The University of Arizona

A political ecology of transdisciplinary research

Hali Healy


Transdisciplinary research (TDR) is widely regarded as a promising, and even essential, means of addressing complex sustainability problems, whilst delivering beneficial outcomes for scientists and the non-academic actors with whom they engage. Premised on the 'ecological modernisation' of Europe, regional funding for TDR under Framework Programmes such as FP7 and more recently Horizon 2020 have sought to support academic engagement with a wide range of research stakeholders through calls for transdisciplinary research  in order to better address Europe's "grand societal challenges" (EC 2013). This article, based on doctoral research, consists of an ex-post study of three European Union funded transdisciplinary projects (CREPE, EJOLT and GAP2) implemented under the Seventh Framework's (2007-2013) Science in Society program. Its focus is on how issues of power and governance permeate TDR projects, giving rise to tensions, challenges and ultimately struggles over the very meaning of official projects and their outcomes, despite the most egalitarian of intentions and underlying principles of mutual benefit. These tensions, this article argues, should be understood not merely as cultural, methodological or cognitive challenges, but as essentially political conflicts that manifest and flow across multiple scales. In light of these inherent challenges, the article argues that TDR is always conducted on a terrain of political ecology, and concludes by making recommendations for potential collaborators, as well as for European research policy makers, with the objective of enabling participants and funders alike to realise the transformative potential of this promising mode of research.

Keywords: Political ecology of transdisciplinary research, power, governance, Science in Society, European research agenda, agro-ecology, environmental justice, fisheries          

Full Text:



Aniekwe, C.C., R. Hayman, A. Mdee, J. Akuni, P. Lall, and D. Stevens. 2012. Academic-NGO collaboration in international development research: a reflection on the issues. Development Studies Association (UK and Ireland) and the International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC), University of Bradford and World Vision UK.

Avcı, D., F. Adaman, and B. Özkaynak. 2010. Valuation languages in environmental conflicts: how stakeholders oppose or support gold mining at Mount Ida, Turkey. Ecological Economics 70(2): 228-238.

Beck, U. 1999. World risk society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Beck, U., S. Lash and B. Wynne. 1992. Risk society: towards a new modernity. London: Sage.

Borchelt, R.E., L.T. Friedmann, and E. Holland. 2010. Managing the trust portfolio: science public relations and social responsibility. In G. Kennedy and G. Overholser (eds.). Science and the media. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Pp. 64-93.

Burchel, G., C. Gordon and P. Miller. 1991. The Foucault effect: studies in governmentality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Callon, M. and J. Law. 1982. On interests and their transformation: enrolment and counter-enrolment. Social Studies of Science 12(4): 615-625.

Callon, M. 1986. The sociology of an actor-network: the case of the electric vehicle. In M. Callon, J. Law and A. Rip (eds.). Mapping the dynamics of science and technology. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Pp. 19-34.

Casas-Cortés, M.I., M. Osterweil and D.E. Powell. 2008. Blurring boundaries: recognizing knowledge-practices in the study of social movements. Anthropological Quarterly (81)1: 17-58.

Chilvers, J. and M. Kearnes (eds.). 2016. Remaking participation: science, environment and emergent publics. London: Routledge.

Clapp, J. 2014. Second EJOLT evaluation report, Barcelona. Available at [Accessed 15/09/2019].

CREPE. 2009. Work Package 3: Water scarcity and its virtual export from Spain to the UK. Deliverable D3.1: Workshop report. Available at [Accessed Sept 15 2019].

CREPE. 2010a. Annex I - Revised description of work. London: Open University.

CREPE. 2010b Work Package 3: Water scarcity and its virtual export from Spain to the UK. Available at: [Accessed 10/04/2019].

CREPE. 2010c Work Package 8: Cooperative research processes in CREPE: final report. Available at: [Accessed 29/08/2016].

CREPE. 2011 Agricultural innovation: sustaining what agriculture? For what European bio-economy? Final project report. Available at: Accessed 15/09/2019].

Dutta, U. 2014. Critical ethnography. In J. Mills and M. Birks. (eds.). Qualitative methodology: a practical guide. London: Sage. Pp. 89-106.

Edelman, M. 2009. Synergies and tensions between rural social movements and professional researchers. Journal of Peasant Studies 36(1): 245-265.

EJOLT. 2010. Annex I - Description of work. Barcelona: Autonomous University of Barcelona.

EJOLT 2014. Final report summary. Available at [Accessed 10/04/2019]

Engage 2020. Current praxis of policies and activities. Available at [Accessed 10/04/2019].

European Commission, nd. The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), Managing fisheries. Available at [Accessed 10/04/2019].

European Commission. 2006. From science and society to science in society: towards a framework for 'co-operative research'. Available at [Accessed 14/11/2017].

European Commission. 2009. FP7 Capacities Work Programme: Science in Society C(2009)5905 of 29 July 2009.

European Commission. 2010. How ways of doing research are evolving in order to address societal challenges.

Available at [Accessed 29/08/2016].

European Commission. 2012. Monitoring policy and research activities on science in society in Europe (MASIS). Final synthesis report. Available at (accessed 15/09/2019].

