Headline: Choosing a suitable transdisciplinary research framework

Successful transdisciplinary cooperation requires a suitable framework.
Successful transdisciplinary cooperation requires a suitable framework. Shutterstock/seyomedo

What are some of the key frameworks that can be used for transdisciplinary research? What are their particular strengths? How can you choose one that’s most suitable for your transdisciplinary project?

The nine frameworks described here were highlighted in a series for which I was the commissioning editor. The series was published in the scientific journal GAIA: Ecological Perspectives in Science and Society between mid-2017 and end-2019.

Choosing among them is not a matter of right or wrong, but of each being more or less helpful for a particular problem in a particular context. And, of course, different frameworks can also be used in combination.

The brief descriptions and figures that follow aim to encapsulate each framework’s key strengths.

Framework #1. Guiding principles (Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn, 2017)

These general guidelines address the key challenges of transdisciplinary research:

  1. problem identification and structuring, which requires complexity to be reduced
  2. problem analysis, which requires integration
  3. “bringing results to fruition,” which is implementing research in practice-oriented solutions for the common good.


Framework #2. Distinguishing the scientific and societal processes and concentrating on the integration between them (Bergmann and Jahn, 2017)

This framework is based on the proposition that developing solutions for complex societal problems requires them to be linked to gaps in existing knowledge. It guides researchers through the challenges of problem constitution, knowledge integration and the participation of societal actors.


Framework #3. Focusing on research outcomes (Mitchell et al., 2018)

Research outcomes are both scientific and societal, specifically:

  • improving the problematic situation
  • generating knowledge stocks and flows
  • producing mutual and transformational learning.

Articulating the project-specific outcome spaces provides a set of guiding principles for process decisions throughout the project life-cycle and can change stakeholders’ perceptions about what research is.


Framework #4. Taking a systems approach (Cabrera and Cabrera, 2018)

Systems thinking has four building blocks. These building blocks are used to:

  1. challenge existing norms and identify biases
  2. see how things fit into larger wholes
  3. show dynamic interactions, including feedback loops
  4. look at ideas from different perspectives.

The building blocks can be combined in various ways.


Framework #5. Knowledge co-production (Muhar and Penker, 2018)

This framework addresses the question: “Who can contribute what kind of knowledge in which phase of a transdisciplinary project and why?”. It can be used to design future projects and to analyse past knowledge co-production. Exactly what is included in each element depends on the organisational and thematic context of individual projects.


Framework #6. Context influencing the uptake of research into policy (Weyrauch and Echt, 2018)

This is a systematic and comprehensive assessment of where the potential for change in government policy is greatest, as well as where the most significant barriers are. This framework allows strategic identification of potential areas of change for different types of interventions, focuses specifically at the institutional level, and embraces the importance of politics in achieving change.


Framework #7. Ten essential processes for transformational change (Fazey, 2018)

Each of the ten essentials is effective on its own, but the greatest potential for change is achieved when they are applied together. This creates a more adaptive, reflexive, collaborative and impact-oriented form of research, as well as intellectual depth, that enables integration of knowledge with normative considerations of what is considered to be good.


Framework #8. Necessary expertise for transdisciplinarity as a whole (Bammer, 2019)

The Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) framework identifies the core elements of expertise in three domains:

  • synthesising knowledge,
  • managing unknowns
  • supporting improvement.

In each domain, five questions stimulate systematic consideration of specific expertise, such as in systems approaches and how to take context into account.


Framework #9. Necessary expertise to help decision makers work with relevant experts and stakeholders (Bruhn et al., 2019)

Grounded action design is a framework for research organizations acting in a scientific advisory function to guide a reflexive and co-creative process where stakeholders, relevant experts and decision makers explore, map and expand their understanding of the complex problem space before the decision making body sets transformative change in train.



Each of these framework descriptions is greatly truncated, with more detail available in the one-page summaries published in this series, each of which also provides references to full descriptions and, for some, more detailed illustrations.

What’s your experience been in using the frameworks presented above? What other frameworks have you found to be useful?

To find out more:
Bammer, G. (2019). What makes a researcher transdisciplinary? A framework to identify expertise. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #8. GAIA, 28, 3: 253. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.28.3.2

Bergmann, M. and Jahn, T. (2017). A model for the transdisciplinary research process. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #2. GAIA, 26, 4: 304. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.26.4.3

Bruhn, T., Herberg, J., Molinengo, G., Oppold, D., Stasiak, D. and Nanz, P. (2019). Grounded action design – Transdisciplinary co-creation for better transformative processes. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #9. GAIA, 28, 4: 336. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.28.4.3

Cabrera, D. and Cabrera, L. (2018). Four building blocks of systems thinking. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #4. GAIA, 27, 2: 200. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.27.2.3

Fazey, I. (2019). Ten essentials for contributing more directly to transformational change. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #7. GAIA, 28, 1: 8. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.28.1.3

Mitchell, C., Fam, D. and Cordell, D. (2018). Outcomes spaces: Designing for impact in transdisciplinary research. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #3. GAIA, 27, 1: 112. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.27.1.3

Muhar, A. and Penker, M. (2018). Knowledge co-production: An analytical framework. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #5. GAIA, 27, 3: 272. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.27.3.3

Pohl, C. and Hirsch Hadorn, G. (2017). Principles for designing transdisciplinary research. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #1. GAIA, 26, 3: 232. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.26.3.3

Weyrauch, V. and Echt, L. (2018). Context in the interaction between research and government policy. Frameworks for Transdisciplinary Research, Framework #6. GAIA, 27, 4: 344. (Online) (Open access): https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.27.4.3

A compilation of all nine frameworks is available online at: https://www.oekom.de/publikationen/zeitschriften/gaia/c-275

See also the companion eight toolkits for transdisciplinary research at: https://i2insights.org/2017/07/25/toolkits-for-transdisciplinarity/


This article was first published on the Integration and Implementation Insights blog on 26 May 2020.

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