4/29 – Between Non- and Post-Disciplinarity ?!

April- June 2014 / Feature Articles

Perspectives on Integral Inter- and Trans-Disciplinary Re-Search

 Wendelin Küpers

“Your planet is very beautiful,” [said the little prince]. “Has it any oceans?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” said the geographer…
“But you are a geographer!”
“Exactly,” the geographer said. “But I am not an explorer. I haven’t a single
explorer on my planet. It is not the geographer who goes out to count the towns, the
rivers, the mountains, the seas, the oceans, and the deserts. The geographer is much
too important to go loafing about. He does not leave his desk.”
— Antoine de Saint Exupery (The Little Prince, pp. 63-64)

Foxes (the great ones, not the shallow or showy grazers) owe their reputations to a light (but truly enlightening) spread of real genius across many fields of study, applying their varied skills to introduce a key and novel fruit for other scholars to gather and seed in a thoroughly different kind of field. Hedgehogs (the great ones, not the pedants) locate one vitally important mine, where their particular and truly special gifts cannot be matched. They then stay at the site all their lives, digging deeper (because no one else can) into richer and richer stores from a mother lode whose full generosity has never been so well recognized or exploited.
—Stephen Jay Gould (2003, p. 5.


Wendelin Kupers

Wendelin Kupers

After briefly problematising (over-)specialisation and departmentalisation of knowledge (production) and showing how much disciplining is part of politics of (b)orders, varieties of disciplinarities (multi-, inter-, post- & trans-disciplinary) are outlined critically. Then some perspectives on integral research and implications for organisation and leadership research are discussed. Finally some open questions are raised.

Our compartmentalized, piecemeal, disjointed learning is deeply, drastically inadequate to grasp realities and problems which are ever more global, transnational, multidimensional, transversal, polydisciplinary and planetary.
– Edgar Morin, 2001, p. 29

Starting Point: Need for a ‘Crossing-Orientation’ in Scientific Research

We live in a world of compartments and borders which may be more fluid and elastic, easier to cross, than in the past, but they are out there all the same,impacting upon the minutiae of our daily life practices, identities and affiliations… One of the challenges for border scholars and practitioners is to acquire, and actively promote, an understanding of the processes through which all types of borders can be opened even further and how they can be crossed with greater ease. It is by no means a given and it requires a mutual willingness to cross the disciplinary divide and to learn each other’s border language, if we are to move beyond the common, but not necessarily shared, discourse interaction space which has been created during the past decade by border scholars.
– David Newman, 2006

Conventional (post) positivistic, reductionist and middle-range science will not be sufficient for addressing and meeting the challenges of the global, societal, cultural, economic and environmental crises that we face today and in the near future. Disciplinary (social) science is insufficient for comprehending our contemporary world in a critical and transformative way (Graham, 2003:126).

Responding to the call for a more integral understanding and wisdom-oriented research might be part for a timely, transformational move (Küpers and Edwards, 2013). Particularly, the (over-)specialisation and departmentalisation of knowledge re-production has resulted in various debilitating forms of isolation, segmentary lineages and corresponding fragmentation and conservativism (Küpers & Edwards, 2008). For example the field of pluralised organization studies is facing two traps (Knudsen, 2003: 263-264). The specialization trap is a situation where the further elaboration of dominant research programs suppresses the search for heterodox explanations. This strategy of exploitation provides faster and safer returns on efforts than the exploration of entirely new and hence uncertain areas.

As a consequence, exploratory activities are rather scarce and in the long run the field limits its adaptive potential to react to new and unpredictable situations and developments. The fragmentation trap is characterized by a constant search for and creation of new theories, rather than elaborating or extending existing ones. As a consequence, the pace of development is too fast to evaluate each contribution properly and to integrate new positions in a coherent knowledge structure. These manifold activities of exploration lead to an arbitrary, haphazard accumulation of knowledge, where new contributions are not integrated with the existing knowledge, as their relationship to other theories is not clearly determined. This in turn undermines the potential to use existing positions for the development of new contribution and thus impairs scientific progress in the future.

