Transdisciplinary Approaches


One of the many streams of thought that we have been featuring here is transdisciplinary. See the articles by Sue McGregor (2009a) and another by Predrag Cicovaki (2009) in previous issues. Almost a year ago Russ learned of an effort at Arizona State University to develop transdisciplinary programs and approaches. We hope to feature some information about these efforts in a future issue of ILR. This discovery led us to consider the possibility of a series on transdisciplinarity in higher education. We anticipate that we will take a metaphoric journey to South Africa, Germany, Brazil and elsewhere in the process of doing this series.

There are a couple of interesting connections for us in exploring these efforts. First of all, as is indicated below academia has become increasingly fragmented. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the study of leadership. The study of leadership reflects the fragmentation of scholarship and essay on the subject. Writing on the subject can be found in sociology, political science, anthropology, history, business, public administration, education and philosophy. No doubt we left off a field or two. Thus, the study of leadership lends itself to a transdisciplinary approach. In the spirit of integral, transdisciplinarity offers a response to the challenge of transcending and including domains of thought and action across many fields.

Second, the shift in higher education required for transitioning a set of fields into a transdisciplinary theory and research arena, much less a major set of university disciplines, requires a variety of forms of leadership. It requires administrative (executive) leadership in dealing with the inevitable turmoil involved in disturbing academic traditions and commitments. It requires scholar leadership in building support and involvement in transdisciplinary explorations. We hope to surface the experiences of leadership in both domains.

The Academy and Its Challenges

We hope we can call attention to a number of these efforts over the next few issues, at least until next March and that those interested in Integral Leadership will see the parallels of similar challenges in organizations and other social systems around the world. There is much to be learned here.

For some academic scholars, the allure of working beyond the bounds of a traditional university has been so great they have begun the process of transitioning to a transdisciplinary university. This series will identify three to four such enterprises. Each leading proponent will prepare an article describing his or her experience and interviews with them will be shared in the journal. Our desire is to garner insights to four main issues:

  1. why does transdisciplinary work need to be done
  2. what are the politics of getting it done
  3. what is the nature of leadership required for initiating, implementing and sustaining transdisciplinary work
  4. what strategies and messaging are involved in order to engage people with the idea, garnering their support while respecting resistance and push back to such a huge change in the way the academy is organized?

Ultimately, we hope to clarify what is the nature of the leadership involved in transitioning a traditional multi- and inter-disciplinary university to a transdisciplinary university or even in establishing a transdisciplinary program within the traditional university?

As a preamble to this series, this article will explore why a change in the nature of universities is necessary, what this change might look like, and probable issues inherent in making this transition a reality. Once the series is complete, we hope to re-read all of the proponents’ papers and respective interviews and tease out a model approach to transitioning to a transdisciplinary university, if such a thing is feasible or desirable.

Excessive Fragmentation and Specialization

For millennia, universities have evolved using a traditional structure of separate departments for separate disciplines. Separate library holdings exist. Separate professional associations and publication venues exist. Tenure, promotion and reappointment are predicated on disciplinary-specific standards. The contemporary university finds itself increasingly compartmentalized by the specialization of academic departments and faculty interests to the point that the fragmentation has undermined the ability of universities to respond effectively to the broader needs and demands of society (Duderstadt, 2005; Weislogel, 2007). The increasingly narrow focus of problem posing and resultant scholarship has led to entire bodies of knowledge constrained around the boundaries of each discipline, with nominal boundary crossing (Duderstadt).

Attempts to use multi- and interdisciplinary approaches to address this systemic fragmentation are steps forward but not enough for the problems faced by humanity. In the field of leadership studies one well known approach was initiated by James MacGregor Burns and resulted in several years of exchanges across disciplines, but failed in its effort to generate a metatheory of leadership (Goethals and Sorenson, 2006). Today’s problems are so complex that they cannot be answered using knowledge generated by one discipline or even from interdisciplinary enterprises if the latter are divorced from any connections with actors in civil society (Weislogel, 2007). van Breda (2007) explains that the world is facing a polycrisis, a situation where there is no one, single big problem—only a series of overlapping, interconnected problems. These interconnected, complex issues cannot be solved by disciplines working in isolation using independent, fragmented knowledge. The deification of disciplines has occurred at the expense of the diverse needs of contemporary society (Duderstadt, 2005). Researchers, practitioners and civil society stakeholders must cooperate in order to address the complex challenges of society (Thompson Klein et al., 2000).

