Intersectionality – of growing interest to social-ecological systems research

As a part of my Master’s education at SRC I had the opportunity to do a one month internship around the intersections between intersectionality and complexity. Here I present a summary and insight from the interviews I conducted. 

In addition to the interviews, I also organised an internal SRC workshop, “Why care about intersectionality”, in which we discussed the contribution of intersectionality to SES research. You can find a summary of the workshop here.  

 If you search for “intersectionality” in the SRC webpage search function, you will find only four results- of which three refer to Master’ students’ profiles. However, intersectionality is making its way to the SRC – both in research practice and in reflecting on our position as researchers.

But what is intersectionality in the first place? 

Davis (2008, p. 68) defines intersectionality as ‘the interaction between gender, race and other categories of difference in individual lives, social practices, institutional arrangements, and cultural ideologies and the outcomes of these interactions in terms of power’. For further reading, see Crenshaw (1989), who introduces and develops the theory of intersectionality.

There has been an interest to develop research and practice that applies intersectional approaches at the SRC, starting with the GRAID programme in 2017, in which Nadia Sitas, Michelle Dyer and Grace Wong were involved. Nadia Sitas and Michelle Dyer do not work at the SRC anymore but their work on gender and intersectionality have paved the way for many at the SRC. This year, the Transformative futures and stewardship (TranStew) theme has organised a reading group around intersectionality that initiated many conversations on the topic. Finally, some projects at the SRC are explicitly bringing in intersectional and feminist lenses to their research, such as the SEQUAL project, the OctoPINTS project and “The plastic pollution challenge: a global social-ecological perspective”, a PhD project pursued by Patty (Patricia) Villarrubia-Gómez.

This demonstrates that many at the SRC and in our broader research community are engaging with intersectionality, although not always naming it as such. Therefore, as part of an SRC MSc traineeship, I conducted thirteen interviews in order to gain a better understanding of how intersectionality was understood and applied at the SRC and more broadly in research on social-ecological systems and complex adaptive systems. 

The interviews were rich in content and provided insights from many different points of views, practices & disciplines. Here are some of the outcomes:

Intersectionality is relevant for social-ecological systems (SES) research

Patty (Patricia) Villarrubia-Gómez’s answer to why intersectionality was relevant for SES research was straightforward: “Intersectionality in practice is needed for good sustainability science”. It is key to understand different contexts in order to develop good practices. 

Intersectionality, adds Michelle Dyer, requires specific attention to power relations. 

Nadia Sitas could not find any framework to analyse how benefit flows in ecosystem services and to understand how power plays across different systems and therefore SES research could benefit from an intersectional approach.

Intersectionality, as mentioned before, is already present in some of SRC’s projects. As a part of the GRAID programme, Nadia Sitas compared the resilience principles (Biggs et al., 2015) with intersectionality principles. The latter was particularly useful to “think about how humans operationalise resilience from a social perspective”. Understanding resilience as a combination of capacities enables us to untangle the power dynamics and to understand “how you can move resources within a system in ways that can change the status quo”.

SEQUAL, a project led by Grace Wong, has incorporated intersectionality as part of an explicitly feminist research design. The project looks at resource governance and the gender gap at multiple levels, including use of Carol Bacchi’s “What’s the problem represented to be” approach for critical analyses of how problem representations as embedded in policies and government programs can accrue power and limit what can or cannot be talked about.

However, even though intersectionality might deepen your understanding of the social part of your data, it can be hard to connect it to the ecological aspects of one’s SES study.  Liz (Elizabeth) Drury O’Neill gave me the example of her PhD, in which she outlined the social subgroups that fell under the label “fishers” but struggled to link these findings to the ecological aspects of her case study. She understood much more who was benefiting from the ecosystem services but it was challenging to connect these results to the ecological findings of the study.

So how do we move on from an awareness of intersectionality theory to a methodology that builds on intersectionality?

Rethink your categories and your methodologies

If I have convinced you so far that it is worth including intersectionality in your research, how can you apply it in practice? Intersectionality has more often been used in qualitative research than in quantitative approaches. An inductive approach has  been preferred where categories emerge during the data analysis. Some SRC researchers that are using participatory methods are finding intersectionality a useful way to reflect on their research design, with researchers reflecting on the design of focus groups to enable every voice to express themselves for instance. Amanda Jiménez Aceituno explains that interviewees and focus groups participants might have very different experiences of the same context and that this is a key point to take into account when running a workshop.

What are some tools from intersectionality that you could use in SES research? One important contribution from intersectionality is the concept of situatedness: “a process of continuous change, most apparently across class, income, or profession, across time in the age cycle, and across geographical places but also across gender, ethnicity, and sexuality” (Kaijser & Kronsell, 2014), which help apprehend overlapping processes that need to be understood within a certain set of networks or dynamics. María Mancilla García mentions Haraway (1988) and says that she believes paying attention to situated knowledges is fundamental for sustainable science. As many interviewees mention, intersectionality is not about the “Oppression Olympics” (see Martinez, 1993), meaning pointing out who is the most vulnerable, but rather about identifying processes of structural power and inequity that are continuously maintained and reinforced. 

Is it possible to have an intersectional approach to quantitative research? For several interviewees, it is not intuitive given the methods they use, however there are some things that can be done. The most important one is to reflect on which categories the data collection is based. As Michelle Dyer explains, “household” is still used as a category to assess wealth in development studies, but this draws the assumption that money is equally shared within the household, which is rarely the case.

In systems thinking, David Collste recommends actively engaging with some tools such as those related to boundary critique to be more conscious about one’s own bias – and how a study object is demarcated.

In any case, it is challenging to “search for something that you are not aware of”, says Celinda Palm, which brings me to my next point: 

How to put your intersectional goggles on?

Many interviewees have become acquainted with intersectionality through personal experiences- when becoming a mother, by moving to a new country and being perceived as “other”, by becoming friends with people who had different lived realities. So, how can you become familiar with intersectionality otherwise? 

For several, the entry point was through research with a focus on gender (Amanda Aceituno Jiménez) or equity (Grace Wong), for others it was active discussions within the SRC as well as relocating to a country where conversations around race mirror much of Sweden’s conversations around gender (Johan Enqvist).

Art and stories can be a powerful way to learn about intersectionality, reflected David Collste. In fact, Patty (Patricia) Villarrubia-Gómez mentioned the book Americanah, written by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, as a tipping point in her journey towards intersectionality.

Celinda Palm gives us another recommendation to put your intersectional goggles on: “flip the picture”. Does the person portrayed in a particular study, commercial or movie, have to belong to a certain group or could it be anyone? If not, why?

For instance, who do you imagine giving a talk at a business conference? And more importantly, who do you NOT imagine?

Once we are working our way through our own biases, how can we apply it to our research, to be better scientists?

How do we move forward- and with whom?

I ask Simon West what we can do once we have uncovered unhelpful or inequitable bias and underlying assumptions in our existing concepts and categories. He suggests three possible pathways – link existing concepts together, draw inspiration from and use concepts from other knowledge traditions and cultures (bearing in mind the ethical considerations that this approach implies), or create entirely new concepts. In addition to that, he also recommends openness to how we define things, as when going in the field, “social-ecological” is not relevant for research participants who do not mark a difference between nature and culture for instance. 

