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Striving for the common good?

Transdisciplinarity concerns the joint production of knowledge for societal change among scientists and non-academic people. This raises a question about the purpose or the values of such a process of knowledge co-production. Striving to contribute towards the common good is one of the important but challenging principles of transdisciplinary research.

The array of values that guide processes of co-production is wide: for example, it may refer to finding ways for integrating marginalised or oppressed peasants, small-scale family farms, fishing, or pastoralist communities into global markets. This may imply, however, that we push them to compete with highly protected and subsidized large-scale agro-industrial farms and enterprises. In addition, transdisciplinarity could search to improve access to credit for marginalised and poor people in order to enable them to buy expensive commercial seeds and pesticides for increasing yields and income, or we look for ways to search for selling labour outside their farms. All this might help. However, such a symptom-oriented approach of transdisciplinarity leaves aside that this often results in declining soil fertility, debts, dependence from fluctuating producer prices, or health problems.

However, transdisciplinary co-production of knowledge can also take a more ‘emancipatory approach’. It then aims at liberating human and ecological communities from the imperatives of over-exploitation, mainly driven by the varying forms of capitalist creation and distribution of economic wealth. This means first to engage in a joint process of knowledge production to understand the causes of current social-ecological crisis. Second, emancipatory transdisciplinarity moves beyond blindly linking marginalised people with unfair conditions of competition inherent to the global commodity chains. Instead of giving credit for buying commercial seeds and pesticides, transdisciplinary knowledge co-production focussed on the root causes of their marginalisation.

In the example of small-scale agriculture, this would also imply exploring ways to protect them from unfair competition by the ‘big players’ of the global food systems, or working on redistributive land reforms, agroecological transition, and fair and sustainable trade policies.

At a first glance, it seems that an emancipatory transdisciplinary co-production of knowledge is more difficult to implement. This is right from a pragmatic point of view. However, we have to take into account that an emancipatory perspective of transdisciplinarity, instead of focussing only on increasing individual and private benefits, is clearly oriented towards maximisation of the common good. This allows creating common ground to jointly orient actions towards the common good, beyond the classical divide between private ‘civil’ society and the state.

Through this, actions are enabled in which the manifold potentials and knowledge of otherwise oppressed and marginalised people can complement state policies, that are by definition geared towards increasing the common good for all citizens and the environments in which they live. Emancipatory transdisciplinary co-production, therefore, heads towards the organisation of local communities aiming at bringing their potentials of the knowledge into a joint process of knowledge production with key actors of the public administration, parliaments, and governments in charge of maximising the common good.

Exercise: Take a concrete example (for instance from your own work). Think about the key values that guide a process of knowledge co-production which is:

  1. based on a symptom-oriented approach.
  2. Describe how the values, actors, and actions would change if you addressed the concrete example from the point of view of an emancipatory understanding of transdisciplinarity.

We look forward to reading your thoughts about this experience in the comments section.

Author: Prof. Stephan Rist

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This article is from the free online course:

Partnering for Change: Link Research to Societal Challenges

University of Basel