should likewise take into account the multiplicity of research-practice interactions. While certain environment and sustainability-oriented funding programmes in Germany and Switzerland demand transdisciplinary interactions in projects they fund, the United Kingdom funding bodies are heavily concerned with the practical and societal impact generated through research (see Julia Leventon’s recent blog entry on ideas4.sustainabiliy.org). Both of these approaches appear somewhat one-sided. One could consider, for example, encouraging and funding long-term interactions between research and policy, or creating and funding intermediary organisations that serve as institutionalised bridges between research and decision-making.


Brandt, P., Ernst, A., Gralla, F., Luederitz, C., Lang, D.J., Newig, J., Reinert, F., Abson, D.J., Von Wehrden, H. (2013) A review of transdisciplinary research in sustainability science. Ecological Economics 92, 1-15.

Funtowicz, S.O., Ravetz, J.R. (1993) Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25, 739-755.

Hirsch Hadorn, G., Hoffmann-Riem, H., Biber-Klemm, S., Grossenbacher-Mansuy, W., Joye, D., Pohl, C., Wiesmann, U., Zemp, E., (2008) Handbook of Transdisciplinary Research. Springer.

Hoppe, R. (2005) Rethinking the Science-Policy Nexus: from Knowledge Utilization and Science Technology Studies to Types of Boundary Arrangements. Poiesis Prax 3, 199-215.

Lang, D.J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., Swilling, M., Thomas, C.J. (2012) Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science 7, 25-43.

Nowotny, H., Scott, P., Gibbons, M. (2004) Re-thinking science. Knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty. Polity Press, Oxford.

Stauffacher, M., Flüeler, T., Krütli, P., Scholz, R. (2008) Analytic and Dynamic Approach to Collaboration: A Transdisciplinary Case Study on Sustainable Landscape Development in a Swiss Prealpine Region. Systemic Practice and Action Research 21, 409-422.