How is research like cooking: A semi-serious introduction to transdisciplinarity

I’m writing this at the end of a very tiring week, on a Friday evening (although I might post it later). This week has seen accomplishment of the first major milestone of our research project. We ran our first visioning workshop in Melbourne thanks to generous time, mind, heart and spirit commitment of sixty plus participants. As a result, currently my mind is occupied with questions of how we will analyse and synthesise the enormous amount of amorphous data collected, how the research team will collaborate and how we will achieve integration of knowledge at meta level. Then I cannot help but wonder if we will really achieve all of these. While my limbs are carrying out daily routines such as walking, carrying stuff, opening and closing doors, pulling my rebellious hair away from in front and sometimes out of my eyes etc. the processor at the dingy corridors darkened by my grey matter is constantly revisiting theories, constructs, models and tools of transdisciplinarity. This has reached to such an extreme level that I caught myself pondering about the similarities between cooking and transdisciplinary research. A chuckle followed this blissful and rare moment of “becoming present to myself” which was then “contaminated” with inspiration to write a blog post about this. Since I don’t get very frequently inspired to write casually in a language I wasn’t “born within” -because my use is always imprecise, I never can attend to subtleties in meaning therefore it’s often either blunt or vague and my writing never “flows” naturally as it does when I use my first language- I thought I should “seize this moment”. So here I am, embarking on a big ordeal only to write a fun post about basics of transdisciplinarity. (Side note: For those who’d like to read about the relationship between language and thought I strongly recommend John Dewey’s book “How we think”, Chapter 13).

Forced analogy has always been one of my favourite creative thinking and argumentation methods. I know I’m not alone in this; a whole generation of post-modern designers used forced analogy to create enormous amounts of fun rubbish for example. But I argue that in fact the relationship between cooking and transdisciplinary research is not a “forced” analogy; the relationship on the contrary is direct because both activities reflect the very human nature. Humans make sense of the world by synthesizing (available) data as a whole which is collected through sensory organs as well as via intuition and instinct and filtered through highly subjective value judgments of all sorts. Sense making is a whole-person process mediating between the physical reality and our subjective interpretation of it (easy to guess I’m a constructivist, well, a meta-constructivist in fact. I might explain this in another post or not-no promises). At some point in human history though, when our knowledge about physical, chemical and biological phenomena was much more limited than today, we developed a particular approach to systematic inquiry which required studying parts of whole systems in isolation and ignoring the systems themselves to a large extent. Although Goethe proposed an alternative approach which he then most notably used in his Theory of Colours, it never became as popular as his always-in-agony Werther up until sustainability and complex system researchers looked for alternatives to the dominant reductionist paradigm of scientific inquiry to be able to account for interrelationships between parts as well as our subjective experience with the systems we interact with let it be a technological artefact or a whole regional habitat. This search found resonance in the rise and wider acceptance of transdisciplinary research. To increase general knowledge on precursors or complementaries of transdisciplinarity I recommend investigating mode 2 science and post-normal science. All of these are essentially responses to insufficiency of generating valid and useful knowledge through reductionist uses of scientific inquiry.

Transdisciplinary research is one valid approach to research among many others and cooking is one valid approach to preparing food among many. Both have appropriate and inappropriate uses and are suitable only for particular types of materials. Cooking makes certain food more digestible for humans so does transdisciplinary research makes wicked problems (earliest mention of the term was by Rittel and Webber (1973); ever since then loved, used and abused by designers, futures thinkers, sustainability enthusiasts and recently by all terminology fashionistas) easier to deal with. Cooking, if done inappropriately may make food toxic or result in food losing some of its nutritional value. Transdisciplinary research if done inappropriately can result in misinterpretation of valuable data or, worsening of the problem tried to be addressed. Nevertheless, the only way to assess “appropriateness” of both cooking and transdisciplinary research is by doing and reflecting on the outcome; although past experience with cooking and/or research methods can be helpful, each wicked problem as well as each culinary journey is unique requiring its special needs and “emergent properties” to be attended to by the cook/researcher.

One thing that starkly contrasts between transdisciplinary research and cooking is the most effective number of people involved in the research or cooking project. In transdisciplinary research, theoretically, the most effective number of researchers is equal to the number of distinguishable expertise domains related to the problem as long as these researchers are able to integrate knowledge. Transdisciplinary research also welcomes, in fact requires non-expert input into the research process. In cooking however, it is the opposite: The fewer the number of cooks, the more effectively and efficiently a dish is prepared and encounters of random hands with the dish being cooked is taken as unwelcome, in extreme cases, dangerous, as the potential contamination may be fatal. At this point I’d like to address a potential objection of those who love company in the kitchen; company in the kitchen is ok, in fact if the space isn’t too small, even desired. But company is not interference. Also, helpers are always welcome in the kitchen to run between the fridge and the pan or chop vegetables the same way research assistants are in the field, office or lab as “research hands”. Subordinate work is not interference either. Every now and then the kitchen helper or research assistant will have a spark of insight or a bright idea that he/she has to share with you and secretly desire appreciation. In that case they’re walking on a fine line of adding more brilliance to your work for which you will be credited or risking to be overbearing and perceived as a threat. No cook’s or researcher’s ego will allow such an uncomfortable moment to linger; the helper in either case will be better off by making a move to the “low-key” corner or he/she will have to bear the circumstances. Then of course there’s the “persistent couple” who argue they share the burden or pleasure of cooking depending on how far advanced they’re in their coupleship: “I make the soup, Jarjar makes the dessert. What’s wrong with that?” This simultaneous soup-making dessert-making covers the case of “company in the kitchen” but goes beyond as the company is also a co-cook. Collaboration in this case undeniably exists but the nature of it cannot be compared to the nature of collaboration in transdisciplinary research which results in “transcending” of disciplines.

