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Co-producing knowledge with travelling concepts

In this article, Frédéric Darbellay explains why knowledge is not fixed, but circulates between and beyond disciplinary boundaries.

To engage in an interdisciplinary process of knowledge co-production is to defend the idea and to accept that knowledge, concepts, theories, and methods are not only fixed in incommensurable scientific paradigms and disciplines, but that these elements also circulate between and beyond disciplinary boundaries, cultural and professional barriers as well as between academic and non-academic actors.

The notion of travelling concepts (or nomadic concepts) perfectly expresses this idea of circulation. As heuristic and communication/translation tools, travelling concepts operate as nodes linking and crossing disciplines. This awareness and the practical implementation conditions conducive to circulation between knowledge make it possible to relativise the disciplinary barriers and to promote exchanges, mutual learning, and co-production of theoretical, methodological, and practical frameworks.

For example, the concept of resilience was developed in physics to define the ability of a material to regain its original shape after a deformation caused by an external shock. It then migrated and was transposed/adapted in economics to explain the return to equilibrium of economic systems after a market disruption. In ecology, the concept of resilience is redesigned as part of a system that integrates external disturbances in order to adapt in a perspective of change. In psychology, resilience is the ability to cope with trauma, to live and develop despite adversity, to rebuild and reinvent oneself in more or less difficult situations. Examples of nomadic concepts are numerous: Think also of the concepts of identity, organisation, space, memory, etc. A nomadic concept thus makes it possible to confront different representations and points of view, it circulates between the disciplines keeping a certain identity, while being transformed and adapting itself to different disciplinary contexts.

In the same vein as the items above, carefully read these three excerpts from Mieke Bal’s book 1.

‘The concepts travel – between disciplines, between individual scholars, between historical periods, and between geographically dispersed academic communities. Between disciplines, their meaning, reach, and operational value differ.’ (2002: 24)
‘Concepts, often precisely those words outsiders consider jargon, can be tremendously productive. If explicit, clear, and defined, they can help to articulate an understanding, convey an interpretation, check an imagination run wild, or enable a discussion, on the basis of common terms and in the awareness of absences and exclusions.’ (2002: 23)
‘While groping to define, provisionally and partly, what a particular concept may mean, we gain insight into what it can do. It is in the grouping that the valuable work lies. The grouping is a collective endeavor. Even those concepts that are tenuously established, suspended between questioning and certainty, hovering between ordinary word and theoretical tool, constitute the backbone of the interdisciplinary study of culture – primarily because of their potential intersubjectivity. Not because they mean the same thing for everyone, but because they don’t.’ (2002: 11)

Based on these three main ideas, keep in mind that:

  • concepts are not fixed;
  • any disciplinary jargon has potential for circulation and transformation;
  • nomadic concepts are intersubjective grouping vectors that allow for interdisciplinary co-production.

Think of your work and try to identify one or more concept(s) that could be considered nomadic concepts. What do you think is the added value of this approach from a disciplinary viewpoint and an interdisciplinary one? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

You will find a version of this exercise as well in the td-net toolbox.

Author: Prof. Frédéric Darbellay


1 Bal, M. (2002). Travelling concepts in the humanities: A rough guide. Toronto, CA: The University of Toronto Press.

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