It is also good to remember that research itself is a very privileged environment. This is reflected in the SRC Master’s programme, which struggles to attract Asian and African applicants since Sweden has instigated tuition fees for applicants outside of the EU and the Nordics. I have had very compelling discussions with Miriam Huitric and Johan Enqvist, reflecting on what should be the criteria to admit students to the Master’s programme. As of now, merit is the main criteria and there are no quotas. However not all applicants have had the same opportunities, depending on their background, and that should be taken into consideration, elaborates Miriam Huitric. 

Many discussions among students in the Master’s programme this year were about the value of doing research in the Global South when one comes from the Global North. There is research to be done in the Global North and some in the class wondered if it was a form of post-colonization to do research in the Global South. I ask Johan Enqvist how he positions himself, as a researcher from the Global North working in the Global South. “I try to remain conscious of the opportunities that I’ve had, that enable me to do this research, and put in time and effort to give others similar opportunities, such as supervising local students and involving local partners in my research in ways that are more actively transdisciplinary than before.

These discussions with Miriam and Johan have taught me that research is dependent on funding, and that research is done where there is funding. I believe funders could be a potential leverage point to make academia a more inclusive environment.

So, what are the next steps to develop intersectionality at the SRC? 

Sarah Cornell gives a multi-scale recommendation:

At the individual level, one can include aspects of how to deal with intersectionality in research proposals and continuously reflect on personal bias and assumptions. 

At the community level, one can engage in SRC reading groups, which is a potent space to expose each other’s biases and prejudices to think, which “requires us to recognise that as scientists, we are also thinking, feeling beings and not just knowledge generators”. It can be an uncomfortable but enriching space.

Finally, at the institutional scale, intersectionality forces us to realise that the knowledge we communicate will be interpreted: “We cannot control the interpretation, but we can control the message” and that message can be of humbleness, as researchers are embedded in this world.

Many thanks to the interviewees for sharing your time, knowledge and life experiences with me: Amanda Aceituno Jiménez, David Collste, Sarah Cornell, Liz (Elizabeth) Drury O’Neill, Michelle Dyer, Johan Enqvist, Miriam Huitric, María Mancilla García, Celinda Palm, Nadia Sitas, Patty (Patricia) Villarrubia-Gómez, Simon West & Grace Wong

Anna Garre (SRC MSc)

Literature Cited:

Adichie, C. N. (2014). Americanah. Gyldendal A/S.

Bacchi, C. (2012). Introducing the ‘What’s the Problem Represented to be?’approach. Engaging with Carol Bacchi: Strategic interventions and exchanges, 21-24.

Biggs, R., Schlüter, M., & Schoon, M. L. (Eds.). (2015). Principles for building resilience: sustaining ecosystem services in social-ecological systems.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum1 1(8):139–167.

Davis, K. (2008). Intersectionality as buzzword: A sociology of science perspective on what makes a feminist theory successful. Feminist theory, 9(1), 67-85.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies14(3), 575-599.

Martinez, Elizabeth; Davis, Angela Y. (1993). “Angela Y. Davis & Elizabeth Martínez”. Center for Cultural Studies

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Intersectionality. In dictionary. Retrieved June 2, 2021, from

To go further:

Djoudi, H., Locatelli, B., Vaast, C., Asher, K., Brockhaus, M., & Sijapati, B. B. (2016). Beyond dichotomies: Gender and intersecting inequalities in climate change studies. Ambio45(3), 248-262.

Erwin, A., Ma, Z., Popovici, R., O’Brien, E. P. S., Zanotti, L., Zeballos, E. Z., … & Larrea, G. R. A. (2021). Intersectionality shapes adaptation to social-ecological change. World Development138, 105282.

McCall, L. (2005). The complexity of intersectionality. Signs: Journal of women in culture and society30(3), 1771-1800.

Saville, S. M. (2021). Towards humble geographies. Area53(1), 97-105.


The perennial postdoc vs. need for PhD research staff

In an article in the South African Mail and Guardian 2 weeks ago, Philippa Kerr sets out an interesting argument in Perverse incentives for universities are wasting the skills and work of postdoctoral fellows.  Kerr makes a compelling well-reasoned argument that South African universities have a lack of permanent staff who have PhDs but at the same time host thousands of postdocs.

“On one hand, universities and the department of higher education and training (DHET) claim that the higher education system is seriously short of PhD-qualified academic staff.  Only about 35% of permanent academics have PhDs, though these are unevenly distributed among universities. (…) Universities are being encouraged to think of “innovative strategies” to recruit PhD-qualified academics to fill this gap. But on the other hand, the universities already collectively host a few thousand postdoctoral fellows.”

Kerr describes the way in which postdoc appointments are viewed – as temporary appointments that allow recent graduates to publish as much as possible before going on to a permanent post with more teaching and admin responsibilities. Ideally, this  fellowship arrangement is beneficial to both the university and the fellow as Kerr explains:

“Universities typically claim that this arrangement benefits both the university and the fellow: the university benefits by having its research productivity bolstered by the fellow’s publications; and the newly-qualified PhD-holder benefits from a period of “mentored training” in which to develop their research skills, under the supervision of a senior academic host, in preparation for an academic career and a permanent university job.”

But of course this must be countered by the precarious situation in which many postdocs are placed with low pay, no employment benefits and even the way in which fellows are considered perpetual learners/apprentices. Kerr points out that the benefits to the university system include the relatively low cost of employing postdocs as well as the bolstering of ‘per capita’ research outputs (this per capita does not seem to include postdocs as they are not permanent staff). As Kerr states:

“In some ways, this mirrors patterns of academic casualisation in much of the Global North, where, in a collapsing permanent academic job market, postdoctoral fellowships and other kinds of insecure posts are absorbing the oversupply of PhD graduates who have no realistic chance of finding permanent academic work.  In South Africa, however, the reasons for offering postdoctoral fellowships are less clear, as most academics already in permanent posts don’t have PhDs.”

As a South African postdoc working in a European research institution I was struck by this rather strange dual problem – I think many of us are aware of the real risks of being in a postdoc position for many years. However, I hadn’t realised that there is a fair proportion of permanent academics already employed in South Africa without PhDs, as this does make for quite a dilemma. I would love to hear from this community about your experiences of postdoc career pathways –  is there this same need for PhD staff but apparent lack of options for postdocs in other universities around the world?  It would be great to start a conversation about the creative ways through which you have all navigated this space!

Thanks also to Jess Cockburn for first posting the article to social media.

Staying with the trouble: liminality in transdisciplinary doctoral research

Have you ever caught yourself, surrounded by a group of academics or early career researchers, experiencing a quiet torment, wondering whether you’ll ever reach the end of your PhD and join these colleagues on “the other side”? They all did it, and they are not super humans – yet there is a chasm between you and them. I feel this often, and suspect other PhD candidates do too. Working in the field of sustainability science comes with an added anxiety for me, as I also feel a profound sense of despair and powerlessness in the face of the horrors of the Anthropocene, which I must look straight into if I am to say anything sensible about them.

This PhD is my most difficult undertaking yet. No, that’s not strong enough. This PhD is a seemingly insurmountable task which I fear I don’t have the guts to get to the end of. Sometimes I wonder whether I even have it in me to pull it together in the few months between now and my August 2019 submission deadline (oh God, that’s this year).

I feel ashamed and self-indulgent admitting these fears. Affirming platitudes and thoughtful encouragement do little to assuage my anxiety or to stoke the fire of motivation. But, there’s no going back. I’ve come so far, learnt so much and feel as though I have a great deal to offer the academic community once I’m done with the ruddy thing. And to think of all the opportunity and energy that will be unlocked on the other side (or so they say)! Until recently, I had no words to frame this feeling of being stuck, overwhelmed and insecure.  And then I came across the phrase ‘doctoral liminality’.