What is transcendence of disciplines? Transdisciplinary research requires continuous self-inquiry and a willingness to compromise from the epistemological position one adheres to so that knowledge can be integrated and a soupdessert can be created to address the problem of hunger with a miraculously cheap yet nutritionally rich type of food which can also easily travel through zones of political conflict as some significant amount of hunger is not due to scarcity but access. When Lea makes the soup and Jarjar makes the dessert and so on, they collaborate towards completion of a whole course but they do not co-create something new together by transforming the materials, the cooking methods, the meaning of cooking as well as their respective expertise in soup and dessert making. They are also not interested in addressing a problem beyond meeting their basic human need of nutrition with a bit of indulgence. The research approaches comparable to this simultaneous co-cooking are multi-disciplinarity or pluri-disciplinarity. For a good account of different prefixes highly handsome yet always a bachelor disciplinarity can be burdened with and what on earth they might mean I strongly recommend having a look at Max-Neef (2005). He might have well saved me from potential psychosis triggered by extreme anxiety associated with not being able to make sense of anything in the highly complex, highly uncertain, highly Mexican-soap-opera world of PhD years even in the existence of numerous attempts of scholars to clarify the pseudo-terminologies they once created in shower publication after publication. Max-Neef clean cuts it; he’s noble, above all and doesn’t get into endless semantic arguments. (Max-Neef is more notably known for proposing a sophisticated alternative to Maslow’s white-male-first-world-biased needs theory which unfortunately still contaminates design and marketing students’ naïve understanding of the world as Teletubbie Land.) Therefore, I use Max-Neef’s typology of disciplinarities whenever I need to, haven’t encountered any major drama because of this so far and recommend my strategy of ignoring anyone who’s trying to sneakily pull you into rhetoric about this. If we were to mull over definitions forever, we might have improved our track record but not the world itself, which is essentially what each and every transdisciplinary researcher is aspiring to. In fact, transdisciplinarity is all about having an agenda of change and transforming a problem domain (Wickson, Carew & Russell, 2006; Pohl & Hirsch Hadorn, 2007; Späth, 2008; Zierhofer & Burger, 2007).

Well, cooking of course is a process of “transcendence” too for what’s being cooked if not alchemy altogether and its primary agenda of change is transforming hunger into well-being through supply of nutrients our body needs. A singular change agenda, yet not one to be sneezed at as hunger is also a socially relevant complex real life problem. Addressing socially relevant complex real life problems is in fact among the most distinguishing characteristics of transdisciplinary research (Bergmann et al., 2005; Wickson et al., 2006; Zierhofer & Burger, 2007). Therefore, if Lea and Jarjar had aimed at creating a soupdessert to address world hunger instead of preparing a full course dinner for their own need fulfillment and enjoyment by giving up on preconceived ideas about what the output of their cooking will be, only then they could have been likened to transdisciplinary researchers who are also subject to transformation as the problem area they intervene in and the disciplines they individually represent transforms (Dickens, 2003).

In this post I tried to explain some basics of transdisciplinary research using cooking as a playful analogy. I may have clarified confusions or may have added more to the heavy feeling associated with “trying to make sense of it all”. Nevertheless, this is why we all love scholarly work; the little moments of insight which follow long periods of frustrated confusion. But for the purpose of service, here’re some quick points to take away.

  1. Transdisciplinary research aims to solve complex and multi-dimensional real-life problems.
  2. Collaboration and coordination is a pre-requisite for transdisciplinary research since real-world problems cannot be framed in mono-disciplines.
  3. In transdisciplinary research researchers contribute to the solution of the identified real-life problem.
  4. In transdisciplinary research researchers “own” the problem and have a transformation agenda in addressing it.
  5. In transdisciplinary research, there are different types or dimensions of knowledge integration. First of them is the integration of different epistemologies of different disciplines. The second type of integration is integration of scientific and practical knowledge.

I would like to write another post about integration of knowledge in transdisciplinary research as this cannot be effectively covered in this post and requires a dedicated one. Another topic rather important is about evaluation and quality of transdisciplinary research as transdisciplinary research cannot be assessed referring to traditional quality criteria which applies to academic work. Time will tell if inspiration will strike me again anytime soon.

