Design features for social learning in transformative transdisciplinary research

Abstract

This article analyses social learning in transdisciplinary research processes by a systematic comparative analysis of 20 completed or nearly completed projects in the field of sustainable development. This article considers the social learning generated by transdisciplinary processes in a broad way. It looks how social learning is embedded in the practical interaction processes between new scientific knowledge, practitioners’ life-world experiences and social experimentation. The analysis finds that three factors in particular play an important role in social learning: the clarification of the normative orientations, the co-construction of the research question and practical problem situation, and the balancing of power asymmetries. While a single criterion may not allow increasing social learning alone, the analysis supports the hypothesis that a combination of these three criteria systematically increases the strength of the social learning generated. Other factors, such as active facilitation modes and the presence of collective interest advocacy organizations, only play a strong role as a condition for generating social learning in some specific types of transdisciplinary research.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to gratefully thanking the anonymous researchers whom we have interviewed for their time and for sharing details on projects that they have been involved in. We also would like to thank Charlotte Bréda, Dorothée Denayer, Francois Mélard and Pierre Stassart from the University of Liège for the discussions on the research protocol and their comments on the article. We further thank Marc Maesschalck and Jacques Lenoble for discussions at the Centre for Philosophy of Law (UCLouvain) on earlier versions of the theoretical framework on pragmatist reflexivity. We gratefully acknowledge co-funding from the Walloon Institute for Sustainable Development (WISD, Belgian National Science Foundation FNRS-FRS) in the context of the two projects “Science écocitoyenne-territoire durable” and “Formative scenarios for sustainability”, and co-funding from INNOVIRIS-Anticipate (Brussels Region, Belgium) in the context of the project “Collaborative cities for collaborative entrepreneurs (city4coEN)”. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.

Funding

This study was co-funded by INNOVIRIS-Anticipate (2016-PRFB-22a, project city4coEN) and two FNRS-FRS projects (WISD 2017 “Formative scenarios for sustainability” and WISD 2017 “Science écocitoyenne-territoire durable”).

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Tom Dedeurwaerdere.

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Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Handled by Daniel J. Lang, Dr. Leuphana University of Lueneburg, Germany.