Emergence of Transdisciplinary Approach

There is a growing consensus in the academy that the transdisciplinary (TD) approach is the one most capable of coming to terms with problems facing humanity. TD combines disciplines, assumes the participation of various stakeholders, academic or not, and takes into account ethical values in the spirit of collaboration and integration. Knowledge creation from a TD perspective automatically entails recursiveness and negotiation with non-academic sectors.

Transdisciplinarity succeeds by simultaneously working

  1. through disciplinary practices
  2. between (among) the disciplines (as in multi- and inter-disciplinarity endeavours)
  3. beyond academic disciplines and the academy (Nicolescu, 1985) and across sectors external to the university (Neuhauser et al., 2007).

Transdisciplinarians know that the pursuit of knowledge to address the complex problems facing humanity requires the work of everyone. So, in addition to looking down and into disciplinary silos, transdisciplinary work demands that universities look up and out and try to connect their work with others to ensure the well-being of society at large (Weislogel, 2007).

Acknowledged Challenges of a Transdisciplinary University

The practical need to integrate disciplines within the academy, while at the same time integrating the academy and civil society (in order to deal with complex social, cultural, economic and political issues), has inspired some researchers to look beyond academic borders. They are keen to engage in intellectual border-work. However, a transdisciplinary approach to solving the problems of humanity poses many, many issues for traditional universities (e.g., Pfund et al., 2006; Tourse et al., 2008), not the least of which are attempts to:

  1. secure tenure, promotion and reappointment;
  2. obtain grants for scholarship that spans disciplines and embraces civil society; and
  3. engage in scholarship that intentionally zigzags back and forth among comfortably siloed disciplines, each with their own departments, library holdings, professional associations and scholarly dissemination venues (McGregor, 2007).

Huge epistemological, ontological, logical and axiological issues also emerge. Respectively, these include: What counts as knowledge and legitimate modes of knowledge creation? What counts as reality? What counts as acceptable reasoning to make an argument? and What are the roles of values and of the researcher(s) in the knowledge creation process? These bastions of the academy are all challenged when people engage in TD scholarship. Currently, three overarching methodologies have become entrenched in the academy: empirical, interpretive and critical (often interlaced with the notions of positivism and post-positivism, and quantitative and qualitative) (McGregor & Murnane, 2010). TD is actually being conceived as a fourth methodology in its own right, with its own epistemology, ontology, logic and axiology.

In more detail, TD knowledge is complex and emergent, created in a shared, dynamic intellectual space using the logic of the included middle (Volckmann, 2007) replete with multiple layers of reality and a key role envisioned for the values and ethics of academicians as well as citizens from civil society. Notions of intellectual rigour shift from the conventional criteria of validity and reliability in scientific positivism, and trustworthiness within the interpretive research paradigm, to socially robust knowledge. The criteria for socially robust knowledge might include justice, effectiveness, efficacy, autonomy and other evidence of success after addressing the resolution of a pressing social problem. Instead of assuming that the space between disciplines is dead, empty and static, necessitating temporary interdisciplinary bridges, TD assumes that knowledge creation happens in the space among disciplines and between the academy and civil society (the included middle). Rather than assuming that reality is mono-dimensional or dualistic, TD assumes there are multiple layers of reality that actively interface with each other. Rather than ignoring values, TD assumes that the intent is to create synergy and intellectual fusion by respecting and nurturing integral value constellations, evident when multiple perspectives intertwine and merge together (Cicovacki, 2004; McGregor, 2007, 2009a,b; Nicolescu, 1985; 2005., 2008).

This approach to understanding scholarship within the academy comes with many challenges and opportunities, all requiring soul searching and reframing of oneself as a university-based scholar (McGregor, 2007):

  • It is the context of where the new knowledge will be applied that matters, not the agenda of the disciplinary home of the scholars.
  • The knowledge created in context belongs to everyone rather than being confined to (trapped in) a disciplinary map.
  • People have to learn to rely on safety of the evolving collective of actors and the potential and hidden possibilities rather than rely on the certainty of relatively risk-free disciplinary expertise.
  • The disciplinary, academe imperative has to be set aside to create a voice for those working in other types of organizational homes, in other contexts – humanity imperative
  • Academics peoplewill have to move from creating knowledge from a position of disinterested. detachment to negotiated knowledge with those holding different interests but common concern for human problems.
  • Academics will have to accept the idea that they are transient – they have a foot in their academic home while roaming the connections available in the network of relationships.
  • A new trait, institutional diversity, has to respected. It refers to fact that research and scholarship take place way beyond the hallowed halls of the ivory tower.
  • Scholars can no longer wear the mantle of ‘founding father’ because the TD knowledge that is created is a collective initiative – an embodied knowledge.

