Transdisciplinarity for Climate Change and Social Transformations

By Dr Claire Hoolohan

The challenges that face society today are complex, requiring approaches and solutions that push the boundaries of individual disciplines and demand new models of research that are integrative and collaborative.  

CAST – the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations – focuses on four aspects of everyday life; the food we eat, the ways we travel, the ways we manage temperature within our homes, and the consumption of physical products. Reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with each of these is critically important if we are to mitigate climate change and achieve a sustainable, low-carbon society, and transformations in each of these areas will be necessary to ensure our efforts to adapt to climate change impacts are effective and enduring.

Each of these areas require strategies that go beyond technical intervention, yet, have also proven stubbornly resilient to interventions intended to alter behaviour and routines in order to reduce their environmental impact. CAST recognises this, and seeks solutions that integrate insights from across multiple disciplines in novel ways to effect change in everyday action, and achieve sustainable outcomes.

A transdisciplinary Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations

It is now widely accepted that addressing climate change is not just about engineering solutions to change technology and infrastructural systems, but also requires research that engages richly and deeply with the potential for change across all of society. The Centre will mark a step-change in the way that sustainable behaviours, lifestyles and practices are studied by social and environmental scientists, bringing together a multi-disciplinary community of scholars and practitioners.

In the words of Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, the Centre’s Director, this team is united by a common interest “in the fundamental question of how we can live differently and better”. CAST uses a transdisciplinary action research model to ensure that the widest range of experience and understanding can be brought to bear on climate change, in an effort to identify many pathways towards sustainability, including those that might fundamentally challenge current trends in scientific research, governance and everyday routine.

Transdisciplinary research means that non-academic partners are involved alongside academics of various disciplines throughout the design and delivery of the research in order to increase its quality and relevance. Action research means the research is offers tangiable outcomes and learning opportunities for all involved, in order to accelerate sustainable transformations. But what transdisciplinary action research entails can be hard to articulate and similarly difficult to practice.

It is not about people of many backgrounds coming together to explore a shared problem only to retreat back into their disciplines to solve it. Nor is it necessarily about becoming an expert in each other’s fields. Instead, it’s about working extensively, respectfully and creatively together to develop methods, interpretations, insights and applications that meaningfully combine ideas from different research partners. This can increase the efficacy of research by enabling better representation of complex challenges, but more importantly, it can foster critical dialogue and creative planning to challenge the intellectual assumptions that arise within a single sector or discipline.

Politics, research and sustainable transformation

Research is inherently political. The design and delivery of research projects, and the nature of their outcomes, are shaped by the perspectives of the research team, the landscape of funding, politics and public opinion in which the research is situated, and conventions around scientific methods and reporting.

This means that research accentuates certain possibilities for societal change, with less attention paid to others. To date, research and action on sustainability has prioritised technological and economic solutions, and educational initiatives that assume greater understanding of the challenge’s society faces will naturally lead to increased action on sustainability. These approaches have thus far proven ineffective in providing the depth and longevity of change needed to address climate change at the required pace.

Responding to climate change, both to adapt to its emerging impacts and to mitigate emissions requires unconventional methods and approaches. Transdisciplinary action research is one such approach, in which deep collaboration between actors from different disciplines and those outside of academia (including publics, businesses, non-governmental organisations and policy-makers) brings forth alternative research insights. The more actors that are meaningfully involved in transdisciplinary research, the greater potential there exists to transform supply-demand systems.

The processes and methods of transdisciplinary studies enable reflexive learning that supports the critical evaluation of existing initiatives and the creative development of alternative strategies. Perhaps most importantly, transdisciplinary research helps us to see beyond the limits of existing understandings, assumptions, practices and policies, and create new pathways for change.

CAST’s transdisciplinary research

CAST takes a pragmatic, experimental approach that is designed to inspire learning that will benefit the project partners and wider society. 

Our research will focus on various aspects of climate change and society, including:

  • Understanding different visions for the future, thinking not only about what may be technologically feasible in the short term, but what is necessary, possible and desirable to achieve a sustainable low-carbon society.
  • Investigating how and why high-carbon actions of individuals, households, communities and organizations, and governments arise and change; and how the relationships (both direct and indirect) between different actors effect the outcomes of each other’s action.
  • Identifying different mechanisms for change that lie in different organizational and geographical settings, including social norms and discourses; socio-cultural context; and the material, technological and infrastructural setting in which everyday action occurs.
  • Exploring opportunities for purposive sustainable transformation throughout society, and how integrated action might be supported through distributed networks of societal actors.

To research these themes, we draw together methods and theories of change from different disciplines (both within the social sciences and out with). These are used to develop novel empirical insights, to explore overlapping themes, drive innovation in theory and methods to contribute to sustainability studies, and to further understand how policies and practical actions can support transformations to a sustainable society.  

Final reflection

CAST’s continuous program of engagement between researchers from different institutions, disciplinary and career stages, the public, and an extensive range of non-academic partners ensures a meaningful dialogue that supports action on climate change.

For me, as an interpretive social scientist and Early Career Researcher within the Centre, I am particularly excited by the opportunity to co-design an experiment, working with leading academics from other disciplines, with practitioners such as 10:10 and Anglian Water, while maintaining a transparent and reciprocal exchange of ideas with the public. That this experiment is designed to tangibly contribute to reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in at least some small way is of substantial importance to me, as we live in a time where it is vital that academic research directly contributes to accelerating transitions towards sustainability. 

The commitment to produce research that has both conceptual novelty and practical impact is refreshing, and the already growing relationships between members of different institutions with different understandings of social change seems essential to contribute to sustainable transformation.

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