Appendix: Criteria and coding scheme

Appendix: Criteria and coding scheme

Criteria Level
Openness of the co-construction mode Participating actors were co-selected by the various affected actor groups, the method to adopt was co-selected by those groups, they discussed together the objectives through a lot of workshops and alternative tools than discussion have been used (such as picture representations, narratives, etc.) = extremely open (6)
Participating actors were co-selected by the various affected actor groups, the method to adopt was co-selected by those groups, they discussed together the objectives through a lot of workshops, no specific technic to go beyond the tool of discussion OR One specific actor group initiated the process and selected the actors to involve, the method to adopt was co-selected by those groups, they discussed together the objectives through a lot of workshops and alternative tools than discussion have been used = very open (5)
One specific actor group initiated the process and selected the actors to involve, the method to adopt was co-selected by those groups once selected, workshops to co-define and discuss research questions = quite open (4)
One specific actor group initiated the process and selected the actors to involve, the method to adopt was selected by a specific actor group, but workshops to discuss and co-reframe a research question OR group of affected actors co-selected the participating actors and method to adopt but research question quite framed by a specific actor group = medium openness (3)
One specific actor group initiated the process and selected the actors to involve on a really selective way, the method to adopt was selected by a specific actor group, the organization of the workshops to discuss a research question already framed by the researchers = low openness (2)
One specific actor group initiated the process and selected the actors to involve in a really selective manner, the method to adopt was selected by a specific actor group, workshops to get information from non-expert groups on a question already framed, mainly use of data from questionnaires or interviews and no real discussion workshops = not open (1)
Clarification level of the normative background Normative orientations and agendas openly discussed and use of tools to make actors understand each other’s viewpoint, history etc. = extremely explicit (6)
Normative orientations and agendas openly discussed and clear attention to explicit them all along the process = very explicit (5)
Normative orientations and agenda openly discussed in some phases and was quite explicit but some elements were not clearly made explicit because judged not necessary OR this clarification was not the first priority of the transdisciplinary process even though judged really important = quite explicit (4)
Normative orientation and agenda was quite explicit but many elements were sometimes not explicit enough = medium clarification (3)
Normative background and agenda from any actor seem not really explicit, but not clearly hidden by any of them neither = low clarification (2)
Normative background from most actors remained hidden, purposely or not = not explicit (1)
Activity level of the facilitation mode Facilitators have strong normative stance shared with the practitioners and lead a lot of interventions to involve the participants, drive the transdisciplinary process towards a goal that has been co-defined = extremely active (6)
Facilitators have a strong normative stance shared with the practitioners and lead intervention when necessary to bring the project forward in the collaboration process toward this goal OR Facilitators do not have a specific strong stance but lead a lot of interventions by researching and provide information and space for discussion = very active (5)
Facilitator do not have a strong stance on the shared goals (or try not to show it) apart from making the collaboration process happening democratically, leads interventions to involved the participants when necessary = quite active (4)
Facilitators do not have a strong stance apart from making the collaboration process happening democratically, no strong interventions as proposing ideas = medium activity (3)
Facilitators do not have a strong stance in the process, do not lead intervention and are passive to answer the demand of practitioners and ensuring speaking turns = low activity (2)
Facilitators are really open to any stance that the project can take, do not lead interventions and are passive to answer the demand of practitioners and ensuring speaking turns = not active (1)
Presence of collective interest advocacy organizations (labeled: CIAO) CIAO initiated the project, led a lot of interventions, and drove interventions for a follow-up of the process toward “collaboration for common goals in the general interest” (labeled below: CG) = extremely strong presence (6)
CIAOs initiated the project, led a lot of interventions but reduced their interventions after a certain period (often realized that their vision was not creating a process towards CG) or did not propose a specific follow-up; or CIAOs did not initiate the project but use the project as a way to lead a lot of interventions for CG and propose to lead interventions for a follow-up process = very strong presence (5)
CIAOs did not initiate the project but use the project as a way to lead interventions for CG, but do not propose to lead interventions for a follow-up process; or good collaboration in the project without specific presence of CIAOs during the process but CIAOs propose to lead an intervention for a follow-up project = quite strong presence (4)
No actor was strongly pushing to reach CG initially but empowerment appeared and some actors decided to push more and get more active for CG but did not propose a follow up; or low amount of non-influential actors tried to be CIAOs but did not manage to influence strongly the all group by their vision = medium presence (3)
No actor strongly pushed to reach CG but some common collaboration accepted by all and efforts made from involved actors to bring the project forward without leading interventions = low presence (2)
No actor was specifically pushing the process to reach CG, most actors were focused on their interest = no presence (1)
Balance of power distribution (BPG) Good management of the process by availability of the resources (time, money, knowledge or participation) to all and well-thought strategies to balance power distribution = extremely good balance (6)
Good management of the process by availability of the resources to all, strategies to balance power distribution but some powerful actors involved have had a larger influence on the orientation of the goal (ex. policy based or action based) or resources have lacked for a follow-up project; or no specific need for balancing any power imbalance = very good balance (5)
Good management of counter-influential actors but one resource (time, money, knowledge or participation) was limiting the process for some actors and some powerful actors involved have had a larger influence on the orientation of the goal or some resources (time, money, knowledge or participation) were limiting the process for some actors but the project adapted to this limitation = quite good balance (4)
Good management of some resources but some non-influential actors tried to influence the project to their advantage; or no specific counter-influential actors but some resources limiting and preventing from a follow-up project = medium balance (3)
No specific actor tried to influence the project to their advantage but some resources were very limiting for some actors and no strategy found to counter that; or many or powerful actors tried to influence the project to their advantage and resources were not too limiting and no strategy found to counter that = low balance (2)
Very strong constraints in terms of different resources (time, money, knowledge, participation), an actor obstructed the process or an actor even prevented the process from happening and no strategy found to counter that = no balance (1)
Social learning level Challenge of the status quo of the understanding of the practical problem situation [visible through a change in representations of the situation (the causal relationships, the social norms, the power structures)] + internal challenge of the research question (epistemological and questioning of research objectives and sustainability values) + social sharing of the results amongst researchers and practitioners (by linking scientific reflection, practitioners experience and social experimentation): all present to a high degree or more = extremely good social learning (6)
Challenge of the status quo of the understanding of the practical problem situation + internal challenge of the research question + social sharing of the results: some present to a moderate degree or more and with an average score over the three criteria of high learning = very good social learning (5)
Challenge of the status quo of the understanding of the practical problem situation + internal challenge of the research question + social sharing of the results: all three criteria fulfilled to some degree and with an average score over the three criteria of moderate learning = quite good social learning (4)
Challenge of the status quo of the understanding of the practical problem situation + internal challenge of the research question + partial social sharing of the results: all three criteria fulfilled to some degree, but only weak social sharing of the results (third criterion) = weak social learning (3)
None of the aspects changed, but real collaboration existed to initiate the learning process on the change in understanding of practical problem situation and research questions = very low social learning (2)
None of the aspects = no social learning (1)

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Herrero, P., Dedeurwaerdere, T. & Osinski, A. Design features for social learning in transformative transdisciplinary research. Sustain Sci 14, 751–769 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-018-0641-7

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Keywords

  • Transdisciplinarity
  • Transformative research
  • Social learning
  • Sustainability transitions
  • Facilitation