Transdisciplinary method for water pollution and human health research : A working paper by Peter Mollinga

India Water Portal
Saturday, November 22, 2014 - 10:30

This paper discusses how to go about designing an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary research project or programme, with ZEF’s research initiative on ‘water pollution and human health’ in India as the background of the presentation. A summary is given of Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn’s main arguments regarding ‘design principles’ for inter- and transdisciplinary research, and the basic tools they have developed for this are discussed in the context of ZEF’s ‘water pollution and human health’ research initiative.

Some of the learning’s of the paper are -

  • Subdividing research projects into work packages along disciplinary lines may seem attractive because it reduces the transaction costs of collaboration (many academics are reasonably individualistic and prefer to work on their own), but it can easily undermine the working from a common problem definition, and the sharing of knowledge. The question of ‘integration’ is thus pushed forward in time and becomes more difficult to achieve.
  • Encounters of different disciplines and actor groups have to be forced, that is made unavoidable through the way the project is organised, while otherwise there is a tendency to avoid them.
  • Transparency in the governance of a project is of utmost importance. Inter- and transdisciplinary research have a strong element of equal partnership (though not necessarily, see above under the third principle), and centralised decision making in the hand of one or a few of the partners militates against that.
  • Particularly important in this respect is transparency in financial (budget) management. Active care should be taken that control over budgets is not used as an instrument of power. Transparency is accompanied by accountability, where all partners should be equally accountable.
  • Technological devices like websites and electronic databases do not necessarily induce interaction and sharing among researchers (nor between the project and society). Communication is (also and very much) a cultural process and has to be addressed as such.
  • Gender relations and the relations between junior and senior researchers should be a special point of attention in project design and implementation.
  • Time and money resources devoted to the specific organisational and managerial aspects of interdisciplinary research are often grossly insufficient.
  • The most important factor for successful interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research is to spend sufficient time, effort and creativity on formulating a joint problem definition and research question. This is only possible when the commitment to the chosen research approach is similar across participants – at whatever level of ambition that approach may be pitched.

The paper aims to spark discussion and further thinking on how the ‘water pollution and health’ research initiative, and by implication, other research efforts, might be designed and implemented as an interdisciplinary and possibly transdisciplinary project, by identifying what issues need to be addressed in such a process.