Liminality in its common usage derives from the Latin word for threshold and describes the disorientation that occurs in the middle of a transition from one stage to another. Being on the threshold is not outside anymore, but not inside yet, either. Suspended between two worlds, I am no longer the student I was when I entered the doctoral programme, and not quite the scholar and researcher I am working to become.

I was introduced to doctoral liminality in a course at the African Doctoral Academy at Stellenbosch University about doctoral supervision, especially oriented towards novice supervisors. A Professor in my department recommended that I attend, as I’m involved in co-supervision of students in our MPhil in Sustainable Development programme. It was an excellent opportunity to engage critically with the ‘professional work’ (Halse & Malfroy, 2010) of doctoral supervision and I left with a number of helpful frameworks and heuristics to guide my supervision practice in the future.

In the midst of the dense material and rich discussions, this idea of doctoral liminality resonated most strongly, and has helped me understand this disconcerting moment in my PhD journey. And so, I wanted to share it. For our community of transdisciplinary scholars, I think it’s a fruitful topic of conversation, because it can help with building the competencies required to master the ‘triple jump’ of transdisciplinary research: scientific excellence and rigour, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care.

Jess Tripple Jump Illustration 6

The notion of liminality, conceptualised by van Gennep (1960) is useful for understanding the stripping away of old identities, the emergence of new ways of seeing and the oscillation between states of being. “Liminality involves wavering between two worlds, after the separation from the previous identity but before the point of incorporation into a new one” (Keefer, 2015:19).

Life is peppered with rites of passage and the passing of thresholds. The same can be said about doing and achieving a PhD. It is a significant and transformative portal into an academic community and has life-altering implications. While each PhD journey is distinctive, there are certain experiences that are shared across disciplines and research fields. Often, these shared experiences coalesce around the shifts in perspective that result in transformed ways of seeing oneself, one’s research and the world at large.

Describing the earned doctorate, Keefer explains that “as a rite of passage toward creating new knowledge, this identity shift often follows a period of uncertainty, confusion, or doubt. This in-between, transition period within a rite of passage is known as a period of liminality” (Keefer, 2015:18). He goes on to say that “these liminal moments of transition exhibit a former way of being or knowing towards a future state. Liminality in this domain refers to the in-between period where one is no longer who previously existed, nor has yet developed into the independent researcher or expert practitioner” (Keefer, 2015:18).

The literature on doctoral liminality is particularly concerned with elucidating the lived experiences – intellectual and emotional – of doctoral students betwixt and between. As Keefer asks in his paper, “how much do we really know about the experience of well-educated learners who feel confused, overwhelmed, disoriented, and even lost in a process much larger that they are?” (Keefer, 2015:18).

Liminal experiences during the doctoral journey often comprise a sense of isolation, a lack of confidence and imposter syndrome, and research misalignment, according to Keefer (2015). Naturally, these are experienced to varying degrees of intensity by different people. Keefer argues that an awareness of the markers and conditions of doctoral liminality can inform supervision strategies that support doctoral students during these periods of transition. He is prudent to note that “this is not to claim that knowing about doctoral liminality will automatically help learners work through it. However, helping postgraduates know that there is a term that frames this experience, and that the suffering is not done in complete isolation, may be useful” (Keefer, 2015:26). Perhaps this is also the value of communities such as this; to cultivate a shared language and alliances of support.

Looking beyond the more generalisable experiences of doctoral students in their liminal phases, I suspect it might be worthwhile to tease out this concept of doctoral liminality further in the context of transdisciplinary research and sustainability science, where a major pillar is, to put it simply, change. Changing from, transitioning from, one state of being/governing/valuing/fuelling, into another. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges of this field, is harnessing the collective imagination to create and step into a more just and resource-efficient future – but we are by no means there yet. We are (stuck) on the threshold.

Transdisciplinary research (TDR) means engaging with problem-driven and solutions-oriented research that is collaborative and emergent. TDR and its various methodological approaches is increasingly used in the context of sustainability challenges that are fundamentally complex and social-ecological in nature. This approach to knowledge co-production, through strategies for doing ‘science with society’, presents a whole host of new challenges, insecurities and ethical considerations for researchers—hence our efforts to explore the triple jump of transdisciplinary research referred to above. As a transdisciplinary researcher on what might be described as an un-disciplinary journey (Haider et al, 2017), I find it challenging to relate to disciplinary doctoral journeys, research approaches and institutional structures.

But the challenge goes deeper for me. Engaging with sustainability issues (which, in my case, are the intersections between climate change and the political economy of energy and development), can be acutely troubling and disorienting. For many, this manifests as ‘climate grief’ – our collective anxiety, anger and despair in the face of ravaging climate change. It’s impossible to do the necessary thinking work without at the same time knowing the bleak fact that current planetary conditions can no longer support social and/or ecological flourishing. And the future doesn’t look very hopeful: on the one hand, we witness deep and violent resistance to transformation and on the other, we are without alternatives that viably contend with the status quo. The impasse feels like a state of liminality that’s festering.

It’s a triple whammy, really, being a PhD candidate in this field, at this moment in human history: engaging constructively with the truly devastating realities of the Anthropocene, as part of a doctoral research inquiry with all its inherent complexities, and in the spirit of a transdisciplinary research approach that’s trying to bring about transformative change in the world.

This line of thought doesn’t easily lead to a clear conclusion about the way forward. Instead, I fall back on the wisdom of Donna Haraway, as she implores us to ‘stay with the trouble’, being responsible and present as we face existential liminality, betwixt and between this world and a more just, sustainable and flourishing one:

“Staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or Edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings” (Haraway, 2016:1).

Similarly, in the steep uphill to the end of my PhD journey, the only way through might be staying with the trouble, present and committed to one sentence after another. Here goes.

Megan pic

About the author: Megan Davies

I am a PhD candidate at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University. My research investigates South Africa’s transition to energy democracy with reference to the potential and limitations of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme. I am also involved in teaching and supervision as part of the MPhil in Sustainable Development at Stellenbosch University and coordinate a research group, Renewable Energy for Transitions at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition.


Van Gennep, A. 1960. The rites of passage. University of Chicago Press.

Haider, L.J., Matteo, J.H., Julie, G., Hamann, M., Masterson, V.A., Meacham, M., Merrie, A., Ospina, D., et al. 2017. The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science. 13(1):191–204. Available online.

Halse, C. & Malfroy, J. 2010. Retheorizing doctoral supervision as professional work. Studies in Higher Education. 35(1):79–92. Available online.

Haraway, D. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Keefer, J.M. 2015. Experiencing doctoral liminality as a conceptual threshold and how supervisors can use it. Innovations in Education and Teaching International. 52(1):17–28. Available online.

Can a transdisciplinary PhD contribute to transformative change?

This is the fifth post in the series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’.

My name is David Lam. I am a PhD student at Leuphana University Lüneburg Germany in the research project ‘Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformations’ and currently a guest PhD researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden.

