1/22 – Du Plessis, Sehume and Martin. (2013). The Concept and Application of Transdisciplinarity in Intellectual Discourse and Research

January-February 2014 / Book Reviews

Hester Du Plessis, Jeffery Sehume and Leonard Martin. (2013). The Concept and Application of Transdisciplinarity in Intellectual Discourse and Research. Johannesburg, South Africa: Real African Publishers.

Sue L.T. McGregor

Sue L.T. McGregor

Sue L.T. McGregor

TransdisciplinaryIn March 2011, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) was launched in South Africa, www.mistra.org.za It is an independent research institute (a think tank) that takes a long-term view on the strategic challenges facing South Africa. In case you were wondering, Mapungubwe was a pre-colonial, ancient Southern African Kingdom (circa 1200), located in the far northern parts of the country of South Africa. Mapungubwe means “place of black boulders” with others claiming it means “the hill of the jackal” or “a revered place.” It is heralded as a civilization of high culture with its society described as the most complex in southern Africa at the time. In contemporary times, Mapungubwe is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a South African National Heritage Site, a national park, and an archaeological site.

MISTRA honours this rich history by endeavouring to learn from the African past, which includes the rise and fall of once great civilizations, including Mapungubwe. To that end, it chose the Golden Sceptreas its motif. The sceptre represents the authority and wisdom of leadership in communion with society. The sceptre is one of three precious artefacts found at the Mapungubwe archaeological site, the others being a Golden Bowl and a Golden Rhinoceros. MISTRA’s mission is “to advance South Africa’s development by addressing the complex challenges that straddle issues of nation-formation, economic growth, social equity, science and technology, and positioning in a globalised world.”

History lesson aside, in 2011, MISTRA immediately put in place eight priority research projects, one of which dealt with transdisciplinarity, chosen as the principal methodology that would guide and support the other seven projects. They reasoned that the problems faced by Africa require “an approach that transcends narrow disciplines” and proposed transdisciplinarity because of “its transformative value in accounting for the complex problems besetting humankind” (p.10). They especially envisioned their project as the impetus for South Africa to “become a full part of the nascent global initiatives on transdisciplinarity” (p. 11). In fact, they maintained that the concept of transdisciplinarity is already part of the African world-view (p. 56) and hoped to stimulate intellectual discourse that can lead to an “Afrocentric perspective” on transdisciplinarity (p.18).

Entitled the concept and application of transdisciplinarity in intellectual discourse and research, the results of this  first MITRAS project are contained in this book with the same title, released in September 2013. Within the book, three transdisciplinary, African higher education case studies are book-ended with chapters dealing with the concept of transdisciplinarity. They describe Chapter 1 as “a comprehensive literature review on the intellectual development of trandisciplinarity” and Chapter 5 as “a reflective chapter [that] opens up the topic for further intellectual exploration” (p. 18). Each of the cases reflects field research conducted for this project at three African institutes of higher education, which are starting to apply the transdisciplinary approach: University of Fort Hare, University of Pretoria, and University of Johannesburg. The model for this book mirrors that used by me and Russ Volckmann in Transversity (2011). An explanation of how the authors understand transdisciplinarity prefaces several case studies from higher education, ending with reflections about the future of transdisciplinarity in higher education in the African context.

Du Plessis et al. stated that the intent of Chapter 1 was to “develop a sound theoretical understanding of the more recent developments of transdisciplinarity” (p. 28). I would not change what they have shared in Chapter 1 but I disagree that it serves this primary purpose. This first MISTRA project was to supposed orient think tank members and researchers to the nuances of a transdisciplinary approach so it can guide and support the other projects. Given what I read in Chapter 1, I would say it teased out the origins of push back against the scientific methodology as the only legitimate approach to creating new knowledge, and it gave African researchers permission to challenge dominant Western, scientific thought and their reliance on it as they strive to engage in the other seven projects. After all, the ultimate intent was to develop an understanding of the “potential impact [of transdisciplinarity] on African research” (p. 28), and the impact of African thought on transdisciplinarity.

I suggest that Chapter 1 did not develop a sound theoretical understanding of recent developments of transdisciplinarity; rather, the authors shared a sound historical overview of the evolution of thought leading to the emergence of transdisciplinarity. It was an intellectually ambitious exercise but I think they pulled it off in the space they had. They went as far back as the Renaissance, with Francis Bacon, through the Enlightenment, with Immanuel Kant, to thinkers in Late-modernity (Habermas, Kuhn, Ravetz, Feyerbend, Morin, Montouri, Gibbons, Cilliers, Nicolescu). They eschewed depth for scope (which is appropriate when telling an historical tale) and it was a very intriguing read of a premise with which most of us are familiar. “[T]he past struggles of the ‘against method’ science rebels opened the way for modern day researchers to turn to other disciplines in order to follow this quest for intellectual/theoretical processes of interrogation about the modern complexities arising from science-philosophy-technology” (p. 49). And, while I struggled with some of the authors’ transitions from one idea to another in the chapter, I learned to trust their logic.

