Our transdisciplinary approach brings multiple ways of knowing to every issue we tackle.

by Knology
Nov 22, 2022

The words "transdisciplinary," "interdisciplinary," and "multidisciplinary" often get used interchangeably–both in popular and in professional contexts. In reality, they are distinct methodologies. Something is "multidisciplinary" when people with distinct areas of expertise contribute their individual perspectives to something that is of general interest. For example, an ethnographer and an historian doing a project on public health might look at data on morbidity and mortality from their own disciplinary backgrounds, and then separately draw conclusions on the basis of this data. Multidisciplinary research, in other words, has an additive quality (i.e., working in parallel).

By contrast, something is "interdisciplinary" when it tries to integrate existing ideas and perspectives across fields. In this kind of research, people of different scholarly backgrounds work together, constructing and carrying out research projects that combine concepts, theories, and tools in a way that cuts across disciplinary boundaries. So, instead of working in isolation, an interdisciplinary public health project might have an ethnographer and historian use their respective skills to build a shared framework for interpreting data from both historical and ethnographic perspectives. As a result of their collaboration, the historian might learn how to apply their knowledge of the past to the day-to-day problems of particular groups, while the ethnographer might learn how to incorporate archival methods into their research.

Transdisciplinarity, by contrast, rejects the idea of disciplinary boundaries. Transdisciplinary methodologies call on researchers to transcend the limits of their professional training. Transdisciplinary research tends to be holistic. It invites us to devise entirely new frameworks for addressing common problems. A transdisciplinary project on public health might result in a new language for talking about problems, and new areas of research—for example, ethnographic epidemiology, a new way of considering culture and health metrics together.

Knology privileges transdisciplinary approaches. Trandisciplinarity stimulates creativity, fresh thinking, and the creation of new concepts that can be rapidly put to work. We put these principles to work every day. In this transcript, we share insights from an internal conversation about how transdisciplinarity informs our work, and about what we've learned from working with people whose training comes from different fields. Our conversation revealed that transdisciplinarity is about:

Bridging Disciplinary Divides

Many of us were trained in fields that span multiple academic disciplines—for example, political science and area studies, human science and human rights, environmental studies and clinical psychology, or climate science and social science. In some cases, our backgrounds fused distinct subfields within our respective professions—for example, by connecting cognitive, social, and developmental psychology. In other cases, our areas of scholarly expertise were the product of transdisciplinary exchange—for example, the history of medicine and linguistic anthropology.

Regardless, we have all come from fields without clearly delineated boundaries. This has been enormously advantageous, because it has encouraged us to focus more on domains, topics, or problems than on isolated disciplinary matters. On account of our transdisciplinary orientation, we possess the tools to investigate a virtually limitless set of phenomena from a wide variety of perspectives. Speaking to this, when explaining her background in the incredibly fluid field that is communication, Melina Sherman noted that because of her training, she can "explore all sorts of different research avenues—from gender performance in electronic music subcultures to pharmaceutical branding to the cultural construction of addiction."

Linking the Macro and the Micro

Because our training combines insights, perspectives, and methodological approaches from a wide range of disciplines, we're able to center our work on those topics, questions, and themes that are the heart of the social sciences. We train our sights on fundamental, core aspects of the human experience, asking big questions about human values, behaviors, norms, traditions, exchanges, experiences, and systems. We want to know "what motivates people to act the way they do" (as Rebecca Joy Norlander put it), and when addressing this question, we're thinking about large-scale categories of analysis—including power, identity, communication, processes of change, representation, and meaning. Our transdisciplinary methodological rigor allows us to better understand the relationship between the micro and the macro: between individuals and institutions, between the interpersonal and the communal, and between humanity and the natural world.

Uniting Theory and Practice

This desire to understand how "the big" and "the small" fit together reflects another aspect of our transdisciplinary approach: uniting theory and practice. When contributing to academic research through the publication of peer-reviewed articles and books, we are not just thinking in abstract terms. Instead, our work is simultaneously anchored in on-the-ground realities, needs, and concerns. In keeping with transdisciplinary principles, we locate ourselves at the nexus of theory and practice, and prioritize the production of actionable social science research.

Knowledge production, then, is not an end in itself. It is instead a jumping off point for thinking about implementation. Our transdisciplinary approach is rooted in the recognition that if we are to successfully address the most pressing issues of our times, we need to use every available tool at our disposal. In a world where there are no one-size-fits all solutions, transdisciplinarity is essential. Working with people whose disciplinary backgrounds span so many different fields has created a situation where—as Shaun Field observed—we can come together collectively "to build upon each other's ideas," and "to push each other to think differently or in new ways." Through collaboration, quantitatively-minded researchers have come to understand the "richness of qualitative data" (as Bennett Attaway put it), while researchers with a more qualitative bent have seen firsthand how important things like surveys, mathematical models, algorithmic programs, and data coding are. Having all of these tools at our disposal means that we're well-equipped to bring positive change within the communities we serve and the partners we work with.

Photo by Denise Johnson on Unsplash

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