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Transdisciplinarity, an approach developed in different contexts

There are many definitions of transdisciplinary research. Read how Christian Pohl refers to several definitions developed in different contexts.

There are many different definitions of transdisciplinary research (TDR), as TDR has been developed in different contexts and for different purposes.

In US health research, for instance, transdisciplinarity means to study an issue – let us think of cancer – from the molecular level, through tissues, organs, bodies, and individuals up to society. As a result, we may learn how the neighbourhood in which a person lives influences the person’s immune system, which in turn helps or hinders a cancer therapy 1. For others, transdisciplinarity is a means to bridge between our western way of thinking and more holistic forms of knowing that do not separate scientific and spiritual thinking 2. During the coming weeks, we refer to an understanding which is popular in TDR in the field of sustainable development:

’Transdisciplinarity is a reflexive research approach that addresses societal problems by means of interdisciplinary collaboration as well as the collaboration between researchers and extra-scientific actors; its aim is to enable mutual learning processes between science and society; integration is the main cognitive challenge of the research process.’ (Jahn et al., 2012 3)

Although this definition is adequate for TDR, due to its brevity, further key characteristics of TDR are left out. Two such characteristics that we consider key for our understanding are the outcomes of TDR and the design of the TDR process.

To be considered as TDR, according to Mitchel and colleagues (2015) 4, a project must affect three different outcome spaces:

  • There must be an improvement in the situation of the societal problem;
  • Artefacts must be produced and disseminated that contribute to the ‘stocks and flows of knowledge’ about the societal problem;
  • There must be mutual and transformational learning for both researchers and practitioners about the societal problem.

To be TDR, according to Pohl and colleagues (2017) 5, the process of knowledge production leading to these outcomes has to be designed in such a way, that it can:

  • Grasp the complexity of the issue at stake;
  • Take into account practitioners’ and researchers’ diverse perceptions;
  • Link abstract and case specific knowledge;

  • Develop descriptive, normative, and transformative knowledge for sustainable development.

We see the collaboration of different disciplines and other societal actors as means to be used in a clever way to achieve these aims and outcomes. However, we refrain from defining how many disciplines and societal actors must be involved in a project to make it TDR. The question is not how many disciplines and societal actors are involved, but whether the relevant stakeholders and fields of expertise are present in the project.

Exercise: We would like you to think about the following questions:

How would you define TDR? Write down your own definition in a few sentences. Compare your definition with the one given by Jahn and colleagues, Mitchell and colleagues, and Pohl and colleagues. Which definition comes closest to your definition? Which definition (including yours) do you find helpful for thinking about what TDR is?

Share your thoughts as a comment with your peers.

Author: Dr. Christian Pohl


1 Gerend, M. A. & Pai, M. (2008). Social Determinants of Black-White Disparities in Breast Cancer Mortality: A Review. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, 17(11), 2913-2923.

2 Nicolescu, B. (2010). Methodology of transdisciplinarity – Levels of reality, logic of the included middle and complexity. Transdisciplinary Journal of Engineering & Science, 1(1), 19-38.

3 Jahn, T., Bergmann, M. & Keil, F. (2012). Transdisciplinarity: Between mainstreaming and marginalization. Ecological Economics, 79, 1-10.

4 Mitchell, C., Cordell, D. & Fam, D. (2015). Beginning at the end: The outcome spaces framework to guide purposive transdisciplinary research. Futures, 65, 86-96.

5 Pohl, C., Truffer, B. & Hirsch Hadorn, G. (2017). Addressing wicked problems through transdisciplinary research. In R. Frodeman, J. T. Klein & R. C. S. Pacheco (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of interdisciplinarity: Second Edition (pp. 319-331). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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