I am doing research in a transdisciplinary case study in Southern Transylvania, Romania. I aim to make my research in Transylvania useful in two ways: First, to better understand a sustainability problem in a specific context. Second, to contribute to possible solutions. We are working with a network of approximately 30 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which try to foster sustainable development in the region by, for instance, supporting small-scale farmers, conserving the cultural heritage, or protecting the unique landscape with its  high biodiversity value. With my PhD research, I want to understand how these inspiring NGOs increase their impact in order to accelerate the sustainability transformation in the region.

A question that always comes into my mind is: How transformative can transdisciplinary sustainability research actually be? Additionally, can my PhD research support transformative change? Scholars have advanced our understanding of sustainability transformations of social-ecological (Olsson et al. 2014) or social-technical systems (Grin et al. 2010) as well as of transdisciplinary sustainability research methods a lot (Lang et al. 2012; Wiek et al. 2012; Wiek and Lang 2016). For PhDs, this literature is strongly motivating and inspiring because it shows that fundamental systems change is possible, and that research can play an essential role to foster such change. I think this is one of the main reasons why many PhDs decide to do transdisciplinary research.

In Southern Transylvania, we seek to answer: How can we reach the sustainability vision, named Balance Brings Beauty? (Hanspach et al. 2014). We developed this question by talking to the people and based on our experience from former research projects in the region. I really like this question. When I started my PhD, I believed that if my research can contribute to answering this question, I will contribute to positive changes in the region.

Today, my thoughts are still the same, but much more nuanced. After two years of being a PhD in a transdisciplinary case study, I realized that my research can contribute to change in so many different ways, such as providing scientific results and evidence, using scientific methods to understand complex system dynamics, or even by simply building up relations with stakeholders and being present in the case study area. In my opinion, the latter are the most relevant ones for transformative transdisciplinary research. However, it is difficult to fulfil them because they need more time and as PhDs we are under pressure to collect and analyse data as well as write and publish papers. This takes a lot of time and happens not in the field, but at our desks in our offices. Being in the field to really connect with stakeholders on the one hand, and writing scientifically rigorous papers on the other hand is a tough challenge. Especially, when you have the ambition that your PhD research should be meaningful and contribute to something better.

So, is it too much to expect transformative impact from your own PhD research? How could we organize a PhD programme for transformative transdisciplinary research (including funding, time, supervision, and evaluation)? I think a lot of PhDs working on sustainability transformations or using transdisciplinary research methods have thought about this. I would love to hear your opinions about this, here, as a comment. Alternatively, I invite you to join our early-career researcher pre-conference event at the Leverage Points Conference 2019 at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany on 5thFebruary 2019.


Grin J, Rotmans J, Schot J (2010) Transitions to Sustainable Development: New Directions in the Study of Long Term Transformative Change. Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Hanspach J, Hartel T, Milcu AI, et al (2014) A holistic approach to studying social-ecological systems and its application to Southern Transylvania. Ecol Soc. doi: 10.5751/ES-06915-190432

Lang DJ, Wiek A, Bergmann M, et al (2012) Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: Practice, principles, and challenges. Sustain Sci 7:25–43. doi: 10.1007/s11625-011-0149-x

Olsson P, Galaz V, Boonstra WJ (2014) Sustainability transformations: a resilience perspective. Ecol Soc 19:. doi: 10.5751/ES-06799-190401

Wiek A, Lang DJ (2016) Transformational Sustainability Research Methodology. In: Sustainability Science. Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht, pp 31–41

Wiek A, Ness B, Schweizer-Ries P, et al (2012) From complex systems analysis to transformational change: A comparative appraisal of sustainability science projects. Sustain Sci. doi: 10.1007/s11625-011-0148-y

Methodological challenges in transdisciplinary PhD research: Harnessing theory and methods in a manageable and practical way when crossing multiple disciplines

This is the fourth post in the series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’.

My name is Petra Holden. I recently completed my PhD at the Plant Conservation Unit at the University of Cape Town (UCT). I am now a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Climate and Development Initiative at UCT.

In my PhD, I used a transdisciplinary approach to understand the long-term influence of conservation (specifically a protected area) on fire, land use, vegetation cover and water flows in a mountain catchment important for regional water supplies and of significant biodiversity importance in the Western Cape, South Africa. I used multiple disciplines (including ecology, social sciences, hydrology, geomatics, and environmental geography) as well as associated tools (GIS, mixed methods, hydrological modelling, remote sensing and scenario planning) on which I based my chapter specific literature, theory and methods.

Simply put, my PhD involved doing vegetation surveys, orthorectifying and classifying hundreds of aerial images, conducting in-depth interviews with landowners and using a hydrological model to run multiple scenarios of the changing landscape to understand the influence on water flows. In addition to this and to inform these latter processes I engaged in an unstructured way with managers, landowners and organisations to address a topic/theme/problem that was of interest to them i.e. co-developing the research focus. Lastly, I integrated landowner knowledge directly into the findings of the thesis i.e. used different types of knowledge sources.

My main struggle as an individual transdisciplinary PhD student was around the constant need to balance the demands of individual disciplines in academia. This included managing tensions between disciplinary perspectives (linked to theoretical framings, methods, and epistemological and philosophical viewpoints). It also included the need to constantly justify why I was framing my thesis around transdisciplinarity instead of zooming into the disciplinary research aspects. I had to fully immerse myself in the different disciplines to accommodate the different and detailed disciplinary perspectives and guidance that I received. I had to develop strong negotiation skills to present my work to individuals with different disciplinary backgrounds, specifically since my home department was Biological Sciences. I felt like I was constantly being pulled in many directions between disciplinary preferences on “appropriate” data, methods, and analyses.

I wanted to conduct a model process for protected area impact evaluation that promoted disciplinary rigour, longitudinal perspectives and integrated research and knowledge (Von Wehrden et al 2017; Isgren et al 2017). But on reflection, the stringency applied and efforts required to uphold disciplinary rigour within individual disciplinary components came at a cost and was an inhibitor to meaningful engagements with actors outside academia. This especially included the integration of my results back into the landscape and driving change. It is likely that tensions to uphold disciplinary rigour within disciplines can at times sideline other elements of transdisciplinarity such as co-creation, co-design, knowledge integration and research impact (i.e. driving change / transformative research), especially for an individual researcher.

Reflecting on my transdisciplinary PhD process leaves me with two key interlinked questions:

  • Should individuals conducting transdisciplinary research at the postgraduate level be expected to fully immerse themselves in the theory and methods of individual disciplines? 
  • Or, should we as a group of transdisciplinary researchers focus on harnessing relevant theory and methods from individual disciplines and package this information as guides,  tools and tool sets for accelerating use in transdisciplinary research?

I realise that there is not one “ideal” way to conduct transdisciplinary research (Mitchel et al 2014) and this will definitely differ between groups and as individual PhD students. It comes down to circumstances which can create enabling or inhibiting conditions for achieving the different elements of transdisciplinarity (e.g. see Creating meaningful transdisciplinary collaborations during the limited time of a PhD). These circumstances are characterised by multiple influencing factors that include individual transdisciplinary competencies (e.g. see What does it take to be a transdisciplinary scholar? Exploring competencies for the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’) as well as resource availability.

Competencies can be a mixture of inherent and learned competencies i.e. learned from past experiences, learned during the PhD process, or still to be learned in future work. Resources can be both personal and for the current research project. Resources can include interconnected aspects such as a strong social network and support, financial resources, and human resources amongst other aspects. Resource availability can also influence the level of competencies an individual has acquired through experience or can acquire during their PhD.

