Transdisciplinarity is an approach to conducting research that collaborates across the boundaries of disciplines but also across academia and real-world contexts. Like the emerging design field of Transition Design, these projects tackle complex, layered issues and work together with experts who live the problem every day and people who have expertise in relevant fields.
It’s useful to compare Transdisciplinary to other forms of cross-disciplinary work, to explain why it is a more active and tactical way of conducting research projects. Multidisciplinary research tends to mean that multiple disciplines have been referenced, but they are not interacting with or informing each other. Victoria Martin (2017) provides an example of a multidisciplinary work that might analyze a piece of literature from multiple disciplines. The insights would sit next to each other, separately in chapters, one after another– not interconnected and influencing each other. Feminist theorist Sally Kitch writes that “multidisciplinarity involves a relationship of proximity rather than of integration, even if it is accomplished by an individual scholar” (p. 125). The output of this type of research is typically something that looks like a collection of articles written from multiple points of view, on a single topic.
Next, interdisciplinarity is a more collaborative effort where multiple researchers from different disciplines work together in a way that influences the methodology, so it is more integrative than multidisciplinary projects. Martin (2017) describes a project where researchers from several disciplines might create one research tool that incorporates knowledge from each of their areas of expertise to be applied in the project. It “may result in a mixed-methods multilevel analysis and interpretation of this societal problem and lead to a coauthored article or a series of coauthored articles” (P. 42). In this way, the researchers are learning from each other and sharing the information in a way that has synthesized their cross-disciplinary interpretations. So the output is one cohesive perspective on an issue, rather than a collection of different views.
Interdisciplinary approaches can address complex problems by examining them from multiple areas of expertise, and like transdisciplinarity, it “thrives in a dynamic environment where disciplines evolve, new disciplines emerge, and questions, issues, and problems shift over time” (Martin, 2017, p. 38). However, a crucial distinction for me is that the final output remains in the domain of academia. The objective of such projects is most often to create new perspectives and knowledge, not to create change or solve problems actively. This real-world integration is where transdisciplinarity shines.
Transdisciplinary work rebels against the boundaries of disciplines, and the boundary between academia and experiential knowledge, to work toward practical, implementable solutions and new ways of building knowledge.
Martin (2017) quotes Manderson to describe the ambitious goals of transdisciplinarity, “not to transcend that knowledge base but rather to transform it” (p. 39). Montuori (2012) helps to clarify what is helpful about breaking down these barriers is to “step outside the confines of disciplinary knowledge” (p. 2). When we study and appreciate research paradigms from multiple disciplines in our own processes, we can look at forming questions that have “an awareness of the many different ways a particular question can be framed” (p. 2). We can discover the in-between space that we could miss when looking from only one discipline — uncovering a new way of looking at issues and strengthening the other disciplines in the process.
Two key attributes that distinguish a Transdisciplinary approach are (1) academic experts working together from different disciplines, and (2) people with experience on the ground, who are directly impacted by the problem they are trying to solve, working alongside academic researchers– not as objects of the research, but as team members. This parity results in outputs that examine and synthesize the contributions from these academic and non-academic participants to provide “a useful roadmap for responding more effectively to [the societal challenge]” (Martin, 2017, p. 42). The product might be a series of practical changes at the community level or a plan to influence national policies. Because the work has involved non-academics, the output is active change rather than journal articles and theory.
That is not to say that transdisciplinary work does not seek to contribute to academic knowledge, but it is not the only goal of the work. Perhaps, too often, aiming to be published in academia restricts the way work is conducted. If the researchers focus most on being publishable within the boundaries of their discipline, then it shapes who and how collaborations can happen. By turning away from disciplinary rules as a guideline, the transdisciplinary researcher is freed up to work with all of the people involved in a challenge. And to shape research strategies in a way that responds to the needs of the problem, as long as they have integrity as research methods.
Kitch, S. L. (2011). Feminist interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge building. Handbook of feminist research: Theory and praxis. SAGE publications.