And, for those of you who are familiar with the major intellectual events leading up to present day transdisciplinarity, rest assured they are noted in this chapter (p. 50, 54), culminating in their choice to embrace Basarab Nicolescu’s transdisciplinary methodology. At pages 53-54, they all too briefly elaborate on his three major axioms: multiple levels of reality, inclusive logic, and complexity. As do I (McGregor, 2011) and several others (e.g., Cicovacki, 2009),  Du Plessis et al. questioned the absence of axiology (values) from Nicolescu’s methodology. To address this lacuna, they advocated “the deliberate application of praxis and hermeneutics during a transdisciplinary approach” (p. 57). They argued for the inclusion of axiology because it “provides an opportunity to introduce the ideas of Philosophers of Africa” (p. 33). Du Plessis et al. went on to say that without a “transdisciplinary theory of values… [h]ow do we consider the value of objects, systems, cultures, sciences or practices on equal fitting with each other? How do we address the global dominance of Western cultures and sciences… while appropriating a transdisciplinary approach [in Africa]” (p. 144)?

Not surprisingly then, they included African philosophers in their story of the evolution of thinking, notably Emannuel Eze and Dani Nabudere (with others identified at pages 140-141). I loved this part of their accounting of the genesis of transdisciplinarity, especially their belief that “the practice and the concept of transdisciplinarity …. are part of the African world-view” (p. 56). Du Plessis et al. ardently believe that “the African world-view should assist as an intellectual driver” of the process of creating new knowledge, rather than reinforcing already existing, non-African knowledge (p. 59). To that end, they set out a compelling collection of reflective questions at pages 57-59, questions that, when answered, will help bring the African world-view to the core of transdisciplinarity.

A key component of MISTRA’s transdisciplinary project was primary field research leading to case studies of three African higher education institutions that are trying to ‘do’ transdisciplinarity. The results of this primary research are shared in each of three chapters (2, 3 and 4).The case study about the University of Fort Hare’s “efforts to introduce a transdisciplinary approach” (p. 65) is couched in the discourse about the post-colonial transformation of African universities after Apartheid. Although “still in a nascent stage” (p. 85), their Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies created an environment that fosters “transcending the disciplines through a transdisciplinary approach” (p. 85), leading to new African knowledge and social innovation for higher education excellence and social equity. The Centre exists to drive a process of institutional transformation and to facilitate community participation in its academic programs (see Chapter 2).

Chapter 2 focused on a pressing issue in South Africa (that being excellence, equity and an inclusive culture). Likewise, Chapter 3 focused on another issue, “the function of research centers within the HE [higher education] landscape in South Africa” (p. 90). Du Plessis et al. used the Sustainability Energy Technology and Research Centre (SeTAR), at the University of Johannesburg, as the case in point. SeTAR’s inception was informed by the larger African government mandate to provide the ‘knowledge economy’ within Africa with researchers while at the same time working with local communities (sharing knowledge and using their knowledge to inform research). The SeTAR Centre was established in 2008 to study the complexity of climate change, and the founders of the Centre adopted a transdisciplinary approach. Their hope was to ultimately develop “an appropriate Africanised perspective” of climate change (p. 91). Using the data profiled in the case, the authors’ concluded that “the SeTAR Centre serves as an example of the range and scope of the application of trandisciplinarity as a research approach” to the point that the centre has become “a part of the deliberate conceptualisation of transdisciplinarity as part of the [university’s] research programmes” (p. 122).

Their final case focused on Africa’s need for social and environmental justice (a third pressing problem), as portrayed through insights gleaned from the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights (Faculty of Law), established in 1986. Prefaced with a rich and compelling discussion of justice, violence and rights, generally and in the African context, and with the penchant for South African law research to be insular and not inclusive of other disciplines, they lead into their discussion of the Centre’s 2011 “multidisciplinary conference to open up discussions ‘beyond the law’ with the social sciences and humanities” (pp. 147-148).  Although Du Plessis et al. said these three cases serve to illustrate how particular universities are trying to ‘do’ transdisciplinarity, they concluded that the Centre is not there yet. They then argued there is potential for introducing a transdisciplinary approach to African law research through the 10 Human Rights Clinics run by the Centre. Per the primary tenet of transdisciplinarity, they concluded that “the numerous activities at the Centre for Human Rights provide examples of academic/society interactions,” creating a platform from which to launch future discourse about transdisciplinarity in African law research (p.149).

Each case is an intriguing story in its own right, and I expected to see a chapter that shared an analysis reflecting insights drawn by the authors as they reflected on what they had learned through the primary research component of this MITRA project on trandisciplinarity in African higher education institutions. However, this was not present, replaced instead with two other foci: (a) a discussion of the basis of transdisciplinarity and its philosophical origins and locations in history and (b) a discussion of local and international benchmarks to situate the application of transdisciplinarity in higher education. Furthermore, Du Plessis et al. confirmed that Chapter 5 does not attempt to compare their case studies against other international initiatives, but they do see an opportunity to “create conceptual frameworks for assessing local case study examples of transdisciplinarity against international models” (p. 186). To illustrate this point, they chose Arizona State University (ASU) and Funação Getúlio Vargas (FGV), in Rio de Janeiro, as “lightening rods to map new courses” for local contexts (p. 187) (so did McGregor and Volckmann, 2011). Du Plessis et al. concluded that the work accomplished at these two universities “is testament to the still widely-untapped transdisciplinarian potential” (p. 201).