An institutional understanding of the field of transdisciplinarity is something that has not been achieved and this creates immense pressure on individuals conducting transdisciplinary research at postgraduate level. I am of the view that transdisciplinary research is more than individual disciplines and that there is a need to develop tools for harnessing disciplines in a practical way for transdisciplinary postgraduate research to be applied to drive change. Sometimes you do not need to know the equation to understand and use the code… and sometimes you do not need to review the contrasting theoretical frameworks to apply a suitable framework that suits a specific research situation. 

Author of this blog post:

Petra pic

Petra Holden

Postdoctoral scholar at the African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Learn more about Petra on this website

Petra’s email address


Isgren, E., A. Jerneck, and D. O’Byrne. 2017. Pluralism in Search of Sustainability: Ethics, Knowledge and Methodology in Sustainability Science. Challenges in Sustainability 5:2–6.

Mitchell, C., D. Cordell, and D. Fam. 2014. Beginning at the end: The outcome spaces framework to guide purposive transdisciplinary research. Futures. Elsevier. 65:86–96

Von Wehrden, H., C. Luederitz, J. Leventon, and S. Russell. 2017. Methodological Challenges in Sustainability Science: A Call for Method Plurality, Procedural Rigor and Longitudinal Research. Challenges in Sustainability 5:35–42.


What does it take to be a transdisciplinary scholar? Exploring competencies for the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’

This is the third post in the series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’.

My name is Jessica Cockburn. I recently completed my PhD in Environmental Science at Rhodes University (Grahamstown, South Africa). I am now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Environmental Learning Research Centre. My PhD research was a transdisciplinary enquiry on stewardship and collaboration in multifunctional landscapes. Taking a transdisciplinary (TD) research approach in my PhD was a means for me to legitimise a personal commitment to conducting research that is relevant and of value to practitioners working on environmental stewardship in South Africa. It was a way for me to do ‘science with society’1.

The first post in this blog series presented the challenge of the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’, where PhD students have to simultaneously pay attention to scientific rigor and excellence, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care. In this post, I will share my reflections on the kinds of competencies which PhD scholars might need to be able to manage this triple challenge, responding to one of the questions we posed in our introductory post: “What skills and competencies should ‘specialist TD scholars’ develop?” First I give a brief introduction to how I applied transdisciplinary research in my PhD, and then I consider what particular competencies I had to develop in order to conduct my research according to principles of transdisciplinarity.

I used principles for ‘Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science’ proposed by Lang et al (2012)to guide my research. According to these principles, TD research is a collaborative learning process which happens in the space between ‘science and society’. The TD process was a means of bridging the gap between context, knowledge systems, and problems faced by society (in my case represented by environmental stewardship practitioners) and science (in my case the theory and questions in the emerging field of social-ecological stewardship). I sought to bridge this gap in order to address questions about stewardship and collaboration in the context of multifunctional landscapes. I worked towards putting the ideals of transdisciplinary (TD) research into practice in my PhD by building relationships with practitioner partners, and by drawing on a diversity of social and ecological disciplines (both methodologically and theoretically). I partnered with NGOs who are working in rural landscapes to bring together multiple stakeholders for landscape stewardship. They became knowledge partners in the research process, and I worked with their projects as case studies in my research (See here for a blog piece on some of the knowledge co-production work which I conducted in partnership with NGOs).  

In working across disciplines and in partnering with practitioner partners for my PhD research, it became apparent to me that I needed to develop competencies and practices which a conventional postgraduate research project may not require. Figuring out the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’ is all about learning-by-doing. This is based on my own experiences, and of course each scholar will have different ideas about what kind of competencies mattered in the context of their research.

table of copmetencies for the triple jump

Exploring competencies for scholars learning to do the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’. These competencies range from intellectual, to relational, to emotional competencies, and can be developed through particular habits of mind and practices.

In order to conduct research with scientific rigour and excellence, scholars need to develop intellectual and technical competencies. These include, for example, systems thinking. I applied systems thinking in my work to bring together insights from different disciplines. I drew on a wide range of theories from across the fields of biodiversity conservation, political and economic sciences, rural development, and sociology. I framed my research through the notion of social-ecological systems, and used critical realism as an enabling philosophical and methodological framework to embed systems thinking, and bring together these different theories. Others have pointed out the importance of balancing methodological groundedness and epistemological agilityin interdisciplinary work to ensure rigour.

For my research to be societally relevant and for me to engage meaningfully with societal actors or practitioners, I had to develop relational and translational competencies. This meant taking the time to build trust and manage interpersonal relationships with practitioner partners (as reflected on in more detail by My Sellberg in the previous post in this blog series). This often meant spending time on “non-research” activities such as social events in order to get to know people. It also meant managing expectations to ensure that both parties understand each others needs and interests, and communicating in an on-going and effective manner with diverse groups of stakeholders. I had to learn translational competencies by being a broker between academic and practical knowledge systems, and by co-creating research questions with practitioner partners that were of relevance to them and would also lead to novel academic contributions.

I had to take research ethics into consideration whilst building relationships with practitioners. I gathered important insights (or ‘data’) through informal interactions with practitioner partners for which I did not get ‘ethical clearance’ in the strict technical sense. Thus, since I was conducting research beyond the bounds of institutional research ethics procedures, I had to take responsibility for the relationships with so-called ‘human subjects’. I had to constantly reflect on the principles of research ethics in my interactions with the research partners, and practice ‘everyday ethics’. Together with my PhD supervisor, I reflect further on these research ethics challenges in this book chapter4.

To practice self-respect and care, transdisciplinary scholars need to develop emotional and psychological competencies. This is particularly relevant considering the diverse demands on our time and our personal capacities which the first two ‘steps’ of the triple jump described above require. In my experience, to balance all the demands of TD research, it became very important to become more self-aware. This meant ‘taking stock’ of my own feelings, sense of health and well-being, and being aware of how I reacted to different situations and pressures. This included monitoring my own stress levels. I realised early on in my TD PhD experience that I had to be very self-disciplined and learn to ‘say no’ when I had too many demands and opportunities coming my way. I had to learn good time management skills so that I could work ‘smarter’ rather than working harder or longer hours. I learnt to do this for example, by using the Pomodoro Technique to manage my productivity. I also became aware of the importance of recognising the integration between body, heart and mind. I realised that overly focusing on my intellectual productivity (mind) compromised my well-being (body-heart) and at times put pressure on my personal relationships and sense of happiness (heart). I was inspired by an article on ‘dual-thinking’ for scientistswhich encourages creative arts, unstructured social time, and other leisure-time activities as a complement to formal intellectual tasks such as reading, writing and data analysis. I learnt how important it was to spend quality time with family and friends, spend time in nature, and to keep healthy and happy through activities such as creative cooking, yoga and jogging.

Finally, and this is one of my biggest lessons from the TD PhD, finding ways to embed reflexive practices and habits of mind into the research process in an ongoing manner was crucial. Developing reflexive competency is something which I feel can enable us to conduct all three aspects of the transdisciplinary triple jump: scientific excellence and rigour, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care. Reflexivity can also help us in managing the balance between these very different demands, and to practice ethical research. To me reflexivity means not only reflecting (i.e. ‘looking into the mirror’ and thinking about what happened), but considering the underlying assumptions and conditions which underpin events and experiences (i.e. looking ‘through the mirror’5, and reflecting on the nature of society and on our own value systems and beliefs), and responding to these reflections, adapting our thoughts and actions.

