Headline: Technocratic Residues in Transdisciplinary Research? A Reflection on the Methods and Political Roles of Sustainability Scholars

How can scholars deal with their own involvement in power-ridden constellations? A new special issue gives answers.
How can scholars deal with their own involvement in power-ridden constellations? A new special issue gives answers. Shutterstock/Tymur Korkishko

For scholars it is always hard to reflect about their role in sustainability transformations and conflicts. This predicament is tackled in a new special issue of the journal Social Epistemology that Ulli Vilsmaier (Leuphana) and I have just published. Contributors from several disciplines discuss the dilemma of control in transdisciplinary research in this special issue and consider how scholars can deal with their own involvement in power-ridden constellations.

The main issue raised in this special issue was captured in a parable penned by Beat writer William S. Burroughs: two people take command of a group of people in a lifeboat as the group struggles to survive a storm. The duo exploit their position to their advantage. Aware of their fragile grip on power, they seek “to convince the others that this is a cooperative enterprise”. Thus, a life-threatening situation that requires swift and effective collaboration is complicated by a deception to maintain power.

Christiaan Tonnis: William S. Burroughs 3 / Oil on Canvas / 61 x 72.8 inches / 1999 Print
William S. Burroughs 3 / Oil on Canvas / 61 x 72.8 inches / 1999 Print Christiaan Tonnis

Sustainability scholars operate in a kind of lifeboat situation: Scientists, policymakers and citizens are all concerned at the existential threats the world is facing. But, they are in constant conflict as to how we should cooperate to overcome these threats. For sustainability scholars, an increasingly credible voice in mainstream policy discussions, this is particularly difficult: Even though collaborative research projects frequently pursue socio-environmental goals, they are burdened by the legacies of technocratic science and policy. Many academic practices are intricately linked to the very institutions that have brought about social inequities and the climate crisis. To put it simply: transdisciplinary scholars are not immune to the deceptions of academic power.

The example of the coal exit

Take Lusatia, the coal-rich region that forms the focal point of our research: Our research mandate focuses on social justice: How can the transformation of fossil industries be organized in a way that is socially inclusive and democratic?  This focus has gained traction more recently, as the environmental debate has erupted into climate protests, anticipated job losses and the displacement of villagers. Yet, we act amidst an environmental and industrial complex that has built-in injustices. We investigate “just transition” pathways in a regional context that usually protects the “economic goods” of fossil industries and exports the “ecological bads” to other places in the world. Can we carve out collaborative modes of research while acknowledging such control regimes? At the IASS, we practice a transdisciplinary approach to research in order to deal with this predicament. That is, academic and non-academic actors work together to develop solution pathways. These approaches seek to open-up the privileged access to natural goods (for instance, coal), academic authority (for instance, our role in public discourses) and political influence (for instance, contact to policy makers).

How to acknowledge power dynamics in transdisciplinary research?

We have published a special issue in order to pause and reflect on transdisciplinary approaches. While sustainability researchers clearly acknowledge power imbalances in a very fundamental way, a very linear and deficit-oriented notion persists: science policies and research strategies often begin with the assertion that non-academics lack sufficient scientific knowledge. The implication is: practitioners need to practically ‘transfer and implement’ the wisdom of academic advisors to an unknowing public. All too often the scholars and practitioners involved do not get to discuss the definition of the ‘right problem’ or the necessary kind of ‘knowledge’. This blind-spot is a residue of technocratic control that surfaces in our transdisciplinary research on a regular basis; it seems mentally and institutionally so inherited that we cannot easily dispose it, even if we want to.

Fortunately there is plenty of reflection on the interplay of power and knowledge that we can draw from. Within the fields of science and technology studies, but also further afield, many creative proposals have been made to address control in academic research. For the special issue, Ulli Vilsmaier (Leuphana) and I invited authors to create a dialogue between those critical schools of thought, on the one side, and transdisciplinary approaches, on the other.

We give an account of the genealogy of control in collaborative research in the introductory essay and set the stage for the following contributions:

  • Judith Igelsböck (TU Munich) holds that, even in the current political climate, the ever inaccessible ‘dream of epistemic democracy’ remains desirable. She uses a fictional method to define a potential collective of epistemic ‘non-control’.
  • Katharine N. Farrell (Universidad del Rosario) argues against the populist use of truth claims, as currently practiced by the US government. While positivist values are broadly appropriated, the Enlightenment ideas of social justice have been left abandoned. She suggests that scholars best adopt a posture of ‘hope without optimism’ (Eagleton 2015a)
  • Esther Meyer and Daniela Peukert (Leuphana) discuss the omnipresent notion of problems in sustainability studies. Based on the philosophical concept of ‘the problematic’ they propose that researchers should not stick to a linear understanding of problem and solution. Instead, they can engage in an interactive process that interrelates epistemic conditions and design principles.
  • Basil Bornemann (former IASS Fellow, University of Basel) and Marius Christen (University of Basel) argue for a situated practice of ‘meaning making.’ ‘Theoretical structuring,’ ‘grasping diversity,’ ‘debating complexity,’ and ‘framing the problem’ are consecutive steps towards a form of collaborative research that achieves a balance between complexity-induced paralysis on the one hand, and the perils of social and epistemic control of research on the other.
  • Maria De Eguia Huerta (Leuphana University) reflects upon her scientific involvement as a young urban Spanish woman in rural Bolivia. To introduce a ‘decolonizing momentum’ she advocates for a practice of ‘control juggling.’ Artifacts such as personal photographs, she suggests, can help researchers and practitioners to articulate and to mediate a situated reflection on roles.
  • Stefan Böschen, Martine Legris, Simon Pfersdorf, and Bernd Carsten Stahl (o.a. RWTH Aachen) point out that most collaborative research is organizationally configured under a high level of social and temporal pressure. They claim that a tendency towards identity politics among the involved scholars and actors leaves only limited space for maneuver.
  • In my own contribution I criticize the concept of ‘co-design’. Project initiators can hardly backcast or forecast the pathway towards a set target state. Rather, collaborators engage in a struggle for control, imposing an interwoven set of desires, resources, and expectations. I therefore argue for a diachronic perspective that engages in a collaborative process ‘from within’.

Two trends are discernible in these responses to control in transdisciplinary research:

First, it is at the fringes of social and epistemic sectors or disciplines that conventional rules lose their binding effect. The co-creation of emancipatory research collectives therefore is most likely to succeed in those in-between spaces as Ulli Vilsmaier and I have both noted in previous publications. Second, even inter- and transdisciplinary schools of research must be accepted as a manifestation of the history of technocratic regimes. In practice this requires that we critically explore the connection between scientific and political methods. Only then can collaborative projects begin to question and change the harmful paths of industrial life. This requires courageous, creative and reflexive research practice. We seek to rise to this challenge in the projects “Co-Creation and Contemporary Policy Advice” and “Social Transformation in Lusatia”.

  •  Jeremias Herberg & Ulli Vilsmaier (2020) Social and Epistemic Control in Collaborative Research — Reconfiguring the Interplay of Politics and Methodology, Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2019.1706115


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