Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Transdisciplinary synthesis

Richard Eckersley

The following commentary by Australia 21 foundation director Richard Eckersley provides a valuable insight into Australia 21’s raison d’ĂȘtre and its approach to complex multidisciplinary problems.

It is taken from:

Eckersley, R. 2007. Culture. In Galea, S. (ed). Macrosocial Determinants of Population Health, Springer, New York, pp. 193-209.

Transdisciplinary synthesis

There is growing scientific recognition of the importance of multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research (with each term representing an increasing level of disciplinary fusion) (Rosenfield, 1992, Bammer, 2005). Transdisciplinary research is fundamentally about synthesis. While empirical research seeks to improve understanding of the world through the creation of new knowledge, synthesis creates new understanding by combining and integrating existing knowledge from across a range of fields, disciplines and sciences (Eckersley, 2005).

Despite its potential, synthesis remains underused in science. Costanza (2003) calls for a dissolving of the barriers between traditional disciplines. A 'consilient transdisciplinary science' will emerge from a 'rebalancing of analysis and synthesis', he writes, a balance that is missing from most current university research and education. Bammer (2005), in setting out the case for establishing a new specialization of integration and implementation sciences, says recent advances in this area are not yet embedded in mainstream academic activity. 'At best, they have led to issue-focused, cross-disciplinary research centers. At worst, individual researchers are isolated at the margins of their departments.'

The value of synthesis goes beyond reviewing, summarizing and multidisciplinary research per se. Transdisciplinary investigation aims to develop new common conceptual frameworks, creating a new level of coherence (Higginbotham, Albrecht & Connor, 2001, cited in Bammer, 2005). There are two general ways for doing this: having an individual synthesize findings from many disciplines to provide a comprehensive explanation of a complex issue, or creating a team whose members work together on this task.

Synthesis raises several important conceptual issues (Eckersley, 2005; Bammer, 2005): it strives for coherence in the overall picture rather than precision in the detail; it dispenses with expectations of scientific certainty and exactness, including with respect to cause and effect - everything is provisional, and relationships are often reciprocal; and it challenges Occam's Razor, as noted at the beginning of the chapter.*

As already discussed, disciplines draw on different conceptual frameworks and approaches, which yield different evidence and interpretations. Much remains to be done to integrate and reconcile these perspectives. In doing this, synthesis yields several intellectual and policy benefits: it adds value to existing specialized knowledge; reduces disciplinary biases; transcends (at least potentially) interdisciplinary tensions; improves researchers' knowledge outside their specialization; generates new research questions; is especially useful in examining complex systems; and enhances the application of knowledge. Concerning application, synthesis improves the fit between research and policy; strengthens the links between research and advocacy; is particularly appropriate for addressing the increasing scale, magnitude, complexity and interconnectedness of human problems; and suits the complex, diffuse processes of social change.

In dissolving disciplinary boundaries, synthesis exposes the 'false consensus' that can develop within disciplines, which then defines, and limits, the research questions asked. Examples include, as already noted, epidemiology's focus on socio-economic inequality, and anthropology's on 'small-scale' cultural effects. But such gains are not easily won. The cultures of scientific disciplines are like the cultures of societies: so ingrained that they appear to be the natural and right way to look at the world. For example, in a recent transdisciplinary project on young people's potential and wellbeing (Eckersley, Wierenga & Wyn, 2006), the authors could not agree on key issues, and even had trouble agreeing on how to disagree. Rather than disguising or blunting these differences with careful wording, they have highlighted them as a significant outcome of the project.

*The 14th Century English philosopher (and heretic), William of Occam, stated in his famous razor that 'entities must not be unnecessarily multiplied'. Roughly translated, this means 'the simplest theory that fits the facts corresponds most closely to reality'. Occam's Razor has a wide application in science. However, when dealing with complex systems like human societies, comprising many entities that often interact in multiple, weak, diffuse and non-linear ways, we may have to 'multiply entities' beyond what seems at first to be necessary.


Bammer, G. (2005). Integration and implementation sciences: building a new specialization. Ecology and Society, 10 (2), 6-36.

Costanza, R. (2003). A vision of the future of science: Reintegrating the study of humans and the rest of nature. Futures, 35, 651-671.

Eckersley, R. (2005) Well & good: Morality, meaning and happiness. 2nd ed. Melbourne: Text Publishing.

Eckersley, R., Wierenga, A., & Wyn, J. (2006), Flashpoints and signposts: Pathways to success and wellbeing for Australia's young people. Canberra and Melbourne: Australia 21 Ltd, Australian Youth Research Centre, and VicHealth. http://www.australia21.org.au/pdf/HPreport.pdf

Rosenfield, P. (1992). The potential of transdisciplinary research for sustaining and extending linkages between the health and social sciences. Social Science & Medicine, 35, 1343-1357.

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