Reflexive habits of mind include a constant questioning of why things are the way they are, and an openness to the discomfort of questioning ones positionality and deeply-held beliefs. The practices which helped me to embed these habits include journalling, connecting with others e.g. through ‘communities of practice’, and identifying allies and supporters (e.g. supervisors, or fellow postgrads) with whom I could collectively reflect and critically discuss the challenges of conducting TD research.  

Operationalising TD required me to develop a variety of new competencies, ranging from intellectual, to relational and emotional. To me, this was a somewhat unexpected outcome from the PhD process. I appreciate and gratefully acknowledge my supervisors’ support in this process of personal growth. Developing these competencies and practices is a work in progress and I am still working on balancing the multiple demands which engaged, transdisciplinary research place on me as a person. It is an exciting and stimulating space to be exploring, both personally and professionally.

Author of this post:

Jess pic

Jessica Cockburn

Postdoctoral Scholar in the Environmental Learning Research Centre, Rhodes University, South Africa.

Connect with Jessica on social media

Learn more about Jessica at this website

Jessica’s email address


Key references to the literature:

1Seidl, R., Brand, F. S., Stauffacher, M., Krütli, P., Le, Q. B., Spörri, A., . . . Scholz, R. W. (2013). Science with Society in the Anthropocene. AMBIO, 42(1), 5-12. Online here.

2Lang, D. J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., . . . Thomas, C. J. (2012). Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science, 7(1), 25-43. Online here.

3Haider, L. J., Hentati-Sundberg, J., Giusti, M., Goodness, J., Hamann, M., Masterson, V. A., . . . & Sinare, H. (2018). The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science, 13(1), 191-204. Online here.

4Cockburn, J., Cundill, G., Shackleton, C., & Rouget, M. 2018. Towards place-based research to support social-ecological stewardship. Sustainability 10(5): 1434. Online here.

5Bolton, G. (2010). Reflective practice: Writing and professional development. London, United Kingdom: Sage Publications Ltd. Chapter 1 online here.

6Scheffer, M., Bascompte, J., Bjordam, T. K., Carpenter, S. R., Clarke, L. B., Folke, C., . . . & Westley, F. R. (2015). Dual thinking for scientists. Ecology and Society, 20(2), 3. Online here.



Creating meaningful transdisciplinary collaborations during the limited time of a PhD

This is the second post in the series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’.

Hi there, I am My Sellberg and I am doing a PhD in Sustainability Science at Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden. The possibility of doing transdisciplinary research was one of the main reasons for why I decided to do a PhD. The exciting and uncomfortable space between science and practice is where I want to be. I want to contribute to the solutions, and not ‘only’ observe and describe the problems at hand.

Trained in social-ecological resilience thinking, I got interested in whether these quite theoretical ideas could be of any practical relevance. My research focuses on a method for resilience assessment, which is a co-production process of jointly defining and learning about an issue from a systems perspective, analyzing its dynamics and resilience, and coming up with suggested actions. In my work, I have been exploring how resilience assessment can be used in the strategic planning of municipalities and regional organizations. During my PhD, I have collaborated with two different organizations located in different parts of Sweden, a municipality and a rural development organization. Both cases involved co-designing the resilience assessment process together with individual partners in the organizations, and I was the lead (or only) researcher taking part in the collaborations.

The first post in this blog series presented the challenge of the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’, where PhD students have to simultaneously pay attention to scientific rigor and excellence, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care. In this post, I will share my reflections on one aspect of this challenge: namely, how to find time during your PhD to engage meaningfully with actors outside of academia? It takes a lot of time to build trust and establish collaborations – time that could be spent writing your thesis and producing scientific papers. This relates to the challenge of achieving both academic and practical relevance. Here, I will share some of my reflections of what made the two cases I have been involved in work.

First of all, there have been certain enabling conditions related to my partners, myself as the PhD student, and our respective organizational contexts.

Enabling context

Enabling context for the transdisciplinary collaborations, at the level of individuals, their projects, and the organizations they were embedded in.

At the research center where I am working:

  • I could build on connections and collaborations already established by senior researchers.
  • There is a supporting environment, including other transdisciplinary researchers and an in-house communications team.
  • I benefited from the good reputation of my organization, since both partners contacted us and wanted a collaboration.
  • I also have a five-year employment, which I think is quite a luxury. 20 % of that is departmental service, but I have not had to do a lot of teaching, which otherwise can absorb quite a lot of time. Part of the 20 % I could even work as a consultant with one of the partner organizations.

At the project level, stakeholder engagement was included in the project objectives and is something that my supervisors are specifically interested in. At the individual level, I think there definitely could have been more training in how to do this type of research, both providing practical engagement advice, as well as theoretical framings. In the end, it was up to me to find suitable process facilitation courses, for example, and sometimes I have felt like a minority among the other PhD students.

There were also conditions facilitating the partners to collaborate with us. For example, both partners and their project or organization were at the forefront – they wanted to learn and try new methods and approaches to develop their work with sustainability. They were familiar with research and actively sought research collaborations. They also had an own interest and drive, which meant they could be the project managers, or hire someone who could help managing the process, which spared my time so that I could concentrate on managing my PhD project.

Apart from these enabling conditions, there were a few other things that I think were key success factors:

  • We were small teams with only 1–2 researchers, 1–2 practitioners, and in one case also a process facilitator, which made the internal communication more manageable.
  • We had a similar interest in local-level transitions towards sustainable development, and a common view of the need to transform parts of our societies and economies in order to build resilience of our life-support systems. Having more similar views from the beginning meant it took less time to establish a collaboration.
  • That said, we still spent time in the beginning to find a common question or project that had double purposes – that was both relevant for practice and research. It is really important in the beginning to be transparent with, and make sure you are comfortable with, each other’s agendas. Be open to that you might not come up with anything to collaborate around.
  • We also made learning an explicit objective of the projects. Being upfront from the start with the exploratory nature of the project, and that you do not know what will come out of it, puts less pressure on producing great outputs and gives more space for reflections.

Now it might seem like it was always a smooth journey, but there have also been some frustrations. In both cases, there has been times with not enough support or resources from the partner organization, which meant that the project was not prioritized, moved forward slowly, and that it became more of a side-project that was not really embedded in the organization. There was little I could do about this, at the same time as I really wanted the project to lead somewhere, which could make it very frustrating. A clear communication beforehand about resources and expectations would have been useful, as well as asking the partners how we could help them in creating support in their own organization.

Some concluding reflections

Looking back at my so far four and a half years of being a PhD student, I think there have been some trade-offs between publishing papers and engaging with societal actors. Focusing on building partner networks made me less productive in writing collaborative papers with other researchers. I have prioritized finishing my own thesis, and engaging with the partners – not writing any “extra” research papers. And has there been any benefits from that prioritization? For me, yes. I have made many more connections outside academia, I have become familiar with different workplaces, it has informed my research questions, and so forth. Of course, this depends on what you want to get out of your PhD, and what you would like to do after. For me it fits well, since I either would like to make a career as a transdisciplinary researcher and become skilled in that, or continue outside of academia. But, I think it is good to recognize that there are trade-offs and that it is a choice you make – you cannot do everything, and that is fine (at least that is what I am telling myself).

Another reflection is that even if you are in a supportive context, as I have been, you might still want to focus on easier type of collaborations. Even though the difficult issues that demand many more actors involved and with much more disparate views probably are more important. In my view, building trust and establishing collaborations in such more complex settings should not be the sole responsibility of a PhD student, but the student could definitely make valuable contributions as part of a bigger transdisciplinary project.

