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Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity: Just Buzzwords?

What is the value of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work in the current scientific-technological context? To what extent do collaborative practices present a changing setting for research in Europe but also in other countries? What can we learn from these practices from an anthropological perspective?

Collaborative research implies more than putting disciplines, insights, or methods together in a joint effort. It implies integrative processes performed and conceived with others, where “others” are people from different institutions, local communities, with different expectations and motivations towards science and society. Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity – as collaborative practices – deal with multidimensional problems, those that present unknowns and differing interests. Within the spectrum of collaborative research, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity have been mostly used as buzzwords. And even more in current times, in which these practices are acknowledged as means to potentially find a pathway through the pandemic. The pandemic made visible demands at the epistemological, cultural, and also organizational levels. It urges us to find future potentials on those by working across different methodologies and theories in a sustained way (Thain, 2021).

But it is also true that interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are widely used terms and show plurality, heterogeneity, and sometimes overlapping definitions. The most widely used schema for defining these types of collaborative research (i.e., multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary) derives from a typology presented at an international conference in 1970 (OECD, 1972). Interdisciplinarity is mostly understood as a mode of research integrating data, methods, and/or theories from two or more disciplines to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems which solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline (National Academy of Sciences, 2005: 2). The term “transdisciplinarity” is used to describe a reflexive, integrative, method-driven scientific principle, which approaches societal problems by integrating various scientific and social bodies of knowledge (Hirsch Hadorn et al., 2008).

There are heterogeneous understandings of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity, reflecting a diversity of practice and expectations across disciplines and communities. They entail activities ranging from individual borrowing from another discipline to large-scale team-based initiatives. The purpose of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research depends on the aims of the research and the specific questions it addresses; both determine the scope that any synthesising process may achieve.

Some patterns of consensus are evident: interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity involve inter-dependence, cooperative labour, and mutuality, all oriented towards shared purposes. Processes and outcomes of collaborative research depend fundamentally on an array of interrelations and negotiations, policy interventions, institutional forms, theoretical statements, instruments, materials and research practices (Barry & Born, 2013). From my perspective, the challenge is not to arrive at a single understanding that collapses differences but to build dialogue between different understandings while recognising their differences (Vienni Baptista et al., 2020).

Light coming out from a lamp with circle designs.

Collaborative practices allow us to look at research problems from different perspectives. Author: Bianca Vienni Baptista.

Shaping Collaborative Practices

These are some of the insights obtained in the project “Shape interdisciplinary practices in Europe” (SHAPE-ID, funded by the H2020 program). The team studied how to better support the integration of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (AHSS) perspectives with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) into interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, particularly in the context of addressing societal challenges. SHAPE-ID also delivered a toolkit and recommendations to guide European policymakers, funders, universities, and researchers in achieving successful pathways to interdisciplinary integration between AHSS and other disciplines.

There are many different conditions that affect the way interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research is done in the search for success and impactful outcomes. A list of 25 factors that are considered to help or hinder inter- and transdisciplinary research has been identified. Factors influencing the success of inter- and transdisciplinary research are interrelated, context-dependent, and dynamic. They depend on such contextual features as the way inter- or transdisciplinarity are defined, the phase a project is at, the roles assigned to different partners, etc. The cognitive, emotional, and interactional factors are present for all networks to different degrees and relate to the importance of successful collaborations of alignment between individuals, groups, and institutional missions. Three broad areas are relevant: (i) institutional, (ii) disciplinary, and (iii) epistemic, though the boundaries between these are porous (Vienni Baptista et al., 2020).

We argue that factors are not negative or positive per se. It is assumed that there are conditions that hinder and others that help inter- and transdisciplinary research. From our perspective, factors can act positively or negatively depending on the context, particularly the phase of the project. Factors can potentially be transformed from problematic to enabling during the research process. Take academic tribalism as an example, i.e., the notion that academics in the same discipline are “united by customs, tradition, and adherence to a largely common worldview.”  Academic tribalism in a positive view that implies “understanding the preoccupations of each member of a team when developing concrete solutions to a specific problem.” (Robinson et al., 2016). When it is experienced as a barrier to inter- and transdisciplinary research, team members may show uniformity of points of view and question the validity of certain disciplines.

