Conference Agenda

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Session Overview
Roles and careers for transdisciplinarians
Thursday, 12/Sep/2019:
1:40pm - 3:20pm

Session Chair: Sabine Hoffmann
Location: Europa
Conference Centre Wallenberg

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Who is doing inter- and transdisciplinary research, and why? – An empirical case study of motivations, attitudes, skills, and behaviours

Mª Helena Guimarães1, Cristian Pohl2, Marta Varanda3, Olivia Bina4

1Landscape Dynamics and Social Processes Group, Institute of Mediterranean Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (ICAAM) Évora University,; 2Transdisciplinarity Lab USYS TdLab, Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich; 3SOCIUS/Instituto Superior de Economia e Gestão, Universidade de Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal; 4Instituto de Ciências Sociais, Universidade de Lisboa; Geography and Resource Management, the Chinese University of Hong Kong

We witness a persistent tension between established ways of knowledge production through disciplines, and the urgent need to widen and change, both the production of knowledge and its organization, not least, in order to be able to understand and address the future and its challenges. Witnessing a growing call for inter- and transdisciplinarity (ITD), we set our goal to learn more about scholars who engage in this kind of research by asking these questions: What characterizes inter- and transdisciplinary researchers (ITDRs)? To what extent do these characteristics help ITDRs deal with the challenges of an academic career path? We address both questions by comparing the findings from the relevant literature and semi-structured interviews with ITDRs at different stages in their careers. Our results bring the ITDR personality a step further in taking a form. ITDR personalities can be characterized by a particular mix of motivations, attitudes, skills, and behaviours. However, the academic environment and its career paths do not seem prepared and adapted for such ITDR personalities. Furthermore and in contrast to the literature, the T-shaped training (first, disciplinary depth and then, ITDR) is considered one possible career path, with the other one being a specialization in facilitating knowledge integration and in developing theories, methods, and tools for ITD. Our analysis concludes by exploring the future of ITD if formal training and learning would be available and if the contextual conditions would be more conducive to undertaking this type of research.

Guimarães-Who is doing inter- and transdisciplinary research, and why – An empirical case study-152.docx

Chance, balancing act, challenge – doing PhDs in transdisciplinary projects

Sebastian Rogga, Jana Zscheischler

Leibniz Centre for Agrolandscape Research (ZALF)

The call for science that contributes to the transformation of societies requires new research approaches that challenge the existing academic system. The bearers of academia of tomorrow are the young scientists of today. They must gain experience during their training as to how transformative research works. What could be more reasonable than to do a PhD in transdisciplinary projects?

The scientific qualification in the context of a transdisciplinary research process, however, confronts many early career researchers with major challenges. They are asked to qualify into an academic discipline; still they do their research in a project environment that considers itself decidedly “undisciplined”. Further dilemmas exist between the (partly self-imposed) demand for scientific excellence and practical relevance; between practicality in the project and keeping time resources available for the scientific work, between heteronomous topics and the desire to pursue one's own research interests.

So far, there is little systematic knowledge about the feasibility, opportunities, and risks for doctoral candidates in transdisciplinary projects (Fry et al. 2006). Most recently, studies have been published that highlight the situation of young researchers in transdisciplinary projects, but they mostly take the perspective of project coordinators in so-called junior research groups (c.f. Ruppert-Winkel, C. et al. 2015; Jaeger-Erben, M. et al. 2018).

The presentation will reflect on results of a workshop that was carried out with more than 20 PhD candidates and supervisors from nine transdisciplinary research projects in Germany. The workshop took place at the end of the five-year funding time span of the nine projects in February 2019. Thus, the results serve as an ex-post reflection on the individual experiences that have been gained. The aim was to uncover and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of doctoral studies in transdisciplinary research projects for one's own career in and outside of academia, to identify specific challenges, to derive strategies and to create more transparency on the situation of PhD students overall.

The results show that the threshold for PhDs to enter and work in transdisciplinary projects has become lower, thanks to an increased number of jobs and improved education opportunities in the management area. It enables PhD students to successfully perform various non-PhD related tasks in transdisciplinary projects that traditionally have been covered by senior scientists. The acquired competences gained from TD research (especially soft skills) are seen as major advantages by PhD candidates. On the flip side of the coin, PhD students report on their deficiencies in scientific performance and in scientific reputation. Even though the practical relevance of a TD project is generally welcomed, difficulties to generate sound research questions and, subsequently, research outputs are pervasive. Doing a PhD project in transdisciplinary projects not only mean performance under difficult conditions but also less reputation among the peer groups of junior researchers.

1–3 key readings (optional)

Fry, G.; Tress, B.; Tress, G. (2006): PhD students and integrative research. In: Bärbel Tress (Hg.): From landscape research to landscape planning. Aspects of integration, education and application. Dordrecht: Springer (Wageningen UR frontis series, v. 12), S. 193–205.

Jaeger-Erben, M. et al. 2018. Building Capacities for Transdisciplinary Research: Challenges and Recommendations for Early-Career Researchers. GAIA 27/4 (2018): 379 – 386.

Ruppert-Winkel, C. et al. 2015. Characteristics, emerging needs, and challenges of transdisciplinary sustainability science: Experiences from the German social-ecological research program. Ecology and Society 20/3: Art. 13.

