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.

 

 

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Challenges of global sustainability

Great video about a conversation with Sarah Cornell on the challenges of doing global sustainability research. Insights into matching ontologies with epistemologies and methodologies.

Hierarchy and respect

Joern Fischer on hierarchy and associated challenges for Early Career Researchers in German Academia.

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Every now and then, I’m given reasons by the German university system to seriously doubt if I can handle it in the long term. Overly complicated administrative processes aside, my biggest issue with the German university system is the explicit and implicit reinforcement of unhelpful hierarchies, particularly with respect to early career researchers.

Early career researchers (ECRs) — especially postdocs, but often also PhD students — are the future of academia. They are the powerhouses of productivity, the social backbone of departments, and the people who rescue students who have been neglected by their professors. Depending on where you look, their treatment in the German system varies from unhelpful to disgraceful.

Here are some of my “favourite” things that are wrong in the German system:

  • Many funding agencies do not allow ECRs to independently apply for money. Rather the grant needs to be submitted by a professor. As a result, every year…

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Challenges of a change agent: Transformative methods or transformative process?

transformative methods or transformative process

Figure 1: Thought process of a reflective PhD Student-wannabe-change agent

Herewith a personal reflection: comments very much welcome!

I’ve recently been grappling with the question of methods in engaged, transdisciplinary research. I am about to embark on the field work for one of the in-depth case studies in my PhD and have been developing the research plan. In a nutshell, my research seeks to understand what kind of collaborative processes underpin shifts to stewardship (read: sustainable resource use) in agricultural landscapes. I’m taking a social-ecological systems approach in the research.

But let me go back few steps. Upon embarking on this PhD journey a year ago I made a commitment to myself (and the world at large…) that I wanted to do a ‘transdisciplinary PhD’ and that I wanted my PhD  to make a difference. Nice idea. Which I managed to write about quite nicely in my research proposal, and which I could find a lot of nice literature to back up.

Skip forward 6 months to the present: Reality check: I am about to head out into the field and need a plan. here it is:  I am planning to conduct a Social-Ecological Inventory and do lots and lots of qualitative interviews with diverse stakeholders in my study area to develop a detailed case study to answer my research questions. I will also be participating in workshops hosted by a local NGO where I will be doing participant observation and running post-workshop reflection sessions . All in all, a pretty standard set of field work methods.

So much for my engaged, transformative research methods which I committed to in my proposal.

What is a transformative method? What examples are there , out there, of transformative research methods? Anyone? (I’m starting to wonder where I got this idea in the first place…)

I’m not sure of the answer to those questions.

What I am sure of, for now, is that the methods which my supervisor and I have agreed on are scientifically sound, defensible, reliable ways of collecting the empirical data I need for my PhD in order to make a meaningful, novel contribution to science. Maybe now is not the time to flirt with ideas about transformative methods which we don’t really seem to know much about in social-ecological systems research (yet!).

Another thing I am sure of is that my overall research process is potentially more transformative than most conventional research approaches. I am engaging closely with a local NGO in developing the research questions and conducting the research, we’re endeavouring to co-generate the new knowledge through this process. I have also developed a small network of local practitioners in the field of sustainable resource use who have an interest in the research and with whom I am sharing the journey – whilst learning about the work they do in their projects.

So, I hope to have convinced myself by now, that I am okay and haven’t let myself down too much, because:

Even if my specific research methods are ‘standard’ or ‘conventional’, the fact that they are embedded in a interdisciplinary, engaged research process with tight linkages between theory in practice, means that my research does still have some potential to be transformative.

And, secondly, even if my specific research methods are ‘standard’ or ‘conventional’ they are scientifically robust and reliable, and will generate quality empirical data which I can analyse and write up to hopefully complete my PhD successfully. Which as my supervisor points out is my ‘licence to research’.

After that I can play with transformative methods and try to change the world…

 

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.

http://www.communityresilienceselfassessment.org/

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I’ve reflected (and struggled) a bit with my involvement in this initiative, as a young Northern scientist, here: https://jamilathelorax.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/resilience-self-assessment-by-communities/

Mapping social–ecological systems: Identifying ‘green-loop’ and ‘red-loop’ dynamics based on characteristic bundles of ecosystem service use

PhD student Maike Hamann’s (Stockholm Resilience Centre and CSIR, South Africa) exciting new publication!

Find the full paper here: http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezp.sub.su.se/science/article/pii/S0959378015300157

Abstract: 

We present an approach to identify and map social–ecological systems based on the direct use of ecosystem services by households. This approach builds on the premise that characteristic bundles of ecosystem service use represent integrated expressions of different underlying social–ecological systems.

We test the approach in South Africa using national census data on the direct use of six provisioning services (freshwater from a natural source, firewood for cooking, firewood for heating, natural building materials, animal production, and crop production) at two different scales.

Based on a cluster analysis, we identify three distinct ecosystem service bundles that represent social–ecological systems characterized by low, medium and high levels of direct ecosystem service use among households. We argue that these correspond to ‘green-loop’, ‘transition’ and ‘red-loop’ systems as defined by Cumming et al. (2014).

When mapped, these systems form coherent spatial units that differ from systems identified by additive combinations of separate social and biophysical datasets, the most common method of mapping social–ecological systems to date.

The distribution of the systems we identified is mainly determined by social factors, such as household income, gender of the household head, and land tenure, and only partly determined by the supply of natural resources.

An understanding of the location and characteristic resource use dynamics of different social–ecological systems allows for policies to be better targeted at the particular sustainability challenges faced in different areas.

Beyond Divides: Prospects for Synergy Between Resilience and Pathways Approaches to Sustainability

In the context of rapid social, ecological and technological change,there is rising global demand from private, public and civic interests for trans-disciplinary sustainability research. This demand is fuelled by an increasing recognition that transitions toward sustainability require new modes of knowledge production that incorporate social and natural sciences and the humanities.

The STEPS Centre’s ‘pathways approach’ and the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s (SRC) ‘resilience approach’ are two distinct trans-disciplinary frameworks for understanding and responding to sustainability challenges. However, the varieties of trans-disciplinarity pursued by the SRC and STEPS each have distinct origins and implications. Therefore, by selecting either the ‘resilience’ or ‘pathways’ approach, or indeed any distinct approach to sustainability, the researcher must contend with a range of foundational ontological and epistemological commitments that profoundly affect the definition of problems, generation of knowledge and prescriptions for action. What does an (un)sustainable world look like? How might we ‘know’ and research (un)sustainability? How should sustainability researchers position themselves in relation to civil society, policy, business and academic communities?

In this paper we explore how resilience and pathways address these questions, identifying points of overlap and friction with the aim of generating new research questions and illuminating areas of potential synergy.

Read the full article, written by a group of young SES scholars, here.