In many contexts (in Europe but also worldwide), there is often a lack of awareness about the structural conditions that encourage or discourage connections between disciplines. Thus, we argue that acknowledging the different spaces and time frames in which interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research are performed, substantially improve research policy-making and funding by giving institutions a clearer understanding of the conditions that are needed, in each case, to support interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research and teaching. Such changes could also support young researchers wanting to focus on interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in their academic careers. Acknowledging this urgency entails that researchers and funders alike recognise that interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are conducted for different purposes and are conceived in different ways, both vary according to historical and geographical contexts (Barry & Born, 2013).

If we consider interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity as dynamic phenomena with multiple understandings and heterogeneity of practices, trying to establish a list of factors divided into positive and negative conditions for research can be tricky. Acknowledging the negative factors that are influencing a research process can prove useful in order to implement specific strategies to turn those conditions into positive ones. Changing the setting – from negative to positive – can bring a fresh perspective to inter- and transdisciplinary research practices and processes.

The current biggest challenge for AHSS disciplines is to fight prejudice and misconceptions, both among researchers and policymakers (Spaapen et al., 2020). Findings show that the subordinate roles and functions assigned to AHSS disciplines discourage their greater involvement with STEM disciplines in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. The problem has two sides. On the one side, AHSS researchers have a responsibility to show more willingness to collaborate with other disciplines. On the other side, as Spaapen et al. (2020) confirmed funders and policymakers also have a responsibility to change things for the better within interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity.

From our perspective, a fundamental re-evaluation of AHSS is needed. We should also keep in mind that this is not a new problem but one that might be solved using a varied set of strategies. History of science shows how discontinuities and different ways of doing science build on new research spaces.

New types of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary impact can be elaborated taking into consideration these spaces to work on better approaches to societal challenges. Such wider understanding and acceptance could stimulate researchers, and especially young researchers, to engage in inter- and transdisciplinary research and teaching: recognising that interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are contingent on spaces and time frames.

Shaping collaborative practices requires concepts and criteria that make categories more flexible – that is, they can be adapted to the results and/or products of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work. It is worth wondering about the best way to address these differences that change but at the same time give substance to collaborative practices as means to approach societal challenges.

 


References

Barry, A., & Born, G. (2013). Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the social and natural sciences: Abingdon, Oxon, New York, N.Y : Routledge.

Hirsch Hadorn, G., Kueffer, C., Bammer, G., van Kerkhoff, L., & Pohl, C. (2008). Towards a publication culture in transdisciplinary research. GAIA, 16(1), 22-26.

National Academy of Sciences, N. A. o. E., Institute of Medicine. (2005). Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research.Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

OECD. (1972). Interdisciplinarity: problems of teaching and research. Retrieved from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED061895.pdf  

Robinson, M. J. F., Robinson, T. E., Berridge, K. C., & Whybrow, P. C. (2014). Incentive Salience in Addiction and Over-Consumption. In S. D. Preston, M. L. Kringlbach, & B. Knutson (Eds.), The Interdisciplinary Science of Consumption (pp. 185-198): Mit Press.

Spaapen, J., Vienni, B., A. Buchner, and C. Pohl (2020) Report on Survey among interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary researchers and post-survey interviews with policy stakeholders. doi: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3824727

Thain, M. (2021). “Post-pandemic recovery requires radical interdisciplinarity”. THE World University Rankings, July 18 2021. 

Vienni Baptista, B.;   Lyall, C.;   Ohlmeyer, J.;   Spaapen, J.;   Wallace, D.;   & Pohl, C. (2020). Improving pathways to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences: first lessons from the SHAPE-ID project – Policy Brief. doi:https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3824954

 

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