Friday, September 5, 2014

Transdisciplinarity for Human Sustainability: An Introduction

Draft - 8/29/2014  Copyright Earon S. Davis 2014

Note:  Pardon me while I work on improving the formatting of this paper.

Congratulations on being open to understanding the concept of transdisciplinarity, which is central to some perspectives on facilitating human sustainability.  As one who has unsuccessfully struggled to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity, I want to acknowledge that transdisciplinary can be a difficult concept.  Much of this difficulty is explained by another difficult concept, cognitive dissonance. 

Sometimes, concepts are difficult for us to grasp because elements of their world view are inconsistent with important aspects of our world view.  This brings dissonance into our psyche that we are generally not trained to resolve.  When confronted with a dilemma in which we must choose between two competing values or needs, it is typical of human nature to choose the most familiar path and rationalize away the other choice as inconvenient, conflictual or “new.”  So, we unconsciously resist understanding challenging new concepts.  And that’s what transdisciplinarity is. 

Another view of the conflict comes from Upton Sinclair’s observation that it is difficult to understand something when your livelihood depends upon not understanding it.  In our universities and our industries, our jobs depend upon an analytical framework that empowers separate disciplines and has us trained in a single discipline, or a couple of different disciplines.  Even when we work in a few different disciplines, we generally identify each individual primarily with one or two out of scores of different disciplines.  So, since our professional world is already organized by disciplines, transdisciplinarity is not an easy thing to grasp.  It seems to indicate a desire to abandon science, but it is really aimed at putting the science we know into perspective rather than giving marginal information more weight than it warrants.

In a world that is based upon reductionist learning, valuing and celebrating what we know and devaluing what we don’t know, transdisciplinarity just doesn’t fit because it requires that we operate in areas of uncertainty in a holistic manner.  Rather than seeing the world through the filter of biological sciences or astrophysics or accounting or poetry, transdisciplinarity asks us to transcend all of the disciplines and look at the broader picture.  As we zoom out to a transdisciplinary perspective, we see each discipline as a set of data points rather than our whole universe.  Even multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary perspective are not as radical as transdisciplinarity.  They integrate information and personnel in two or more disciplines, definitely not transcending all disciplines, not creating enough space for new observations and thinking to break through the traditional boundaries of our disciplinary approaches. 

Transdisciplinarity approaches all possible data points in all possible disciplines.  Mind-boggling, indeed!  It is a highly creative adventure, requiring an equal measure of discipline, which seeks to use the tools of all disciplines to find new truths, to uncover new data that give rise to different approaches to understanding our situations and our challenges.  It combines a proficiency with science and logic along with the openness of a child in a candy store, or some adults at a new hardware store or a sale at a huge thrift shop.  Through these new perspectives, being open to the vast array of available tools and fabrics, we may find new solutions, new relationships that we may never have discovered using the tools in just one or two or three departments.

In that sense, a single discipline presents us with one complex filter with which we see the world.  We are trained in a discipline, mentored by a senior person in that discipline, and often inducted into a long lineage within that discipline.  Sometimes, our studies are multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary, but those generally involve limited numbers of disciplines and sub-disciplines, excluding a far larger number of disciplinary tools than they include.

Imagine a box with thousands of those filters.  Each allows us to see a limited portion of the spectrum of radiation and light.  Some filters allow us to see a somewhat wider range of the spectrum, but none allows us to view more than, let’s say, 1% of the larger reality.  Our filter may be the “reality” in which we specialize and in which we are an expert.  It may be the filter through which we earn our living, but it is only a small part of the larger reality. 

The quest of transdisciplinarity is to combine many, many different filters (disciplines) so that we can see larger pictures, views that more closely represent our larger, more complex and intricate, reality.  So, the task is formidable, indeed.  It is no wonder that we unconsciously resist putting down our favorite lenses and venturing into a multitude of new fields with which we are unfamiliar.  Our old views are comfortable, and they have gotten us this far in life, so even the brightest among us can remain strongly attached to them.

Peer pressure is also an important aspect of the unconscious resistance.  Transdisciplinarity reshuffles the deck of the academy’s cards in ways that challenge the importance of any one card, even the cards that we’ve held in our hand for decades.  It may challenge our allegiance to our discipline, our profession, our department, our school or college, our university.  It will challenge our relationships with our colleagues and our role in our departments.  We humans often respond to such considerations with ambivalence and approach-avoidance behaviors.

In the study of human sustainability, which is a rather large task requiring all of the various skills, tools and knowledge we can find and develop, transdisciplinarity is essential.  We are still learning how our world is interconnected, how our perceptions are biased, how difficult it is for us to anticipate the consequences of our actions.  We are still feeling hurt about how our attempts to solve one problem may cause several different unintended consequences that put us in a worse situation than had we done nothing.  Clearly, we don’t currently have the knowledge and wisdom to become sustainable in ways that also enable human flourishing.  We are beginning to envision different ways of living, but this takes time, and time is in short supply.

There are barriers to understanding changes in the scientific bases of our current reality.  The colleagues of each of the great minds to whom we attribute major advances in science, philosophy or the arts generally took decades to catch on to the new perspectives that were emerging.  Many of the great minds lived and died in a mix of rejection and obscurity, marginalized, while their ideas were slowly taking root.
What are the obstacles to seeing new paradigms?