Personally, I would have moved the discussion of the philosophical and historical origins of transdisciplinarity in Chapter 5 (pages159-187) ) to Chapter 1, which had as its intent the development of a sound theoretical understanding of recent developments of transdisciplinarity. Then, I would have undertaken an analysis of what was learned from the three cases and placed this analysis in Chapter 5, before the interesting discussion of ASU and FGV. This organizational approach would provide a stronger rationale for Du Plessis et al.’s current closing comments about the potential of higher education institutions in the South African locale. They explained that the 2011 South African National Development Plan identified higher education as an important pillar to its developmental and transformation aims. Du Plessis et al. argued that the core of ASU and FGV’s transdisciplinary initiatives is transformation and development, intimating that African institutions have the potential to have the same national and societal impact if they adopted a transdisciplinary approach.

In conclusion, once I started reading, I was compelled to read the book from end-to-end. That is a compliment to the authors, because with case studies, people either read the book ends or the cases, but not necessarily all of the book. I was, however, left wanting more on ‘what is transdisciplinarity’, more explication of their preferred approach, that of Basarab Nicolescu, if only because they intended the project to inform the other seven projects. Conversely, they did make a very strong case for resisting the dominant Western world-view in the African context, and African researchers with the challenge to continue to work “towards an Afrocentric perspective of transdisciplinarity” (p. 18), intimating the South Africa is now on that path. For me, the most compelling contribution of their book is the potential for an African approach to transdisciplinarity, which respects indigenous context and post-colonial evolutions (and the aforementioned MISTRA mission). Even more exciting is the fact that what is learned in South Africa has global implications for other colonized worlds, and colonizers. We can thank the MISTRA think tank for this intellectual, methodological and philosophical transdisciplinary nudge!


Cicovacki, P. (2009). Transdisciplinarity as an interactive method. Integral Leadership Review, 9(5). Retrieved from http://integralleadershipreview.com/4549-feature-article-transdisciplinarity-as-an-interacti ve-method-a-critical-reflection-on-the-three-pillars-of-transdisciplinarity/

McGregor, S. L. T. (2011). Transdisciplinary axiology: To be or not to be. Integral Leadership Review, 11(3). Retrieved from http://integralleadershipreview.com/2011/08/transdisciplinary-axiology-to-be-or-not-to-be/

McGregor, S. L. T., & Volckmann. R. (2011). Transversity: Transdisciplinarity Approaches in Higher Education. Tucson, AZ: Integral Publishers.

About the Author

Sue L. T. McGregor is a Canadian home economist (40 years) at Mount Saint Vincent University, Canada. She is a Professor in the Faculty of Education. Her intellectual work pushes the boundaries of consumer studies and home economics philosophy and leadership towards integral, transdisciplinary, complexity and moral imperatives. She is Docent in Home Economics at the University of Helsinki, a Kappa Omicron Nu Research Fellow (leadership), an TheATLAS Transdisciplinary Fellow, and an Associate Member of Sustainability Frontiers. Affiliated with 19 professional journals, she is Associate Editor of two home economics journals and part of the Editorial Team for Integral Leadership Review. Sue has delivered 35 keynotes and invited talks in 15 countries and published over 150 peer-reviewed publications, 21 book chapters, and 9 monographs. She published Transformative Practice in 2006. Consumer Moral Leadership was released in 2010. With Russ Volckmann, she co-published Transversity in 2011 and, in 2012, she co-edited The Next 100 Years: Creating Home Economics Futures. Her professional and scholarly work is available at http://www.consultmcgregor.com

One thought on “1/22 – Du Plessis, Sehume and Martin. (2013). The Concept and Application of Transdisciplinarity in Intellectual Discourse and Research

  1. Hester duPlessis

    Dear Prof McGregor,
    Thank you so much for this balanced and well thought through review of our Transdisciplinarity book. Your contribution is well appreciated. As Jeffrey indicated, the conversation around Transdisciplinarity is moving forward on our side and we need to thank you for providing us with the platform to further expand our audience.

    I have been engaged in a series of workshops in France a week or so ago as member of a Science Communication project called Journees Hubert Curien at the University of Lorraine. (Hence my silence up to now). Not only did the topic of Transdisciplinarity came up quite frequently in our meetings but by the end of the visit Td has become entrenched in the group’s thinking! This enabled us to expand on the Science Communication theoretical framework in a very creative and exiting way. We are working towards the expansion of notions and theories embedded within Science Communication, Td, Public Understanding of Science and what is referred to as Scientific Temper. It is in the latter where we are suddenly finding new ways of thinking about the by now famous ‘levels of reality’. Though some of the new interpretations are still hovering on the edges of our understanding, I am trying my best to capture this in the appropriate words that will enable us to share and expand on these issues.

    I look forward to meet with you when you come for a visit to South Africa.
    Thank you once again for the excellent review,
    Kind regards,


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