European Commission. 2012b. How to evolve the MML - workshop report. Brussels: European Commission.

European Commission. 2013. Horizon 2020 work programme 2014-2015 - science with and for society. Brussels. DG RTD Available at [Accessed 29/08/2016].

Ferretti, M.P. and V. Pavone. 2009. What do civil society organizations expect from participation in science? Lessons from Germany and Spain on the issue of GMOs. Science and Public Policy 36(4): 287-299.

Funtowicz, S. and J. Ravetz. 2003. Post-normal science. In Online encyclopedia of ecological economics. Available from [Accessed on Sept 15 2019].

Funtowicz, S. and J. Ravetz. 1993. The worth of a songbird: ecological economics, as a post-normal science. Ecological Economics 10: 197-207.

Funtowicz, S. and J. Ravetz. 1991. A new scientific methodology for global environmental issues. In R. Costanza (ed.). Ecological economics: the science and management of sustainability. New York: Columbia University Press. Pp. 137-152.

Gall, Eric, G. Millot and C. Neubauer. 2009. Participation of Civil Society Organizations in research, science, technology and civil society science, technology and civil society (STACS). Downloaded Sept 16 2019 from

GAP2, nd, a. Executive summary 18 month progress report. Available at [Accessed 15/09/2019].

GAP2. Nd, b. Norway – coastal cod management. Available at [Accessed 15/09/2019].

GAP2. 2011. First Meeting for Norway's fishermen & scientists. Available at [Accessed 15/09/2019].

GAP2. 2013. 24 months on: progress for Norway case study. Available at [Accessed 15/09/2019].

GAP2. 2014. Annex 1 – "Description of Work". Lowestoft, UK: Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.

Gibbons, M., C. Limoges, H. Nowotny, S. Schwartzman, P. Scott, and M. Trow. 1994. The new production of knowledge: the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. London: Sage.

Giddens, A. 1995. Beyond Left and Right. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Goeminne, G. and E. Paredis. 2008. The concept of ecological debt: an environmental justice approach to sustainability, calling for radical transitions in industrialised countries. In S. Vemuri (ed.) Connected accountabilities: environmental justice and global citizenship. Oxford: Interdisciplinary Press. Pp. 36-71.

Görg, C., J. Spangenberg, V. Tekken, B. Burkhard, D. Thanh Truong, M. Escalada, K. Luen Heong, G. Arida, L.V. Marquez, J. Victor Bustamante and H. Van Chien. 2014. Engaging local knowledge in biodiversity research: experiences from large inter-and transdisciplinary projects. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 39(4): 323-341.

Greyl, L., H. Healy, E. Leonardi and L. Temper. 2012. Stop that train! Ideological conflict and the TAV. Economics and Policy of Energy and the Environment 8: 219-244.

Hadorn, G.H., S. Biber-Klemm, W. Grossenbacher-Mansuy, H. Hoffmann-Riem, D. Joye, C. Pohl, U. Wiesmann and E. Zemp (eds.). 2008. Handbook of transdisciplinary research. Zurich: Springer.

Hadorn, G.H., D. Bradley, C. Pohl, S. Rist and U. Wiesmann. 2006. Implications of transdisciplinarity for sustainability research. Ecological Economics 60(1): 119-128.

Hajer, M.A. 1995. The politics of environmental discourse: ecological modernization and the policy process. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Irwin, A. 2006. The politics of talk: coming to terms with the 'new' scientific governance. Social Studies of Science 36(2): 299-320.

Irwin, A. 2008. STS perspectives on scientific governance. In U. Felt, R. Fouche, C. Miler and L. Smith-Doer (eds.). The handbook of science and technology studies (4th ed.). Cambridge: MIT Press. Pp. 583-608.

Jahn, T., M. Bergmann and F. Keil. 2012. Transdisciplinarity: between mainstreaming and marginalization. Ecological Economics 79: 1-10.

Jasanoff, S. 1996. Beyond epistemology: relativism and engagement in the politics of science. Social Studies of Science 26(2): 393-418.

Jasanoff, S. (ed.). 2004. States of knowledge: the co-production of science and the social order. London: Routledge.

Jasper, J.M. 2004. A strategic approach to collective action. Mobilisation 9(1): 1-16.

Kuhn, R., G. Mbungu, E. Anderson, B. Chonkova, Z. Damianova, H. Davis, S. Dencker, M.L. Jørgensen, V. Kozarev, G. Larsen, H. Mulder and S. Pfersdorf. Engage 2020: Report on current praxis of policies and activities supporting societal engagement in research and innovation. Available from [Accessed April 10 2019].

Lang, D.J., A. Wiek, M. Bergmann, M. Stauffacher, P. Martens, P. Moll, M. Swilling and C.J. Thomas. 2012. Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science 7(1): 25-43.

Latour, B. 1987. Science in action: how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Levidow, L. and S. Oreszczyn. 2012. Challenging unsustainable development through research cooperation. Local Environment 17(1): 35-56.

Maasen, S. and O. Lieven. 2006. Transdisciplinarity: a new mode of governing science? Science and Public Policy 33(6): 399-410.

