Purpose problem solving

Co-production of Knowlege | Three Forms of Knowlege

"Universities have departments, the real world has problems" [1, p29]. This sentence illustrates, in a nutshell, why transdisciplinarity is so important in solving socially relevant, complex problems (learn more | Fig 1 purposes of research (pdf)). In many universities, knowledge is overwhelmingly produced and evaluated according to disciplinary structures and priorities. Applying such knowledge to societal concerns – for example, addressing issues of new technologies, migration, health, poverty, equality, or sustainable development – demands that it be reorganised and re-evaluated. General and abstract disciplinary knowledge must be augmented and placed in relation with societal actors’ local and contextual knowledge.

For some time, scientists have looked for ways of overcoming disciplinary boundaries in order to better address and help solve ongoing societal problems [2, 3]. When writing the Principles for Transdisciplinary Research, td-net analysed and systematised the existing definitions of transdisciplinary research and related approaches designed to help solve societal (life-world) problems [4, pp69-95]. td-net proposed – as a synthesis – the following definition:

"There is a need for TR [transdisciplinary research] when knowledge about a societally relevant problem field is uncertain, when the concrete nature of problems is disputed, and when there is a great deal at stake for those concerned by problems and involved in dealing with them" [4, p20].

"The starting point for TR is a socially relevant problem field. Within this field, TR identifies, structures, analyses, and deals with specific problems in such a way that it can:
a) grasp the complexity of problems,
b) take into account the diversity of life-world and scientific perceptions of problems,
c) link abstract and case-specific knowledge, and
d) develop knowledge and practices that promote what is perceived to be the common good.
Participatory research and collaboration between disciplines are the means of meeting requirements a)-d) in the research process" [4, p30].

According to this definition, transdisciplinary research is not an end in itself, but rather a means of orienting scientific research to societal reality (learn more). Transdisciplinary research complements both basic disciplinary research and customer-driven applied research. And similarly to both, transdisciplinary research is designed to address specific types of questions [cf. 5].

It should be noted that td-net’s definition was developed in the context of environmental and sustainability research and is thus influenced by this context.

Background of td-net’s definition
Our definition of transdisciplinary research is based on an analysis of existing definitions of transdisciplinary research and related approaches [4, pp69-95]. In particular, our definition draws on the following sources:
  • The starting point of transdisciplinary research as a situation characterised by uncertainty and significant stakeholder concerns refers to Funtowicz’s und Ravetz’s description of “post-normal” science [6].
  • The need to grasp the complexity of problems refers to Erich Jantsch’s definition of transdisciplinarity, inspired by systems theory thinking [7].
  • The need to account for the diversity of societal (life-world) and scientific perceptions of problems is expressed in the call for participatory research [8, 9] and collaboration between disciplines [10, 11].
  • The need to link abstract and case-specific knowledge is rooted in the fields of intervention and action research [12-16].
  • The need for developing knowledge and practices that advance the perceived common good is implicit in definitions that orient knowledge production to the interests of society rather than science alone [10]. But few definitions of transdisciplinarity refer to the common good or common interest explicitly. This is different in the related US American field of policy sciences, in which the common interest serves as an explicit point of reference [17, 13]. Likewise, reference to the common interest can be found in the field of technology assessment [18, p243].

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  5. Hirsch Hadorn, G., et al., Implications of transdisciplinarity for sustainability research. Ecological Economics, 2006. 60: p. 119-128.
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  7. Jantsch, E., Inter-Disciplinary and Transdisciplinary University - Systems Approach to Education and Innovation. Policy Sciences, 1970. 1(4): p. 403-428.
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  11. Costanza, R., A vision of the future of science: reintegrating the study of humans and the rest of nature. Futures, 2003. 35: p. 651-671.
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  13. van den Daele, W. and W. Krohn, Experimental implementation as linking mechanism in the process of innovation. Research Policy, 1998. 27: p. 853-868.
  14. Hubert, B. and J. Bonnemaire, La construction des objets dans la recherche interdisciplinaire finalisée: de nouvelles exigences pour l'évaluation. Natures Sciences Sociétés, 2000. 8(3): p. 5-19.
  15. Groß, M., H. Hoffmann-Riem, and W. Krohn, Realexperimente: Ökologische Gestaltungsprozesse in der Wissensgesellschaft. 2005, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag. 234.
  16. Levin, M. and J.E. Ravn, Involved in praxis and analytical at a distance. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 2007. 20(1): p. 1-13.
  17. Clark, T.W., The Policy Process: A Practical Guide for Natural Resource Professionals. 2002, New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 215.
  18. Grunwald, A. and S. Saupe, Ethische Grenzen der Technik? Reflexion zum Verhältnis von Ethik und Praxis, in Ethik in der Technikgestaltung – Praktische Relevanz und Legitimation, A. Grunwald and S. Saupe, Editors. 1999, Springer: Berlin etc. p. 221-252.

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