Looking forward to continuing the discussion with you!

Author of this post:

My pic

My Sellberg

PhD Scholar at Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden.

Connect with My on social media

Learn more about My on this website

My’s email address

Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys: Reflecting on the challenge of the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’

This is the first post in a series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’ which will run for the next six months. 

Have you ever watched a triple-jump athlete? It is incredible to see how the athlete executes this three-part movement. It requires excellent technical competencies, rhythm, and the ability to manage each of the three movements in concert. “Every aspect of the jump must be perfect: the run up, the hop, step and the jump”. And each of the movements requires focused attention to specific skills, training and preparation.


The transdisciplinary triple jump: A three-part movement in which PhD scholars must learn about paying attention to scientific rigour and excellence, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care (Graphic by Caydn Barker).

In our reflections on the challenges of applying principles of transdisciplinary (TD) research in our PhDs, we have come to realise that there are three critical aspects which we have had to pay attention to simultaneously. These are: scientific rigour and excellence, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care. Like the athlete training for the triple jump, the TD PhD student must learn to afford equal attention to these three aspects, and manage them concurrently. The metaphor is not perfect though. We live and work in complex systems, which are characterised by uncertainty, non-linearity, values, emotions, spirituality, power, and context-dependence. We therefore humble ourselves, knowing that what is an appropriate balance between these three aspects will change over time and depend on us as individuals and the context in which we work. In learning how to conduct TD research, we will not execute these three aspects with perfection, and we don’t do them in a straight line as in the triple jump. However, in the context of a PhD, which is a carefully defined slice of complex reality and unfolds as a linear-time process, we find the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’ a useful metaphor to guide reflection and build reflexivity.

We are a small group of scholars at various stages of our PhD journeys. We briefly got to know each other through summer schools, conferences, and workshops in a field of research which we broadly define as ‘sustainability science’. Each of us works at a different institution across the global north and south, we have different research topics, and approach our TD PhD research from different perspectives. We recognise that people may ‘come at’ TD from different vantage points. The value in the unfolding conversation between us lies in celebrating those different viewpoints whilst finding common ground. We share an interest in connecting with others working in this way, and the need to reflect and learn together.

We’ve decided to do this through a blog series which will hopefully also encourage and inspire others, promote critical discussion, and through which we can get to know each other better. We have been surprised by how little discussion there is in the literature about the particular challenges of operationalizing TD in PhD research, and have been inspired by fellow early career researchers who have begun sharing their experiences of conducting research in novel ways to address the complex challenges of TD sustainability science. We therefore wanted to create a focused means of sharing the lessons we’ve learnt in each of our individual TD PhD journeys with the broader community of scholars in sustainability science and related fields.

We are drawn to transdisciplinarity as a means of conducting ‘science with society’1. We understand transdisciplinary research as a reflexive research approach which seeks to address societal problems through, and beyond, interdisciplinary collaboration. This is done through simultaneous collaboration between researchers and societal actors to transcend the boundary between science and society, to enable mutual learning processes and knowledge co-production2,3. We recognise that the label of ‘transdisciplinarity’ is just one of many labels for this kind of research, and appreciate that approaches such as participatory action research and community-based participatory research also seek to conduct science with society. Much can be learnt from and with academics working in these allied fields of research, and from exploring what makes TD research unique.

Responding to calls to ‘be transdisciplinary4’, we have committed to applying and critically reflecting on the principles of TD in our PhD research. However, in current institutional structures and cultures of academia, this adds an additional challenge to the existing demands of PhD research5,6. Not only are we expected to navigate the terrain of interdisciplinarity described as an ‘undisciplinary journey’6 which requires ‘epistemological agility’, but we are also confronted with the task of engaging meaningfully with societal actors beyond our academic comfort zones. All of this means we are constantly trying to ‘be everything to everyone’ and risk burning ourselves out in the process.

There is growing debate and concern in academic circles about the personal costs of an academic career, and as early-career researchers we are particularly aware of the pressure to successfully launch our careers. We would like to build a career in which we conduct academically excellent research which engages society meaningfully, but are not willing to sacrifice our own personal health and happiness in the process. We recognise that creating a work-life balance in academia is a challenge faced particularly by young researchers, by women, and by parents. We hope that our reflections provide a space to think creatively about how we can shift our academic institutions to become places in which we can thrive whilst serving society through our work.  

This is the introductory blog post for the series, which we envisage will run over the next six months. During this time, each of us will share reflections on our individual TD PhD journeys, and describe how we are navigating/balancing/managing the demands of the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’. We will also share our thoughts on some of the questions being posed at the forefront of transdisciplinary research practice, including for example:

  • How do we manage the dual challenge of academic and practical relevance and rigour?
  • How do we learn and generalize across multiple TD and place-based research cases?
  • How can place-based TD research support efforts towards global sustainability?
  • What skills and competencies should ‘specialist TD scholars’ develop, and what are the different roles for ‘specialist TD scholars’ in sustainability science research teams?
  • How do we navigate issues of agency, responsibility and ethics in TD research?
  • How do we think about TD research in the global south?

We look forward to sharing our experiences, insights and further questions with you to deliberate the exciting opportunities and challenges we face in conducting transdisciplinary research. Please join the conversation!

You can subscribe to updates on this blog hosted by the ‘Social-Ecological Systems Scholars’ network, or follow the blog series via the FutureEarth Blog. You can also connect with us individually below.

Authors of this post:

Jess pic

Jessica Cockburn

Postdoctoral Scholar in the Environmental Learning Research Centre, Rhodes University, South Africa.

Connect with Jessica on social media

Learn more about Jessica at this website

Jessica’s email address


My pic

My Sellberg

PhD Scholar at Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden.

Connect with My on social media

Learn more about My on this website

My’s email address


David pic

David P. M. Lam

PhD Scholar at the Institute for Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research

Connect with David on social media

Learn more about David on this website

David’s email address


Megan pic

Megan Davies

PhD scholar at the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

Connect with Megan on social media

Learn more about Megan on this website

Megan’s email address


Petra pic

Petra Holden

PhD scholar at the Plant Conservation Unit and the African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town.

Learn more about Petra on this website

Petra’s email address


Key references to the literature:

1Seidl, R., Brand, F. S., Stauffacher, M., Krütli, P., Le, Q. B., Spörri, A., . . . Scholz, R. W. (2013). Science with Society in the Anthropocene. AMBIO, 42(1), 5-12. Online here.

2Lang, D. J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., . . . Thomas, C. J. (2012). Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science, 7(1), 25-43. Online here.

3Jahn, T., Bergmann, M., & Keil, F. (2012). Transdisciplinarity: Between mainstreaming and marginalization. Ecological Economics, 79, 1-10. Online here.

4van Kerkhoff, L. (2014). Developing integrative research for sustainability science through a complexity principles-based approach. Sustainability Science, 9(2), 143-155. Online here.

5Roux, D. J., Nel, J. L., Cundill, G., O’Farrell, P., & Fabricius, C. (2017). Transdisciplinary research for systemic change: who to learn with, what to learn about and how to learn. Sustainability Science, 12(5), 711-726. Online here.

6Haider, L. J., Hentati-Sundberg, J., Giusti, M., Goodness, J., Hamann, M., Masterson, V. A., … & Sinare, H. (2018). The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science, 13(1), 191-204. Online here.

