Sustainability Science

, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp 365–379 | Cite as

Transdisciplinarity as a real-world challenge: a case study on a North–South collaboration

  • Laura SchmidtEmail author
  • Michael Pröpper
Original Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Concepts, Methodology, and Knowledge Management for Sustainability Science


Transdisciplinarity (TD) has become a buzzword, promoted as a suitable approach to address today’s urgent challenges in human-environment interactions. Looking at its practical implementation, however, challenges still remain to be met. Despite the concept’s popularity, it seems difficult to reconcile the idea of knowledge co-production with research realities. Taking a TD research project dealing with sustainable land management in Southern Africa (Angola, Botswana, and Namibia) as a case study, we aim to provide empirically based insights into the real-world application of this collaborative research approach to improve the general understanding of TD research in the making. Based on semi-structured interviews with project partners and stakeholders, we reveal the underlying interests, mismatching institutions and structures of power shaping the TD research process in this North–South collaboration. We identified TD as falling victim to a kind of “tragedy of the commons”, paralysed between existing power structures and conflicting interests, and being considered as extra work instead of an integral task with an inherent value in itself. By demonstrating some of the underlying causes of the challenging practice of TD, we reveal starting points for changes and provide recommendations that aim to set the base for a more reflexive and fruitful TD knowledge co-production.


Transdisciplinarity North–South partnership Knowledge co-production Reality check Social dilemma Power structures 



This article emerged from research made possible by ‘The Future Okavango’ (TFO) project (, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) (01LL0912A). We are greatly indebted to all stakeholders and researchers in Angola, Botswana, Germany, and Namibia who participated in the interviews, and were willing to share their time, experiences, concerns, and ideas regarding transdisciplinary project work. We especially thank Martina Neuburger, Susanne Stirn, and Manfred Finckh, as well as two anonymous reviewers, for their valuable input on the previous versions of the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Biocentre Klein FlottbekUniversity of HamburgHamburgGermany
  2. 2.Institute for Social and Cultural AnthropologyUniversity of HamburgHamburgGermany

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