In this letter to the editor of the Journal of Cleaner Production (JCLP), two researchers at Linköping University express the need to clarify of the term transdisciplinary if JCLP is to keep identifying itself as a platform of this type of research. They think this will help solve more environmental sustainability related problems found in industry. When several different industries are involved in a problem, it immediately becomes more complex, solving it typically requires cooperation between all actors, which is easier said than done. This is where transdisciplinary research comes in.

Firstly, let’s define some useful terms. A discipline is an area of knowledge with its own traditions regarding research training, definitions, content areas and methods. When a research project involves two or more disciplines for comparison it is then classified as multidisciplinary. If instead, the  effort is integration between disciplines to solve a problem, it’s interdisciplinary. An attempt to create a standing collaboration between disciplines, hence creating new, mutual traditions, is transdisciplinary. The article lists two different types of transdisciplinary research; one where all actors are in academia, and one where academia invites non-academic stakeholders to the party.

There are some common problems that occurs in transdisciplinary research. Lack of motivation and effort among the different actors is one, and lack of coherency regarding problem framing, integration of methods and designing the research process is another. The authors hope that clearing up the definition of transdiciplinarity will result in a “how to” approach which in turn will lead to better communication across disciplines. A common understanding is crucial when solving problems, since it’s difficult to compare and evaluate results without it. In environmental sustainability research, this type of approach could help creating a common goal across disciplines.

Will an increase in transdisciplinary research make the other types of research redundant? The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is no, since specialization is still relevant and important when it comes to sustainability. For example, consumption of products is an issue dealt with technical, environmental as well as social sciences. Hence, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research is still very much applicable in this area.

Articles previously published in JCLP indicate that approaching problems from different points of view is necessary to solve them in practice. It has also been suggested that reflection of the research itself, despite being time-consuming, is essential for transformative learning, i.e. changing perspectives of individuals as well as organizations.

One can ask whether the choice of words regarding how research is conducted is really important in the grand scheme of things. Won’t the research itself generate the same results regardless of what it’s called? Well, no. The choice of words can affect both how problems are formulated as well as how they are approached in the path for a solution. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between the terms and JCLP is advised to clarify their position as an international, transdisciplinary platform.

Source: Sakao, T. and S. A. Brambila-Macias “Do we share an understanding of transdisciplinarity in environmental sustainability research?” Journal of Cleaner Production Volume 170, 1 January 2018, Pages 1399-1403

In short – Do we share an Understanding of Transdisciplinarity in Environmental Sustainability Research