I’d like to finish this post by a favorite quote from one of the most memorable characters of literary history as he shares the ultimate insight of a scholar:

“Now I have studied philosophy, medicine and the law, and unfortunately, theology, wearily sweating, yet I stand now, poor fool, no wiser than I was before; I am called Master, even Doctor, and for these last ten years have led my students by the nose–up, down, crosswise and crooked. Now I see that we know nothing, finally.”

-Faust

References I used in this post:

Bergmann, Matthias, Brohmann, Bettina, Hoffman, Esther, Loibl, M. Céline, Rehaag, Regine, Schramm, Engelbert, & Voß, Jan-Peter. (2005). Quality Criteria of Transdisciplinary Research. A Guide for the Formative Evaluation of Research Projects. ISOE-Studientexte, No 13 / English Version, Frankfurt am Main. .

Dickens, P. (2003). Changing our environment, changing ourselves: Critical realism and transdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 28(2), 95-105.

Cundill, G. N. R., Fabricius, C., & Marti, N. (2005). Foghorns to the future: Using knowledge and transdisciplinarity to navigate complex systems. Ecology and Society, 10(2).

Max-Neef, Manfred A. (2005). Foundations of transdisciplinarity. Ecological Economics, 53(1), 5-16.

Pohl, Christian, & Hirsch Hadorn, Gertrude. (2007). Principles for Designing Transdisciplinary Research: Proposed by the Swiss Academy of Arts and Sciences (A. B. Zimmermann, Trans.). Munich: Oekom Verlag.

Rittel, Horst W. J., & Webber, Melvin M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

Späth, P. (2008). Learning ex-post: Towards a simple method and set of questions for the self-evaluation of transdisciplinary research. GAIA, 17(2), 224-232.

Wickson, F., Carew, A. L., & Russell, A. W. (2006). Transdisciplinary research: characteristics, quandaries and quality. Futures, 38(9), 1046-1059.

Zierhofer, W., & Burger, P. (2007). (Transdisciplinary research – A distinct mode of knowledge production? Problem-orientation, knowledge integration and participation in transdisciplinary research projects). GAIA, 16(1), 29-34.

Additional references not cited here but contributed significantly to my understanding of transdisciplinary research:

Brown, Valerie A., Harris, John A., & Russell, Jacqueline Y. (Eds.). (2010). Tackling wicked problems through the transdisciplinary imagination London, Washington, DC: Earthscan.

Burger, P, & Kamber, R. (2003). Cognitive Integration in Transdisciplinary Science: Knowledge as a Key Notion. Issues in Integrative Studies, 21, 43-73.

Carew, Anna L., & Wickson, Fern. (2010). The TD Wheel: A heuristic to shape, support and evaluate transdisciplinary research. Futures, 42(10), 1146-1155.

Cundill, G. N. R., Fabricius, C., & Marti, N. (2005). Foghorns to the future: Using knowledge and transdisciplinarity to navigate complex systems. Ecology and Society, 10(2).

Hirsch Hadorn, Gertrude , Biber-Klemm, Susette, Grossenbacher-Mansuy, Walter, Hoffmann-Riem, Holger, Joye, Dominique, Pohl, Christian, . . . Zemp, Elisabeth. (2008). The Emergence of Transdisciplinarity as a Form of Research In G. Hirsch Hadorn, S. Biber-Klemm, W. Grossenbacher-Mansuy, H. Hoffmann-Riem, D. Joye, C. Pohl, U. Wiesmann & E. Zemp (Eds.), Handbook of Transdisciplinary Research (pp. 19-39). Dordrecht: Springer Science + Business Media B.V.

Jantsch, Erich. (1972). Inter- and Transdisciplinary University: A Systems Approach to Education and Innovation Higher Education, 1(1), 7-37.

Lawrence, R. J., & Després, C. (2004). Futures of Transdisciplinarity. Futures, 36(4), 397-405.

Loibl, M. C. (2006). Integrating Perspectives in the Practice of Transdisciplinary Research. In J.-P. Voß, D. Bauknecht & R. Kemp (Eds.), Reflexive governance for sustainable development (pp. 294-309). Cheltenham, Glos, UK ; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Mobjörk, Malin. (2010). Consulting versus participatory transdisciplinarity: A refined classification of transdisciplinary research. Futures, 42(8), 866-873. doi: 10.1016/j.futures.2010.03.003

Montuori, Alfonso. (2010). Transdisciplinarity and Creative Inquiry in Transformative Education: Researching the Research Degree. In M. Maldonato & R. Pietrobon (Eds.), Research on scientific research. (pp. 110-135). Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

Nicolescu, Basarab. (2002). Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (K.-C. Voss, Trans.). New York: State University of New York Press.

Russell, A. W., Wickson, F., & Carew, A. L. (2008). Transdisciplinarity: Context, contradictions and capacity. Futures, 40(5), 460-472.

Thompson Klein, Julie. (2004). Prospects for transdisciplinarity. Futures, 36(4), 515-526.

Walter, A. I., Helgenberger, S., Wiek, A., & Scholz, R. W. (2007). Measuring societal effects of transdisciplinary research projects: Design and application of an evaluation method. Evaluation and Program Planning, 30(4), 325-338.

 

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