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The role of learning in transdisciplinary research: moving from a normative concept to an analytical tool through a practice-based approach

Journal article
Authors Lars Westberg
Merritt Polk
Published in Sustainability Science
Volume 11
Issue 3
Pages 385-397
ISSN 1862-4065
Publication year 2016
Published at School of Global Studies
Pages 385-397
Language en
Keywords Transdisciplinary research, Situated learning, Sociocultural theory, Sustainability, sustainability research, power relations, knowledge, science, communities, management, boundaries, framework, projects, future, Environmental Sciences & Ecology
Subject categories Earth and Related Environmental Sciences


Transdisciplinary (TD) research is an example of a participatory research approach that has been developed to address the complexity of societal problems through the exchange of knowledge and expertise across diverse groups of societal actors. The concept of knowledge exchange is central to the ability of TD research to produce usable knowledge. There is, however, limited theoretical attention to the processes that enable knowledge exchange, namely learning. In this article, we analyze the "transferability" of knowledge generated in TD research settings from a practice-based approach. In this approach, learning and knowing are seen as situated in social practices, in meaning making processes where the involved participants make sense of what they do and why they do it. We describe and analyze three TD projects, and discuss the role of practitioners' perspectives in the interpretation of the tasks and realization of TD, and in the consequences this has for the organization of the research process and the usability of its results. The analysis shows that while the project teams were given the same task and framework, they did not understand or enact TD in a similar fashion. The three projects created different goals and organizations. They also resulted in different challenges, which could be identified and analyzed by the use of a practice-based approach to learning. In the conclusions, we identify aspects for both practice and research that are important for creating sufficient conditions for learning in TD research processes so that they can better promote contributions to societal change.

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