For advancing scientific practice via a post-disciplinary ‘crossing-orientation’ and a critical meta-study it will be imperative to understand disciplining in context of politics of (b)orders and varieties of disciplinarities.

Disciplining and the Politics of Orders and Borders

“If innovative scholarship is the outcome of hybridity, of impurity, or blurring the boundaries between disparate realms of reality, disciplining is its enemy. There is no thinking outside the box without risking banishment from the box.” (Gergen, 2009: 210). The effects of disciplining – that is threatening academic failure as tenure decisions, salary mobility, grand funds and peer acceptance all hang in the balance – not only means a loss of relationship between disciplines and the larger flow of relationships within the culture, but also causes a closing down of the potential of disciplines to internally generate integrative pictures and boundary-crossing forms of research.

It is a specific research habitus that, like other systems of dispositions, functions as matrix of perceptions, appreciations and actions (Brubacker, 1993). The discipline-bound research habitus (in connection to fields and forms capitals) determines the kind and manner in which problems are posed, explanations constructed and instruments employed (ibd. 213) and is part of systems of (logical and social institutionalized) control.

Disciplinarity and Inter- and Trans-Disciplinarity is part of politics of orders and borders as well its crossing.

  • If being disciplinary is being specialized, competent and ‘orderly’ at home paradigmatically and methodologically, what does it mean to move between and beyond disciplininarity? How to deal with traditional terminologies of demarcation and delimitation?
  • Why is an epistemic nomadism that is passing in between different discursive fields and in-between paradigmatic and methodological zones in the landscapes of knowledge (production) important today? And what would it entail?
  • How to enter post-disciplinary transitionspaces and borderlands (frontier zones,) in which the borders and boundaries separating theacademic disciplines are seen as more permeable?
  • What does being in-transit mean in terms of dis- and re-placing and re-connecting and re-con-figuring?
  • What are the qualities of each and differences between disciplinary, multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary orientation?
  • Why is there a need for an integral orientation while facing theoretical diversity[i]?
  • What role does a meta-theory play for developing an overarching perspective (Ritzer, 2006)[ii] and dealing with paradigm incommensurability (Keleman, 2007)
  • What makes inter- and trans-disciplinary re-search creative and ‘phronetic’ (practically wise)?

Varieties of Disciplinarities

Disciplines and Disciplinary Research

Connected to its etymology, disciplines can be conceptualized as institutions that “control human conduct by setting up predefined patterns of conduct” (Berger & Luckmann, 1967, p. 55). Each discipline is composed of a group of professionals, who form a discursive community that takes up residence within the discipline’s epistemological boundaries and subscribes to the discipline’s particular worldview,tools, methods, procedures, exempla, concepts, and theories, thus shared a disciplinary discourse that coherently account for a set of objects or subjects (Klein, 1990).

Each discipline has its dominating paradigms and methods, key actors, and powerful schools (Kuhn, 1996) that influence the kinds of research studies that are conducted, and the kind of knowledge that is produced, through both socialization and academic reward structures (e.g., Lincoln, 2001).

Furthermore, these socialization processes and reward structures create an environment, in which only the most senior members of a discipline can afford to do (cross-disciplinary) bricolage (Kincheloe, 2005).

Disciplinary studies take place within the bounds of a single, currently recognized academic discipline. The research activity is orientated towards one specific goal, looking for an answer to a specific research question. Specialised, but fragmented, disciplinary research concerns, at most, one and the same level of Reality.

From a discipline-bound perspective it appears that legitimate theories cannot be inter- and transdisciplinary because theories,in the current academic disciplinary system, are legitimized only within their respective disciplines (i.e., discourses) and professions.

Interdisciplinary questions might not be viewed as relevant, valuable, important, and fundamental within a specialized discipline; they are not (fully)legitimate disciplinary questions. Knowledge produced through methods other than those that count as legitimate methods is considered illegitimate knowledge and often attracts, at best, the indifference of a particular community of practice. Research communities and disciplines are concerned with whether or not their conventional research procedures and methods are being correctly taught, implemented, and utilized. To the extent these goals are achieved, the knowledge produced by research is considered valid.
– Greckhamer et al. 2008: 319. Normal Science is following a “Disciplinary Matrix”.