  • 1.      Inertia.  We cling to our worldviews and all of the odd notions that get grandfathered into our mindsets along with the old notions.  It is in our nature to reject new paradigms until they somehow gain a “critical mass” to appear mainstream.  However, before that time, we may (individually or collectively) put them into distant elliptical orbits around our consciousness rather than integrate them.  When exploring new concepts, we do tend to have some “fear of the unknown.”  We do not know what conflicts may arise with our various ideas, disciplinary lineages and values, so we are cautious.
  • 2.      Nausea.  We can actually feel physically ill when we contemplate dissonant topics, so much so that we tend to resolve the conflict through rationalization, rather than embracing the dissonance and learning to tease apart our feelings of attraction and avoidance.
  • 3.      Confusion.  As with the physical symptoms of dissonance, like nausea or “that sinking feeling,” we are uncomfortable entering into realms that challenge our basic belief systems.  The easiest way for us to deal with this confusion is to block our attempts to understand the dissonance and move on to other activities.
  • 4.      Peer Groups.  Our nature is intensely social, so we depend upon the creation and maintenance of shared realities, supported by colleagues, friends, partners, etc.  We derive pleasure from these relationships and from “fitting in” to a peer group, a department or college, etc.  Leaving the shared reality of our close associates is uncomfortable, potentially depriving us of pleasant company, and this can be scary.
  • 5.      Proportionality.  The more the basic values and “truths” are different in a new paradigm, the more assumptions that are challenged, the more intense all of the above obstacles can be.

Our traditional disciplines are vital to our future.  Transdisciplinarity will not replace them.  The best known advocate for transdisciplinary, Basarab Nicolescu discussed in his article, “The Transdisciplinary Evolution of Learning1,” the “Declaration of Locarno,” adopted by the participants at a 1997 UNESCO International Congress on “What University for Tomorrow?”2  The group’s proposal “recommended to devote 10% of the teaching time in each discipline to transdisciplinarity.”

To the credit of our existing educational and disciplary-based systems, new multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary fields are emerging to fill in some of the large gaps in between the silos of academia.  However, at the same time, we are digging deeper into sub-specialties and sub-sub specialties as if the answer to being stuck in a hole is to dig deeper.  In order to train ourselves and our top students to be able to see outside of the existing assumption-based (disciplinary) options we have, we will need to cultivate transdisciplinary thinking. 

There are patterns and relationships, concepts and perspectives that can help our species live sustainably that we cannot yet envision.  Interestingly enough, one group that most readily engages transdisciplinary thinking is entrepreneurs.  Not wedded to any given discipline, small, local businesses, especially when partnered with relevant technical specialists, are in a position to identify new opportunities, new ways of doing things.  One of the tasks of our universities is to facilitate and cultivate such problem-solving.

It may well be that our educational efforts are most critically directed to our young people.  Rather than cultivating reductionist education (e.g., STEM) for everyone, we should encourage creative thinking across all groups in society.  Honestly, we cannot afford to continue to reinforce narrow visions and group think when it is increasingly vital that we have leaders at all levels of society able to grasp the “big picture” and influence society towards mindful and rational decision making.  By the time one gets to graduate school, there is strong pressure to specialize and carve out a tiny area of competence rather than generalize and round out the varied skills necessary to be an effective, thoughtful global citizen.

Will we be sufficiently open-minded to let go of the “tried and true” so that we encourage the thinking and research that will open up the new possibilities?  Consider the anthropocene!  Today’s young people are growing up in an era that is far more aware of the impacts of humans on our world.  They have already experienced a quantum change in consciousness and we need to build upon that.  Otherwise, we can keep our heads buried inside the traditional disciplines with which we and our predecessors have painted humanity into the corner in which we now find ourselves. 

As Einstein remarked, we can’t solve our problems by thinking in the same ways that created them.  Transdisciplinarity is the process by which Einstein synthesized his revolutionary ideas using the tools of the disciplines he knew, but using his imagination to create ideas and relationships that would not have been imaginable to the average physicist of his day.  And, as I can attest, his larger theory is still not fully imaginable to some of us today.

Additional Resource
The most thorough set of references for transdisciplinarity involve the work of Dr. Basarab Nicolescu, author of “Transdisciplinary Theory and Practice.”3 Dr. Nicolescu is President, Centre International de Recherches et d’Etudes Transdisciplinaires (CIRET), International Center for Transdisciplinary Research, located in Paris, France.  Their website is:

Note:  There is background information, but this may or may not mend the cognitive dissonance issues that can make this concept of transdisciplinarity difficult to grasp/accept.  Transdisciplinary is not a specialty or a discipline.  Like systems thinking, it is a perspective, a reformulation of reality that removes some of the irrationality the proponents feel permeates the world views of even esteemed scientists and intellectuals. 

1Nicolescu, Basarab, “The Transdisciplinary Evolution of Learning,” Online, 1999, April 10,, accessed August 31, 2014.
2International Congress What University for Tomorrow? Towards a transdisciplinary evolution of the university. UNESCO, Locarno, Switzerland, April 30 - May 2, 1997. Translations available at CIRET,
3Nicolescu, Basarab, Transdisciplinary Theory and Practice, Hampton Press, U.S.A. 2008

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