‘Learning for Landscapes’ – reflections and insights from a knowledge co-production workshop in South Africa

This article reflects on a recent workshop held with practitioners working on collaborative landscape-scale stewardship initiatives across South Africa.

Banner - connected landscapes research & learning + subtitle

We came from all different corners of South Africa to find common ground: …all the way from the West Coast: fynbos vegetation, commercial potato farmers and precious estuaries… all the way from the Marico Bosveld: thorny country with precious water resources, fiercely proud locals and the ever-present threat of mining… all the way from the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal:  hard-working farmers and agricultural landscapes covered in plantation forestry and dairy … all the way from pastoral grasslands: herders care for cattle which provide livelihoods and socio-cultural identity… and all the way from many other diverse contexts and projects, with a variety of stewardship objectives and practices.

We came from all different walks of life and work: local NGOs working with farming communities, leaders in large national NGOs asking questions about how they do the work they do, academics asking questions about how to do transdisciplinary research with landscape-scale stewardship initiatives, international NGOs piloting innovative facilitation and knowledge co-production processes for collaborative restoration of landscapes.

And we converged on ‘The Knoll’, on a small farm outside the village of Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), to learn and connect with one another!

It was surprisingly easy to find common ground: It turns out we were all committed to ‘Research and Learning for Connected Landscapes’, and we worked together to ponder these questions:

  1. What are the enablers and barriers of stewardship at the local level?
  2. What are the processes that support collaboration for stewardship in multifunctional landscapes?

Blog piece photo panel 1 - tribe.png

These are the key research questions which I am exploring in my PhD at Rhodes University (Department of Environmental Science). My research is taking a transdisciplinary approach, by working across social and ecological disciplines, and co-producing knowledge in partnership between academics and practitioners. This convergence of ‘the young tribe’ of practitioners working in collaborative, landscape-scale stewardship initiatives across South Africa was the result of on-going engagements with these practitioners which culminated in a learning exchange workshop held in February 2017 as part of the knowledge co-production activities in my PhD. The pre-workshop activities included a broad survey across the country to identify suitable case studies for the more focused work. This was followed by a string of site visits to each of the six selected projects where I got to know the diverse social-ecological contexts in which the projects are embedded, and began gathering stories of their work in a ‘Learning Jar’ (see Panel 2). The six projects selected as case studies are:

  1. Baviaanskloof-Kouga-Krom Landscapes Project (Living Lands)
  2. Marico River Catchment Conservation Project (Endangered Wildlife Trust)
  3. uMzimvubu Catchment Restoration Project of UCPP (uMzimvubu Catchment Partnership Programme)
  4. Verlorenvlei Protected Areas Project (BirdLife South Africa & Wildlife and Environment Society of SA)
  5. WWF Grasslands Programme (WWF-South Africa)
  6. WWF Mondi Wetlands Programme (WWF-South Africa)

Blog piece photo panel 2 - stories

The workshop was designed with two primary objectives in mind:

  • Through innovative facilitation methodologies, to create an inspiring opportunity for participants to share lessons for building collaboration for stewardship, and build new networks
  • To collect insights and co-generate knowledge on collaboration and stewardship in landscape initiatives

The approach was based on U-Tools (developed by the Presencing Institute, based on ‘Theory U’ principles) and included activities such as dialogue walks, learning journeys, case clinics, and guided u-journaling. The intention of using these activities was to build a team spirit among participants through deep listening and sharing of personal experiences, and provide opportunity for self-reflection. These tools were complemented by knowledge-production activities such as the development of a ‘Map of Stories’ to set the scene and represent the diversity of contexts of the 6 case studies, and a ‘Map of Learning’ on which to capture and interrogate insights, lessons and findings throughout the workshop (See Panel 3).

Blog piece photo panel 3 - learning

So by now you’re hopefully wondering… what lessons did the tribe share and what now?

First and foremost, we learnt that we were glad to have found the other members of the tribe: Each project leader, in their local context or organisation is pushing the boundaries and innovating, working against a multitude of barriers to bring about change on the ground for improved stewardship. It can be lonely out there: there was a palpable sense of comfort, relief, renewed energy, in finding like-minded people, feeling free to express and share without having to explain too much, and feeling part of ‘a tribe’.

What lessons did we learn about building collaboration?

… that it takes time (at least 10 years), is resource intensive, requires particular skills and tools,

…that it may not always be necessary: localised, tangible stewardship actions and successes with individual farmers may be as important,

… that it can be extremely difficult and require personal sacrifices and that facilitators at the coal face need support systems,

… and that NGOs need to be catalysts and orchestrators of collaboration, but without the community and landscape taking ownership of stewardship, success will not be sustainable.

What lessons did we learn about enabling stewardship and overcoming barriers to stewardship?

… that identifying ways of ensuring tangible benefits of stewardship practices to farmers is important but difficult,

… that making links to market enablers and economic incentives can drive behaviour change and enable stewardship,

… that re-focusing stewardship on stewards, recognising their needs and priorities, and creating an enabling environment for them to become good stewards is an important starting point. This might mean doing things what do not seem directly related to the overall conservation outcomes we are striving for.

… that embedding stewardship facilitators in a landscape, for the long-term, and building meaningful relationships based on trust and mutual understanding is key to bringing about sustainable shifts to collaborative stewardship in multifunctional landscapes.

What did I, as a young scholar, exploring transdisciplinary research methodologies for place-based social-ecological research, learn from the experience?

… that facilitating knowledge co-production processes which emphasise both trust-building and knowledge building is a tricky tight-rope to walk: in this instance, I think we were more successful in building relationships, and did not have sufficient time to dig more deeply into the research questions,

… that the u-tools are a powerful means of bringing people together and creating ‘safe spaces’ for people to share personal experiences and self-reflect,

… that good food and drink, and beautiful outdoor settings are powerful enabling conditions for collaborative learning processes! (as provided at The Knoll!)

What now? The knowledge co-generated during this process will be incorporated into my PhD research, and I am in the process of analysing and writing it up. Furthermore, sparks of connection have been created through this learning exchange, and we hope that the various members of the tribe will keep in contact with one another. We have developed an online platform to share further lessons, resources, and information with the rest of the group in the future.

We all diverged back to our different landscapes, fields of work and research, and homes again after the two days. Keeping connected can be difficult, but this may just be the start of a new community of practice. I believe that the inspiration, energy and new connections that were made during this first gathering of this young tribe may have unexpected outcomes far into the future, and will be a positive force for good in the community of practitioners and researchers working on collaborative landscape stewardship initiatives in South Africa.

How are you building collaboration for stewardship? How are you using innovative methodologies for knowledge co-production? Connect with me on Twitter @jess_cockburn or drop me an email… let’s start a conversation to keep learning for landscapes:

I would like to acknowledge the support and collaboration of my supervisors: Georgina Cundill, Mathieu Rouget,and Sheona Shackleton; fellow workshop facilitators: Catherine Andersson, Dieter Van Den Broeck, and Daan van Diepen, and workshop participants: Vaughan Koopman, David Lindley, Sue Viljoen, Ayanda Cele, Samantha Schroder, Marijn Zwinkels, Ancia Cornelius, Ian Little, JP Le Roux, Joyce Loza, and Nicky McLeod.

Jessica Cockburn is a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Science at Rhodes University, in Grahamstown, South Africa. This research is part of the PECS Working Group on Collaborative Governance and Management and was cross-posted from the SAPECS Website – Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society.