Disciplinary ways of knowing are part of historico-discursive conditions of possibility and intelligibility or research (Messer-Davidow et al. 1993) in sensu of the scientific knowledge tradition. But disciplinary boundaries can be constituted as barriers or permeable membranes (Klein, 1993). As Julie Klein (2008: 121) summarizes:

Disciplines provide crucial knowledge, methodologies, and tools for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work. However, in many discussions, disciplines are still treated uncritically as monolithic constructs. Studies of disciplinarity reveal that disciplines exhibit a striking heterogeneity, and that boundary crossing has become a marked feature of contemporary research.

Non-Disciplinary Research

Questioning disciplinary boundaries (also as institutional divisions of labour mirror the partitions and hierarchies operative in society), this research might refer to two ways of research. Either it can be a result of exiting a disciplinary territory, which may imply to be excluded or expelled from home-discipline and declared “stateless”. This a non-disciplinary situation can manifest as a transition within the fluidity of the disciplinary terrain, especially when the research is repatriated into his or her old, revolutionized discipline or establish a new discipline. Or non-disciplinary research practice can refer to a liberating act of temporarily suspending disciplinary regimes and practices in order to develop creative research (questions, ideas, and approaches). In both cases the boundaries of knowledge are no longer in place, nor are the customs, guidelines, or standards to legitimize knowledge.However, this implies, a non-disciplinary research(er) cannot be distinguished from their counter-parts, who are not scientific research(ers), instead of housing in ‘Faculties’, using all faculties creatively.


Multidisciplinary studies involve several different academic disciplines researching one theme or problem, but with multiple disciplinary goals. Participants exchange knowledge, but do not aim to cross subject boundaries to create new knowledge and theory. The research process progresses as parallel disciplinary efforts without integration, but usually with the aim to compare results. The importance of translating knowledge across occupational boundaries is frequently identified as a means of generating innovation and improving performance. The creation of the multidisciplinary team is an institutional response to enable such translation and synergy, which require examining the processes of knowledge generation and translation and how multidisciplinary structure may support rather than challenge existing power hierarchies (Oborn & Dawson, 2010).


Interdisciplinarity, like pluri-disciplinarity, concerns the pooling of disciplines and transfer of methods from one discipline to another, allowing research to spill over disciplinary boundaries, but staying within the framework of disciplinary research. Interdisciplinary studies involve several unrelated (i.e. contrasting research paradigms) academic disciplines in a way that forces them to cross subject boundaries to create new knowledge and theory and solve a common research goal. As the prefix “inter-” indicates, this approach favors an inter-relational approach and exchange between disciplines. Critical interdisciplinarity problematizes the existing structure of knowledge and education (Klein, 2010). “Interdisciplinary qualitative inquiry reflects institutional and societal preferences for open, shared, and public science, yet it operates in connection with secluded sciences that are guided by specific domains and institutions.” (Greckhamer, 2008: 308)[iii]

Where does one have to be ‘located’ to do interdisciplinary research?

Which language (games) to speak?

Who would be able to recognize interdisciplinary knowledge when confronted with it? Do we not need to belong to and understand individual disciplines to recognize and understand interdisciplinary work? (Greckhamer, 2008: 323)

Can instrumentalised interdisciplinarity even further strengthens and reproduces disciplinarity?

Can it be conceived of as a central myth that maintains and reproduces disciplinary boundaries: , which are important because disciplines depend on clear territorial boundaries if they are to claim jurisdiction over a territory and survive on the map of knowledge… Although interdisciplinarity as an act of producing legitimized knowledge appears to be impossible in the current system of knowledge production, it is a resource and a vehicle that reproduces disciplinary agency and structure (Greckhamer et al., 2008: 324).

How far is ‘indisciplinary’ not only a matter of going besides the disciplines, but of breaking them? With Ranciere: the problem is to escape the (anti-egalitarian) divisions between disciplines, because what interests us is the question of the distribution of territories, which is always a way of deciding who is qualified to speak about what.[iv] An in-disciplinary practice is an attempt to break with (discipline-based) distinctions by thinking their history, assessing their effects and indicating other possible configurations.