Rogga-Chance, balancing act, challenge – doing PhDs in transdisciplinary projects-246.docx

New roles for researchers in system innovations: case study of the Knowledge-Action Programme on Water

Laurens Hessels1,2, Michaela Hordijk3, Andrew Segrave1

1KWR Watercycle Research Institute; 2Leiden University; 3University of Amsterdam

Sustainability transitions require transdisciplinary knowledge production, going beyond traditional role divisions. In order to contribute to system innovations, researchers often engage in action research, and participate actively in system innovations. This configuration raises questions about their role and position with regard to the practical context, about quality assurance and about intervention legitimacy: how intensively should they participate, and how do they preserve their unique contribution as a researcher.

Existing literature about the rise of transdisciplinary research provides some building blocks for understanding the complex relationships in these situations. There is some literature about the different roles researchers can play in action research for sustainability, but so far the literature has limited sensitivity to the way researchers combine and balance different roles. In particular the role of social scientists is understudied. The research question of this paper is: what roles are required of social scientific researchers in system innovations and what are the advantages and disadvantages of the combinations of roles that can be adopted?

Our theoretical framework builds on transition literature and studies on the role of researchers in sustainability science and action research. We will apply and problematize the analytical framework by Wittmayer and Schäpke, who claim that sustainability researchers typically encounter four key issues: ownership, sustainability, power and action. This corresponds with five roles of researchers, reflecting how they deal with these issues: the reflective scientist, process facilitator, knowledge broker, change agent and self-reflexive scientist (Wittmayer and Schäpke 2014).

The paper analyses a case study on the Knowledge Action Programme on Water (KAPW), a transdisciplinary initiative on innovative water governance carried out in the Netherlands (2017-2019). The main aims of KAPW are to address the governance challenges that water authorities experience in sustainability transitions, and to more effectively link ongoing research and knowledge generation to decision making processes. KAPW is a particularly interesting case because of its action-oriented, dynamic and reflexive nature. Over the course of the past few years, it has shifted its focus and strategy repeatedly, in response to its changing policy context and internal reflections. These reflections highlighted the need to change the self-understanding of researchers and our role in the process, and to redefine the expectations from researchers in processes like KAPW. Our data sources include 45 interviews, analysis of (online) documents, and self-reflection of the authors, who are personally involved in the program.

In the paper we will analyse which key issues the researchers of the programme have experienced and which (combinations of) roles they have adopted in response to these issues. KAPW researchers faced several dilemmas, such as providing answers or formulating questions, active participation versus systematic documentation and producing scientific publications versus societal relevance. In addition there were some issues with ownership (appropriation of results versus collective branding of the program), sustainability (defining the circular economy and sustainable energy) and power (negotiations between the water authority, infrastructure utility and municipality).

KAPW researchers have adopted and integrated several roles, most prominently the knowledge broker, process facilitator and change agent. In many instances researchers struggled with a combination of roles, because of the conflicting values and demands associated with them. For example, while practitioners frequently asked for the guidance and leadership of a process facilitator, researchers were looking for space to act as a knowledge broker or self-reflexive scientist.

Based on this analysis we will enrich the framework of Wittmayer and Schäpke with additional issues and with insights into the relationships and interactions between the different roles.

Wittmayer, J. M., and N. Schäpke. 2014. Action, research and participation: roles of researchers in sustainability transitions. Sustainability science 9:483-496.

Hessels-New roles for researchers in system innovations-169.docx

How not to be an expert – Strategic questioning as an approach to support learning and transformation

Stefan Hilser

Leuphana University

Scientific and social problem and goals:

Transdisciplinary research aims to integrate a great diversity of knowledge, values and assumptions, as well as being solution-oriented, or even transformative. This requires a widened view of research and the roles of researchers as agents of transformation. However, this also risks overburdening researchers that focus on supporting mutual learning and knowledge co-creation and integration with too many roles and expectations. This is especially true for early career researchers like me. Formative Accompanying Research is an approach that aims to support researchers in this challenging endeavour through “learning with, for and about the research team” (Freeth & Vilsmaier, in review). As part of the research group “Processes of Sustainability Transformation”, it has been my task as a formative accompanying researcher to support the other PhDs and their mutual learning processes. In this position the challenge of fulfilling different roles, being member of the team, being a facilitator and being an observer has been there from the start. Based on this perspective I have developed an approach to answer the question of:

How can we support researchers as agents of transformation, without overburdening them?

Research Process and methods:

From this perspective, I will first narrate in more detail, how these challenges emerged as part of my own research and how this has transformed my view on learning and research. I will further describe how this transformation has helped me to develop an approach to my research that allows me to fulfil these different roles, while also lowering the risk of overburdening myself as a researcher. The resulting approach is built upon strategic questioning (Peavey, 1994) and Paulo Freire’s ideas of Praxis (action & reflection) and critical pedagogy. I tested this approach through conducting Walking dialogues with the PhDs, as well as focus group interviews and a deep listening approach. Strategic questioning and deep listening aim at inducing change in an empowering way. The walking dialogues will be analysed using discourse analysis as well as multivariate statistics.

Ways to impact:

The approach touches upon questions of how to conduct transformative research without imposing solutions, but empowering participants and giving them agency. It can further help researchers to how to deal with their different roles and gives indications on how to deal with situations, where they are not the expert. This also helps to reduce the burden on researchers in the field of transformative research, as well as the field as a whole.

Key readings:

Peavey, F. (1994). Strategic questioning. Insight and Action: How to Discover and Support a Life of Integrity and Commitment to Change. New Society Publishers, Philadelphia.

Wittmayer, J. M., & Schäpke, N. (2014). Action, research and participation: roles of researchers in sustainability transitions. Sustainability Science, 9(4), 483–496.

Hilser-How not to be an expert – Strategic questioning as an approach to support learning and transformation-2.docx

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