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.

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My pic

My Sellberg

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

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David pic

David P. M. Lam

PhD Scholar at the Institute for Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research

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Megan pic

Megan Davies

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

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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?

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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.

Communities self-assessing resilience

Interested in resilience assessment? By and for communities? The Agricultural Biodiversity Community has been developing a tool to help communities self assess resilience (CSAR). Check out the new website which includes information on the suggested process, a list of available resilience assessment resources and a few case examples from around the world.

The CSAR is not a new tool!! It is simply a suggested process which brings together various assessment methodologies. Important and unique about the CSAR is that is starts with narrative, and then moves to assessment and maybe in some cases measurement, starting with self-defined indicators and in a co-productive way drawing on existing resources such as the Social-ecological production landscapes and seascapes indicators.

Please check out our website here, and get in touch if you’d like to know more or get involved with a case study trial.

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I’ve reflected (and struggled) a bit with my involvement in this initiative, as a young Northern scientist, here:


Snapshot of Social-Ecological System Fieldwork

The STEP Project (Seafood Trade, Ecosystems and People) from the Stockholm Resilience Centre hits the field three times in 2015- Philippines, Moçambique and Zanzibar. Here are some short videos of the first 2 field sites during initial data collection, a glimpse of what really goes on in the field 😉




Bringing “With Our Own Hands” back to the Pamirs

By Jamila Haider

Latofat, a school principle in Bartang valley, the most remote valley of the Pamir mountains, sometimes wondered if the two foreigners who four years showed up at her door unannounced saying they were collecting recipes about Pamiri food would ever return. She was also a bit skeptical about whether there would ever be a book. When she heard that we were returning to Siponj village, with books in tow, she said she simply could not wait to see the book. “With Our Own Hands: A celebration of food and life in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan” has arrived back in the Pamirs, and 1500 copies have started to be distributed to every community in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs. The book began as a simple recipe book, to fulfil a promise to a grandmother and to document the rich unwritten knowledge about the unique agricultural biodiversity in the Pamirs. Over the course of 5 years, the book became much more. Nearly 700 pages of English, Tajik and Dari text and many photographs, describe the domestication of the mountains, the influence of the silk road, the importance of wild food, the resilience of transhumance and bring into sharp focus conflicting futures of the region. 5000 kg of book travelled from the Netherlands where they were published, over land to Tajikistan.

Latofat is the Principle ofbook1 the school in Siponj village in Bartang Valley. The village is often completely isolated in the winter months when snow closes in the valley. Perhaps because of this isolation, the valley maintains a ‘pure’ Pamiri language and is home to some of the strongest traditions in the Pamirs. The school in Siponj celebrates an annual national food day, where students ask their grandparents and elders how to make traditional foods from the unique agriculture all around them. Four years ago, we ate many different dishes, like Baht, Khomnigul, and Boj.  We took some photos of the beautiful and proud children, and with those, we conclude the book. This day brought us a lot of hope – that food, tradition and knowledge have a place not just in preserving the past, but also in imagining the future of the Pamirs. Naturally, we decided to return to this village first.

Why the title, “With Our Own Hands”? First is because the Pamirs would be a desolate wilderness, the way Sir Francis Younghusband described it to the Royal Geographical society in 1892. People make life-giving soil with their own hands. One thing that was never in question was the title of the book.

book6But another reason became much more apparent as we saw people react to the book. People were reacting to the knowledge that cannot be spoken, but is expressed through ‘doing’, in their own hands. Bobbi, who drove us to Siponj, admitted to us that he thought this was an impressive volume ‘about’ the Pamirs, but didn’t really know what it was all about. He spent the next few days, while waiting for us, going through it page by page, and then told us that this was a great service to the Pamiri people – it captured invisible knowledge.

He asked, how is it possible that two foreigners wrote this book? Why was it not Pamiris?

We often asked ourselves this question while writing book8the book – why us?

First, it was not just us. It was supported enormously by a group of dedicated Pamiri scientists who collected recipes, verified information and made all the connections for us. And the knowledge of course, is entirely from the Pamirs. All we did was pull it together.

The other answers are maybe more complex. Because we are outsiders, so we have the luxury and distance to observe.

And we didn’t only do it for the Pamirs. We also did it for ourselves. We grew up all up all over the place – the Pamirs are as much home as the other places we have spent meaningful time. The pamirs are a special place. One cannot visit the Pamirs without being overwhelmed by the grandeur of the mountains, the blue of the sky, the force of the rivers… the diversity of seeds, language and culture. From a purely functional perspective, we will need the seeds in the Pamirs as the climate continues to change for human prosperity. But more importantly, we don’t want to live in a world where the Pamirs and all of its diversity don’t exist!

book7Perhaps my favourite reaction was when Akorbirsho, the father of a good friend and ethno-botanist collaborator, read the first recipe he recognised “Noshkukpa” and started shrieking with laughter. He then went through every page of the book.

What next?

Everyone who has seen the book, whether in the police, the bus stop or bazaar, has immediately asked how to get one. The Mountains Societies Development Support Programme will help distribute them to every community, to ensure that at least one copy is accessible in a public space.

The book should live, it is not a monument set in stone. Already we have received critiques: mistakes in spelling, which differs from valley to valley based on pronunciation; differences in recipes from grandmother to grandmother, village to village and certainly valley to valley; and discontent about showing some of the less appealing sides of the Pamirs (like the opium addiction especially on the Afghan side). We would love to find a way to facilitate the making of the book into a live forum for discussion, to capture these differences and nuances – to open up a space for imaginings.

Here is a link of me in the Pamirs giving the book back to a group of women who gave us a long list of recipes! 

NB: this post was previously published on the SIANI blog and on jamilathelorax