Critically, post-disciplinarity refer to a new praxis of inquiry based on a profound institutional transformation of the terrain of knowledge production in which the disciplinary terrains and their boundaries, after long-standing hegemony, disappear, guided by several cycles of reflective action and deconstruction (Greckhamer, 2008: 324). It challenges taken-for-granted institutional orders of knowledge production by formulating alternatives that constitute opportunity for agency and thus (transformative) praxis (Freire,1993) through dialogue and conscientization (Freire, 1970).

What distinguishes postdisciplinarity is its principled rejection of the legitimacy of established disciplinary boundaries, critique of mono-disciplinary imperialism and its adoption of a more problem-oriented approach. Thus postdisciplinary analyses begin by identifying specific problems independent of how they would be classified, if at all, by different disciplines; and then mobilize, develop, and integrate the necessary concepts, methodologies, and knowledge to address such problems without regard to disciplinary boundaries. For these reasons the postdisciplinary approach is also critically self-aware of both the epistemic and ontological limits of inherited disciplines and is explicitly problem-oriented rather than tied to disciplinary blinkers Rejecting the legitimacy of disciplinary boundaries is not a licence to engage in an anti-disciplinary conceptual free-for-all in which ‘anything goes’ and the most likely outcome of which is eclecticism and/or incoherence. It is an invitation to adopt a problem-oriented rather than discipline-bounded approach (Jessop & Ngai-Ling 2003).


Transdisciplinary studies both integrate academic researchers from different unrelated disciplines and non-academic participants, to research a common goal and create new knowledge and theory. In trans-disciplinarity boundaries between and beyond disciplines are transcended and knowledge and perspectives from different scientific disciplines as well as non-scientific sources are integrated. As the prefix “trans-” indicates, trans-disciplinarity concerns that which is at once in-between disciplines, across different disciplines, and beyond each individual discipline. The transcending of the narrow scope of individual disciplines is processed through an overarching synthesis, fostering synthetic reconfiguration and recontextualization of knowledge. Similarly like post-disciplinary research it focuses on complex problems that can be approached in terms of the categories of two or more disciplines and combines the latter to produce a more comprehensive, non-additive account and inclusive understanding.

Critically, integral transdisciplinary aims for a pluralistic integration that retains the diversity of specialties, not a dominant and monistic integration that reduces everything to one overarching grand theory!

Various approaches, initiatives (Hadorn, 2008; In’t Veld, 2010) and variants of transdisciplinarity try to be responsive to contemporary challenges, not in the sense of replacing disciplinary knowledge, but in the sense of complementing it through other, boundary-crossing and more integrated modes of research to open up the potential of facilitating wisdom in and through research as well as wisdom-inquiry (Maxwell, 2007).[v]

The rough differentiation into intra-, inter-, and transdisciplinarity serves only as a proxy for a much more complex reality of variants of scientific research in need for more fine-grained distinctions (Gasper, 2004; Zierhofer & Burger, 2007). One of the transgressive purposes of transdisciplinarity, is to renounce the logic of instrumental reason by creating new participatory modes of knowledge, discourse, and institutional frameworks across all sectors of academic, private, and public life.

How to further build up a “Transdisciplinary Momentum“ (Thompson, Klein, 2013)?

Integration / Integral Research

In integral or integrative approaches, research questions and inquiries are defined jointly and the answering derives from an integration of disciplinary knowledges, leadingto the development of new common methods and theory and to new knowledge. The notion “integral”further qualifies this approach as it allows to see and the nexus of and “trans(re-)lation”between inter-related contents and practices in collaborative knowledge building.[vi]

Being complementary to multi-disciplinarity research the goal of integral inter- and transdisciplinary research is a more comprehensive understanding of phenomena and their dynamics engendered by the phenomena and practices of several levels of realities at once. An integral approach offers pathways for overcoming (exclusionary) binary arguments in which ‘either-or’- antinomies. As a post-binary thinking an integral approach considers mutual, complementary and interconnected positions.

