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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How do we do what we do?

Place yourselves in uncomfortable situations. Such was the advice of Debra Roberts, one of the keynote speakers at the recent PECS conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Although I was inspired by her ideas, the conference also provided comfort, and I really appreciated the safe spaces where “young” scholars openly discussed how we do interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.

How can young researchers do novel sustainability science that bridges different disciplines and engages societal actors in a meaningful way? How can we do this while still operating within conventional institutions and time constraints?

All of these questions were raised by early career scholars at the first conference organized by the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), which took place between the 3rd and 5th of November. It gathered about 250 participants interested in the social-ecological dynamics of the Anthropocene and transitions towards sustainable stewardship. Instead of just presenting our research results, we could share the challenges we face and the strategies we have developed to deal with them.

At a SAPECS (the South African branch of PECS) learning event before the conference, Christo Fabricius facilitated a discussion with about 30 young scholars around how to engage stakeholders in a meaningful way in our research. A recurrent theme was the need to have time to connect with people outside academia, build relationships and build trust. Time to actually listen to the needs of communities. But the emphasis on time also brought up a challenge: how, during a PhD, can we find time to both engage in a meaningful way with stakeholders and write high-quality scientific papers?

During one of the coffee breaks, Karen Esler shared some of her experience on this topic with Jessica Cockburn:

As Karen mentions, one strategy to deal with this tension is to make transdisciplinary research a team effort and not an individual endeavour. Your own PhD research can be part of a bigger project that is already established, where some of that time-consuming trust-building has already been done. Another strategy is to connect with partners outside the university that can facilitate the participatory process.

From this discussion I’m more hopeful that there are ways to work this out in the current system. However, in the longer-term, I still think there is a need to question the major incentive for researchers to allocate most of their time to producing scientific publications.

At the “young” scholars session during the conference, organized by Jessica Cockburn, Vanessa Masterson, Odirilwe Selomane and Marika Haeggman, we had a chance to further reflect on our competencies and identity as place-based social-ecological systems researchers.

One of the participants, Megan Davies, highlighted the difference between going into a familiar vs. an unfamiliar context to do research. Megan and I  both do transdisciplinary research with a municipality in our vicinity, in South Africa and Sweden respectively. This facilitates our understanding of the system, the power dynamics and the culture, and could also decrease the time needed for trust-building and stakeholder mapping. On the other hand, researchers working in a familiar context could have more pre-assumptions, and it could be difficult to be critical when research “subjects” are also friends and collaborators.

For panelists Joana Carlos Bezerra and presenter Shauna Mahajan, doing research in communities far from home raised other issues, such as not speaking the language, having to use translators, and relying on key individuals to access a community. One of the presenters, Johan Enqvist, reflected on whether “objectivity” in this type of research is actually more about reflecting and questioning our values and assumptions. By being critical, for example, and exploring the potential adverse effects of initiatives that we think are good.

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The ethical dilemmas we face in conducting transdisciplinary and place-based research was another important discussion point. By transdisciplinary research I refer to approaches that include multiple scientific disciplines (interdisciplinarity) and include the active input of practitioners from outside academia. Vanessa Masterson shared an interesting insight from her work in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, where she faced a dilemma in providing honest (critical) feedback to the community, which might jeopardize the relationship of trust she built with them during her research. How do we meet the expectations of the local communities we work with? Another panelist, Tom Chaigneau, proposed that instead of disseminating our findings, which are often complex, we could throw a party for the research participants!

For sure, there are no solutions that will fit all cases. Nevertheless, sharing our different experiences certainly provided new ideas and encouraged us to reflect on our roles as researchers. In the end, I think it is this reflection that will help us become better researchers. Here, I think this website has an important role to play. However, to strengthen and develop this reflectiveness and understanding of how to conduct inter- and transdisciplinary research, we also need to build institutional capacity. We need training for scholars early on in their PhDs, and we also need to create spaces and institutional cultures that encourage reflection.