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Disentangling inter- and transdisciplinarity: some insights and first results from SHAPE-ID

by Bianca Vienni Baptista, Maciej Maryl, Piotr Wciślik, Isabel Fletcher, Anna Buchner, Doireann Wallace and Christian Pohl

One of SHAPE-ID’s first objectives is to identify, through an evidence-scanning exercise drawing on existing work, the different understandings and factors that help or hinder interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research (IDR and TDR) within and between Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) and STEMM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine). Our aim is to analyse national, European and international cases.

To achieve these objectives, our team is currently undertaking an extensive systematic literature review. Corpora of academic literature and grey literature have been created and are being analysed using qualitative and quantitative methods. This work is currently in progress and will conclude in March 2020.

The preliminary findings of the literature review to date are presented in a report available here. Some insights and preliminary results are shared below.

Some insights and preliminary results

What do interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity mean? Are there different understandings of these terms?

  • Interdisciplinarity (ID) and transdisciplinarity (TD) denote a spectrum of experience and the literature reveals a strong tendency to problematise these concepts rather than accepting a single definition or understanding. This is why we consider it necessary to disentangle these terms.
  • The literature reveals heterogeneous understandings of inter- and transdisciplinarity, reflecting a diversity of practice and expectations across disciplines and communities. This contrasts with a frequent assumption in reports and policy briefs that the terms are well understood.
  • Some patterns of consensus are evident: the common features of many discussions and definitions in the academic literature are that interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity involve inter-dependence, cooperative labour, and mutuality, all oriented towards shared purposes.
  • The challenge is not to arrive at a single understanding that collapses differences, but to build dialogue between different understandings while recognising their differences.

What factors hinder or help inter- or transdisciplinary research?

  • A provisional list of 25 factors that are considered to help or hinder IDR/TDR has been identified from the academic literature (you can see the complete list in Table 3 of our Preliminary Report).
  • The factors that can influence the success of IDR/TDR are interrelated, context-dependent and dynamic. They depend on such contextual features as the level of understanding of IDR/TDR, the phase a project is at, the roles assigned to different partners, etc.
  • Factors can act positively or negatively depending on the context, particularly the phase of the project. Factors can potentially be transformed from problematic to enabling during the research process.

What does all this imply for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences?

  • The labels used to refer collectively to the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – ‘AHSS’ and ‘SSH’ – obscure important differences between disciplines that bear on the different ways they position themselves in relation to doing inter- or transdisciplinary research and to other disciplines (AHSS and STEMM) that they interact with. The label AHSS (or SSH) needs to be problematised and how each field can contribute to IDR/TDR analysed.
  • The potential contribution of AHSS disciplines in IDR/TDR is not fully understood. While policy reports frequently advocate for the contribution AHSS disciplines can make to solving societal challenges, the academic literature suggests that there is often a perception that humanities researchers have little to offer and their contributions are difficult to understand and integrate.
  • The AHSS-STEMM gap remains a significant challenge. The literature analysed so far shows little dialogue between AHSS and STEMM disciplines and few suggestions for bridging the gap, although the problem, gap and need to bridge them are widely acknowledged.

In the next steps of this research, the current analysis will be completed and the focus will shift to the connection between different understandings of IDR and TDR and the factors that hinder or help AHSS integration.

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