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Still thinking about these pesky inter-/trans-disciplinary matters...

Here is a table in which I have tried to distinguish various dimensions within which the differences between disciplinary & transdisciplinary research express themselves:


Disciplinary model

Transdisciplinary model

Ontological dimension

World (natural & human-made) built up from discretely analysable parts – complicated phenomena or problems can be reduced to simpler phenomena or problems, without loss of ontological integrity

World is complex; phenomena & problems (in both natural & human-made environments) occur at the level of ‘wholes’ which are more than the sum of their parts; frequently, the relations between ‘parts’ lead to the emergence of unpredicted phenomena

Epistemological dimension





Reason plays a role, but is not necessarily privileged over, nor to the exclusion of, intuition, common sense, emotion, passion, uncertainty, etc.

Responsive to local contexts & specificity.


Does not operate with a simple, pre-determined, calculus of consequences.

Methodological dimension


Fragmented & segmented

Bureaucratised – disciplinary constraints are ‘negative’, expressing limits of inquiry.

Seeks for creative transfer of knowledge between disciplines.

Focused on practicality, & ‘applicability’, of knowledge.

Transdisciplinary constraints are ‘positive’, expressing enabling conditions for creation or emergence of ‘new knowledges’.

I drew up this table on the basis of Lawrence & Despres' Introduction to the special edition of Futures devoted to transdisciplinary research. In principle, it could be enlarged, to include columns on multi-disciplinary & inter-disciplinary research.

Essentially, I would seek to distinguish trans-disciplinary research from multi- & interdisciplinary research on the basis of 2 fundamental criteria:

(1) Multi- & inter-disciplinary research involve work which could be depicted as the intersect between 2 or more sets/disciplines/disciplinary workers. This begs the question of how, or on what grounds, this intersect is established. I suggest that is a consequence of either of 2 situations:

(1.i) a one-to-one mapping betwen already existing methods/conceptual models/epistemologies, etc. I.e., an identity relation emerges, or becomes apparent, enabling researchers to collaborat

(1.ii) The active subordination of the methodology/epistemology of one (or more) disciplines to another, dominant, discipline.

(2) In either case - whether there is a dominant method/epistemology/conceptual model derived from a dominant discipline; or there is a discovered identity relation - the methodology/epistemololgy/conceptual model is maintained as the same during the 'process' of moving from disciplinary work to inter- or multi-disciplinary work. That is to say, in multi- or inter-disciplinary research, there is no dynamic creation of a new zone of knowledge, or zone of problem(s), or even zone of 'beings'.

Another way of capturing these distinction is to say that where trans-disciplinary research emerges from the productive interaction of heterogeneous domains, inter- or multi-disciplinary work seeks to find zones of commonality between domains, thereby reducing heterogeneity ot homogeneity.

A further potential distinction - I have a hunch that inter- & multi-disciplinary work may follow as a response to externally generated problems, or problem fields; orm be conducted in more or less loose clusters whose rationale is expressed in the vague/general title of a putative research 'centre' (eg sustainability studies). 

On the other hand, for me, what would distinguish genuinely trans-disciplinary work would be that it involved the creative interaction between 2 or more disciplines/disciplinary workers, where what is created is (i) a new zone of research, with new conceptual models, new concepts, new metaphors, new 'beings', etc; & (ii) a new field or zone of problems - ie the specificity of the problems itself emerges through the trans-disciplinary interactions of the researchers. Thus, while a trans-disciplinary research 'centre' or 'grouping' might have a long-term existence & structure, specific trans-disciplinary research problems would be very finite, &, as a consequence, specific trans-disciplinary research collaborations would themselves be very finite/short-term.

It's striking to note from reading through some of the papers to which I posted links on Friday the extent to which there is very little in the way of concrete case studies for inter- or trans-discipl;inary work. On the other hand, much of what 've read seems to be operating at the level of received opinion. The most serious attempts to theorise trans-disciplinarity seem to have emerged from France, inspired by the work of Jean Piaget & Edgar Morin. In the Futures collection, the contribution by Ramadier is the most challenging. He talks in terms of a process of deconstruction provoked by paradoxes of knowledge, followed by a process of articulation of levels of reality (of the research objects), leading to a coherence of knowledge rather than a unity of knowledge.The key notion for him is that of articulation, but, in my opinion, this notion remains in need of further, well, articulation (if not clarification)!

Finally...all of these animadversions might be constructively compared with the Charter for Transdisciplinarity, which Tamsin posted (but which I haven't yet read thoroughly).

And...the trans- of transdisciplinarity suggests, or evokes, the trans- of transgression, whereby the crossing, & thereby deconstruction, of borders or constraints is entailed. Is this transgressive dimension of transdisciplinarity an issue that we would want to follow up, or foreground?


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