Madison, D.S. 2005. Critical ethnography: method. ethics, and performance. Thousand Oaks.

Mackinson, S. 2013. Bridging the gap between science, stakeholders and policy makers. Presentation to DG Research & Innovation, 26th September 2013.

Martinez-Alier, J. 2002. Mining conflicts, environmental justice and valuation. In Agyeman, J., R.D. Bullard and B. Evans (eds.). Just sustainabilities: development in an unequal world. Cambridge: MIT Press. Pp. 153-170.

Martinez-Alier, J. 2009. Social metabolism, ecological distribution conflicts, and languages of valuation. Capitalism Nature Socialism 20(1): 58–87.

Martinez-Alier, J., I. Anguelovski, P. Bond, D. Del Bene, F. Demaria, J.F. Gerber, L. Greyl, W. Haas, H. Healy, V. Marín-Burgos, G. Ojo, M. Porto, L. Rijnhout, B. Rodríguez-Labajos, J. Spangenberg, L. Temper, R. Warlenius and I. Yánez. 2014. Between activism and science: grassroots concepts for sustainability coined by Environmental Justice Organizations. Journal of Political Ecology 21(1): 19-60.

Meynen, N. and L. Sébastien. 2013. Environmental Justice and Ecological Debt in Belgium: the UMICORE case. In H. Healy, J. Martinez-Alier, M. Walter and J.F. Gerber (eds.). Ecological economics from the ground up. London: Routledge. Pp. 450-484.

Mol, A.P. 1995. The refinement of production. ecological modernization theory and the chemical industry. Utrecht: Van Arkel.

Mosse, D. 2005. Cultivating development: an ethnography of policy and practice. London: Pluto Press.

Murphy, J. and A. Gouldson. 2000. Environmental policy and industrial innovation: integrating environment and economy through ecological modernisation. Geoforum 31(1): 33-44.

Norgaard, R.B. 2008. The implications of interdisciplinary scientific assessments for environmental governance. In J. Ranganathan, M. Munasinghe and F. Irwin (eds.) Policies for sustainable governance of global ecosystem services. London: Edward Elgar. Pp. 235-253.

Nowotny, H. 2003. Democratising expertise and socially robust knowledge. Science and Public Policy 30(3): 151-156.

O'Connor, M. 1999. Dialogue and debate in a post-normal practice of science: a reflexion. Futures 31(7): 671-687.

Peet, R., P. Robbins, and M.J. Watts (eds.). 2010. Global political ecology. London: Routledge.

Pohl, C. 2008. From science to policy through transdisciplinary research. Environmental Science and Policy 11(1): 46-53.

Pohl, C. and G.H. Hadorn. 2008. Methodological challenges of transdisciplinary research. Natures Sciences Sociétés 16(2): 111-121.

Popa, F., M. Guillermin and T. Dedeurwaerdere. 2015. A pragmatist approach to transdisciplinarity in sustainability research: from complex systems theory to reflexive science. Futures 65: 45-56.

Roper, L. 2002. Achieving successful academic-practitioner research collaborations. Development in Practice 12(3-4): 338-345.

Rose, N. and P. Miller. 1992. Political power beyond the state: problematics of government. British Journal of Sociology 61(s1): 173-205.

Russell, A.W., F. Wickson and A.L. Carew. 2008. Transdisciplinarity: context, contradictions and capacity. Futures 40(5): 460-472.

Siebenhüner, B. 2008. Learning in international organizations in global environmental governance. Global Environmental Politics 8(4): 92-116.

Spaapen, J. and L. van Drooge. 2011. Introducing 'productive interactions' in social impact assessment. Research Evaluation 20(3): 211–218.

Spangenberg, J.H. 2011. Sustainability science: a review, an analysis and some empirical lessons. Environmental Conservation 38(3): 275-287.

Stevens, D., R. Hayman and A. Mdee. 2013. Cracking collaboration between NGOs and academics in development research. Development in Practice 23(8): 1071-1077.

Söderbaum, P. 2007. Science, ideology and development: is there a 'Sustainability Economics?'. Post-Autistic Economics Review 43: 24-41.

Sugiyama, M., S. Asayama, T. Kosugi, A.Ishii, S. Emori, J. Adachi, K. Akimoto, M. Fujiwara, T. Hasegawa, Y. Hibi and K. Hirata. 2017. Transdisciplinary co-design of scientific research agendas: 40 research questions for socially relevant climate engineering research. Sustainability Science 12(1): 31-44.

van Oudheusden, M. 2014. Where are the politics in responsible innovation? European governance, technology assessments, and beyond. Journal of Responsible Innovation 1(1): 67-86.

Wiek, A., B. Ness, P. Schweizer-Ries, F.S. Brand and F. Farioli. 2012. From complex systems analysis to transformational change: a comparative appraisal of sustainability science projects. Sustainability Science 7(1): 5-24.

World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wynne, B. 2006. Public engagement as a means of restoring public trust in science–hitting the notes, but missing the music? Public Health Genomics 9(3): 211-220.