Transdisciplinarity Depends on Disciplinary Work, but with a Twist

Often, the TD approach is juxtaposed against multi- and interdisciplinary studies. Although interdisciplinarity brings disciplines together (either in person or theoretically), there is no commitment to change the boundaries and relations between them. In transdisciplinary inquiry, these disciplinary boundaries are tested and reduced. In a TD university, interdisciplinarity would become an organizational principle rather than the vehicle to create new knowledge (Jantsch, 1972). Currently, as noted, entire university infrastructures are predicated on an array of individual disciplines jostling each other for space, power, prestige and resources.

When links are introduced between disciplines, as is the transdisciplinary way, the disparate disciplines gain opportunities to change their concepts, structures and aims (Jantsch, 1972). From a transdisciplinary perspective, disciplines need not be abolished; rather, they need to be taught and conducted in the context of their dynamic interrelationships with each other and with societal problems (Apostel et al., 1972). Wilson (1998) agrees, noting that most of the issues that vex humanity daily cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the three major sciences (natural, social sciences and humanities). He says that only fluency across the disciplinary boundaries will provide a clear view of the world and what needs to be done to ameliorate humanity’s pressing problems.

Weislogel (2008) explains that transdisciplinary inquiry actually is dependent upon rigorous disciplinary work and the undeniable advances produced by various disciplines. The call for transdisciplinarity is not a replacement for disciplinary and interdisciplinary work; rather, it is to be a complement to existing academic practices. However, transdisciplinarity demands more from disciplines. It strives to galvanize divergent disciplines to answer life’s fundamental questions using transdisciplinary thinking (Paulino-Lima, 2010). It asks university scholars to become interdependent minded so they can value the connections among and beyond the academy that are needed to solve today’s problems. Transdisciplinary scholars know that all sectors have to work together from the outset to develop shared conceptual frameworks that integrate, extend and augment discipline-based learning (Neuhauser et al., 2007) with civil-society-based know-how and lived experiences. This work involves bridging the gaps between three elements: research and disciplines, different social groups, and different value sets, using integrative thinking (Pfund et al., 2006). Ideally, TD inquiry will engage in scientific and social learning, and understand complex problems from different perspectives, preferably in a non-politicized setting.

The Essence of a Transdisciplinary University

A transdisciplinary university would have a new purpose (Jantsch, 1972), that of seeking wisdom in addition to knowledge (Weislogel, 2007). It would restore the idea of synthesis and integral thinking to complement (but not replace) fragmentation and analysis. It would strive to create unity or a ‘symphony of knowledge’, strive for wholeness and integration of many ways of knowing (Weislogel).

A transdisciplinary university would appreciate that solutions to humanity’s problems cannot be found solely in the ivory towers of learning without involving the critical mass of the society (‘Zurich Manifesto’, 2000). The “new ‘universitas’ will be humanity-oriented” (Jantsch, 1972, p. 34). It will become one of several basic units in a decentralized, pluralistic process of shaping a global future, a common policy for society. It will be a “‘strategic antenna’ oriented toward society’s values as well as toward the future” (Jantsch, p.34).

A transdisciplinary university would have a deep respect for the integration of multiple perspectives. “Reality is complex and convoluted and the truths about it will be revealed by a multiplicity of perspectives…woven into a coherent whole whereby the differences in approaches are complementary rather than contradictory” (Albrecht, Freeman & Higginbotham, 1998, p. 57). As people from the many interacting sectors walk (weave) back and forth across their respective boundaries, as they engage in intellectual border-work (Horlick-Jones & Sime (2004), the division lines become smudged and blurred and, eventually, all boundaries become less pronounced, especially those around the disciplines (McGregor, 2009b).

Jantsch (1972) envisions that a transdisciplinary university would design itself so it integrates know-how (knowledge per se), know-what (deeper meanings), know-where-to-go, and know-why. All the while, it would position itself as an institution actively engaged in society, with society. It would lose its fear of sharing disciplinary-bound knowledge and become open to active involvement in mutually-generated knowledge along multiple levels of reality and perceptions (as posited in the 1997 Locarno Declaration (see Nicolescu, 2008, Appendix 4)).