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How can we achieve successful transdisciplinary research? It depends on the context

Transdisciplinary Research (TDR) stands at the core of sustainability sciences: The approach of researchers and local actors co-producing knowledge should ideally tackle our society’s most urgent issues and facilitate sustainable transformation. But as usual, that is easier said than done, as the process is much more complicated in real life: While TDR approaches have been used both in the global North and South, Southern scholars recently criticize the ideal TDR approach as too rigid to facilitate engagement with dynamic contextual conditions. In their new paper, Schneider et al. (2022) examine context-sensitivity as part of TDR conceptualization. They investigate TDR experiences in six case studies with different contexts in the global South. The case studies are located in Asia (Myanmar and Laos), Africa (Kenya and Madagascar), and Latin America (Bolivia and Brazil).
To illustrate how successful TDR can be implemented, Schneider et al. use four TDR process elements that were identified as influenced by the different contexts in all cases: Coming together, Interacting, Co-Producing knowledge, and Exploring paths to transformation. Within these processes, the research team determined several constituting context dimensions.

A traditional “apthapi”, meaning community food, in Tiwanaku, an ancestral territory in the Andes. According to Aymara Llanque-Zonta (co-author of the paper),  “community food is practiced as a form of collective integration, but not only between humans, but also with entities, so we feed the stones, the mountains, the river, our grandparents and grandmothers. This dialogue of co-creation of knowledge is a possibility to articulate between worlds, everything is alive and everything has its value.” (Photo credit: Llanque-Zonta)

The process of “Coming together”, physically meeting each other and enabling safe conditions for TDR, requires dealing with different, at times challenging socio-political norms. This can be achieved by making sure formal (e.g. research permits in Africa and Asia) and informal rules (e.g. courtesy visits in all case studies) are followed according to the prevalent conduct. Additionally, enabling appropriate transport and communication infrastructure is necessary for this process, which entails addressing social and organizational issues like scheduling, maintenance, or reliability. In general, safe conditions for all involved actors must be guaranteed.

An example of a historical political ritual, done before starting the scientific workshops within the TDR projects. According to Aymara Llanque-Zonta, “we put images of our political references, women who fought in the past to change the conditions of inequality of indigenous peoples and workers, women who symbolize our memory. To move towards the future it is necessary to look at the past, peoples without memory are peoples who do not know why they fight. Science, as an act of co-creation of knowledge, is a possibility to create collective memory. The challenge is how to do it in a non-hegemonic way.” (Photo credit: Llanque-Zonta)

The interacting process describes the need for relationships of trust between all relevant actors. Here, an actor’s openness to communicate with the researchers and each other is required. Schneider et al. point out that this is often dependent on expected and experienced benefits, the researcher’s sensitivity, and the history of (research-related) conflicts. Interaction is also dependent on the linguistic competencies and communication styles of all related actors, ranging from speaking or writing abilities to adequate interpretation of meanings. Similarly, the way shared understandings are created is relevant to ensure successful TDR. The dialogue culture can vary significantly: While the case studies in Asia and Africa illustrated more hierarchical communication structures, Latin America was more prone to controversial debate.

Next, the process of co-producing knowledge can be supported through a productive relationship between science, policy, and society, including functioning research institutions. In the case studies, lack of funding was one of the obstacles to implementing TDR, as well as excessive administrative work. Furthermore, the legitimacy of knowledge holders and how their knowledge is valued, different learning habits, and to what extent new knowledge is desired turned out as relevant as well. For example, in Laos, new knowledge had to conform to the official policy doctrine, while researchers in Myanmar evaluated knowledge in regard to its potential to provoke conflicts.  

Lastly, Schneider et al. highlight four context dimensions for the process of exploring paths to transformation: First, local people need to have an idea of what they constitute as a “good life”, and how to achieve it. Examples of the case studies include the Buddhist concept or Bolivia’s concept of “vivir bien”. Secondly, economic, social, and political processes shaping transformative actions play an important role in TDR. Thirdly, the process is dependent on societal contestation to proposed solutions. For instance, in Madagascar conflicts between farmers and environmentalists escalated to criminal activities that necessitated careful management. Lastly, the dimension of actor agency relates to the power of related actors to contribute to or hinder transformations. The case studies revealed complex actor networks and power relations, often referring to economic or political actors as more powerful as villagers who were actually more invested in the transformation processes.

To ensure process dynamics that enable successful TDR, Schneider et al. recommend a more flexible design that recognizes local ways of researching, communicating and learning. Here, long-term partnerships can support familiarization with different local cultural dynamics. The authors stress the importance of the researcher’s ability to reflect on their own values and perceptions of dealing with power imbalances in knowledge production and recognizing different research cultures. If future research can implement the different contextual dynamics, TDR might facilitate knowledge generation that effectively enables actors to implement sustainable transformations.

To learn more about Schneider et al.s approach, check out their paper here.

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