FIRST INIT Virtual Seminar: Inter- and Transdisciplinary Horizons. INIT Purposes and Approaches

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The challenge is clear. Understanding and acting on pressing issues of cultural and environmental survival from explaining global migration, to pushing the boundaries of new media art and developing sustainable cities demand rigorous, relevant and engaged forms of scholarship. As a result, they also call for a profound re-examination of the nature of academic knowledge production and its role in advancing collective understanding and global wellbeing. How does one discern the relative relevance of problems for study? In what ways do disciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to knowledge production leverage our understanding and capacity to act? How have individuals and groups attempted to integrate distinct knowledge traditions and world views for the advancement of understanding? What challenges, epistemological, conceptual, empirical, relational, material do these forms of knowledge production present? How might knowledge production be organized in the future? How are we to educate individuals to conduct relevant, rigorous and engaged knowledge work?

The Inter-transdiscipinary horizons seminar brings together experts in the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences, technology, and education to reflect about contemporary forms of academic knowledge production. With a focus on disciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary scholarship, the seminar will shed light on the purposes that these approaches might best serve, the processes and practices by which understanding is advanced and validated, the leveraging contributions and challenges that these approaches presents, and resulting implications for research evaluation and education. It is our hope that a comparative analysis of disciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to research and education will yield elements toward a comprehensive conceptualization of academic knowledge production;one that articulates, for example, the circumstances under which particular approaches are best fit, the distinct validation challenges they face, and the assumptions about the nature of knowledge and inquiry on which they are built.

The seminar is organized as a virtual platform of conversation and exchange of ideas for theINIT International Network for Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplnarity

Papers open for discussion

Interdisciplinary Cases and Disciplinary Knowledge

Date of publication: 20 February 2012
This chapter provides an epistemological analysis of interdisciplinary knowledge and research. It points at the peculiarities of interdisciplinarity and determines its place in the context of modern social epistemology. Interdisciplinary research can be subdivided into three kinds. At the center of the following analysis there is interdisciplinary problem solving, or better said, interdisciplinary case work. Of no less relevance, but of less epistemological concern, there is interdisciplinary communication as it is cultivated by many research centers. And finally there are a few cases of interdisciplinary fusion creating new disciplines. Among the suggested—but contested—examples are biochemistry, cognitive science, climate research, and public health.

Transdisciplinarity in the Practice of Research

Date of publication: 09 April 2012
The experience of practices of research, especially in the socio-ecological context, has led us to the conception of transdisciplinarity that we present in the rest of this article, a conception that reflects the real state of transdisciplinary research as it is practiced currently, while, at the same time, opening up the possibility of a better understanding of transdisciplinarity,one that can lead to a wider agreement on its nature and purposes.

Transdisciplinarity for Environmental Literacy

Date of publication: 01 September 2012
This new forum will focus on two chapters of the 2011 book by Roland Scholz: Environmental Literacy in Science and Society: From Knowledge to Decisions published by Cambridge University Press. Chapter 15 is a general model of how trandisciplinary research should be framed to tackle complex environmental issues. The section of chapter 18 available in this forum is a discussion of a case study in the Appenzell canton in Switzerland that focuses on traditional industries in the region and their sustainability. This case study was led by Roland W. Scholz and the president of the state/canton Appenzell Hans Altherr.

Chapter 15 first defines transdisciplinarity and shows how it differs from disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. It the distinguishes between transdisciplinary (td) processes and td research, then presents methods to facilitate td processes and to nurture authentic collaboration among participants. Second, the chapter clarifies how td processes differ from public participation, consultancy, action research, participatory and applied research, while also explaining what benefits science and the practice community may gain from td processes. The differentiation distinguishes three types of agents: the "science community", "legitimized decision makers", and the "public at large". Community-based participatory research combines action research and participatory research and thus can become a td process. Third, the chapter looks at how scientists and universities can play key roles in developing environmental literacy, realizing the power of “disciplined interdisciplinarity” when coping with current salient environmental challenges.

Chapter 18 , Case Study 2 in the book, follows the methodology developed in previous parts of the book and applies it to the analysis of traditional industries in the Appenzell country by organizing the work in the following steps:

    Define a guiding question Facet the case Perform system analysis Construct scenariosPerform multi-criteria analysisDevelop orientations
The two chapters, that the publisher has kindly agreed to make it public for the duration of our online workshop, can be read online or downloaded through the Scribd application (Ch. 15 and Ch. 18). 


Date of publication: 30 November 2012
[A rich format version of the paper is downloadable through Dropbox ]

The case you are about to read captures an emerging / real-life transdisciplinary (TD) initiative, situated in an informal settlement in Stellenbosch (South Africa). When we started with this case study two years ago (at the beginning of 2010) we had to ‘suspend’ all our theoretical knowledge and models of how to start a typical td case study. This is because most of the literature on TD has been written in the context of the developed world with its well established democratic structures and institutions. Although we in South Africa are eighteen years into our democracy, we are still one of the most unequal societies in the world. Structural inequality is a daily reality experienced in all areas of our lives. One such area where the growing disparities between rich and poor, the haves and have-nots, is most explicitly felt is housing. Thousands of poor black people in South Africa are still without decent housing as well as the most basic services such as access to water, sanitation and electricity – things normally taken for granted as a ‘given’ in any country and society in the developed world. Enkanini tells this story when over the last five to six years approximately between 6 – 8 thousand people in-migrated from the Eastern Cape to look for a better life in and around the Stellenbosch area.

When we decided in 2010 to become involved with the plight of the people living in this informal settlement on our doorstep, so to speak, we very quickly realised from the onset that the TD approaches developed and written about in the literature would not necessarily work in this context. It became clear that it was impossible to approach the people living in Ekanini with concepts such as "community" and "stakeholders" because in this context of an emerging ‘community’ people were struggling to survive from one day to the next have not mobilised themselves as yet, and there were no stake-holder groups with clearly defined and articulated interests. Also lacking was ‘knowledge’ about how to conceptualise their basic needs as well as possible solutions. Therefore, the fundamental challenge that we stumbled across from the outset was where and how tostart a TD case study when all the basic building blocks’ of how this approach has been articulated in the literature were simply not present?

In the context of an emerging democracy such as South Africa, the fundamental Habermasian "idea of dominant free discourses, in which rationality and consensus are attained in a communicative process that is open to all relevant (sometimes conflicting) arguments from participants, thus honouring their equal rights and duties"; (Scholz 2012, p.390) will not necessarily work. We had to literally "think on our feet" and come up with new, creative ways of starting a td case study in a developing world context fundamentally different to that of the developed world. From our humble beginnings a lot of interest has emerged both within Enkanini as well as from "external" stakeholders. Amongst others, these include the local Municipality, the Provincial Government, Stellenbosch University and to the Gates Foundation – all expressing a keen interest in what can be done for people living in informal settlements in South Africa. However, this, as mentioned, is an unfolding story and we invite you to participate with us in critically discussing this emerging td case study. From this we sincerely hope that many lessons, both theoretical and practical, will be learnt on how to approach td case studies in different contexts and in different parts of the world