A scholarship of integration involves synthesis of information across disciplines, across topics within a discipline, or across time, “that seeks to interpret, draw together, and bring new insight to bear on original research” (Boyer, 1990: 18).[vii]“ The scholarship of integration also means interpretation, fitting one’s own research – or the research of others – into larger intellectual patterns. Such efforts are increasingly essential since specialization, without broader perspective, risks pedantry. Those engaged in integration ask,

What do the findings mean?Is it possible to interpret what’s been discovered in ways that provide a larger, more comprehensive understanding?” Questions such as these call for the power of critical analysis and interpretation. They have a legitimacy of their own and if carefully pursued can lead the scholar from information to knowledge and even, perhaps, to wisdom
– Boyer, 1990: 19.

Boyer et al anticipated that ― in the coming century, there will be an urgent need for scholars, who go beyond the isolated facts; who make connections across the disciplines; and who begin to discover a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated, more authentic view of life (Boyer, 1994: 118).

Re-examining and questioning of fundamental assumptions of various theories and research practices from an integral meta-perspective, enhances experiential learning that elevates theory-building further. This in turn may protect researchers from becoming trapped within a peripheral view or a limited range of possibilities and helps them to understand more comprehensively.

The meta-perspective of crossing boundaries of disciplines and methods represents an actual practice of meta-theoretical bridging,which actually shows inter- and transdisciplinary ways to cross and to advance the creative and emancipatory capacities of the connected diversity of views and practices by uncovering the underlying connections and establishing new ones (Molz & Edwards, 2010). Radicalising the idea of an inter-disciplinology” (Bahm, 1980) such bridge-crossing requires the cultivation of an “inter-perspectivity” as creative trans-disciplinarity (Giri, 2002: 106).

To cross boundaries does not mean to espouse a single encompassing truth, to fix the one and supposed best (meta-)orientation or methodology, or to justify the dominance of a certain worldview or framework. Rather, an integral meta-theoretical research recognizes and values levels, pluralism and diversity while at the same time finding and bridging between shared patterns, values and platforms for communication that contribute to the development of constructive, useful and emancipatory knowledge (Molz & Edwards, 2010, 2013). Although due to its inclusive character, various theories, methodologies and insights can find their place in a broader scheme, an integrated meta-theoretical bridging view does not necessarily promote eclecticism, but favors a holarchy of knowledge. With its meta-paradigmatic foundation an integrated modeling encourages greater awareness of theoretical and methodological alternatives. Thereby integral bridging facilitates discourse and/or inquiry and interplay across paradigms, fostering greater understanding within pluralist and even paradoxical organizational contexts (Lewis & Kelemen, 2002: 258). Correspondingly, such bridging may help to close the gap between academic research and (organisational) practice.[viii]

Basically integral inter- and trans-disciplinary practise manifest a response to the increasing complexity of scientific knowledge production, and the need to re-establish an active dialogue among a plurality of disciplines and forms of knowledge, while being linked to life-worldly practices and problems in the society and business world.

But with this orientation, the question emerges how to relate such a post-disciplinary orientation and modelling fruitfully to disciplinary research? How to bridge to the appropriate community of the adequate, i.e. those who have necessary training in particular methodology or set of methods?

An integral orientation and corresponding literacy in different disciplines and methodologies helps to operationalise the emerging inter- and transdisciplinary research practice and new forms of (Mode-2-) knowledge processes, which focus on a co-production and communication of knowledge, including a wider, more temporary and heterogeneous set of practitioners, collaborating on a problem defined in a specific and localized context (Jasanoff, 1996; Novotny et al., 2001).

Integral cross-diciplinarity requires considering the specific methodologies of inter- and transdisciplinary research (Hirsch Hadorn, 2002), practical research management, quality and evaluation issues of inter- and transdisciplinary projects (Stokols et al. 2003; Wickson et al., 2006). The future of inter- and transdisciplinary research can be seen as part of an unfolding integral science.

Organisation and Leadership Practices and Studies

As by their very ‘nature’ organisation and leadership practices and studies invite a broadly multi-, inter-, trans-disciplinary activity, they are well suited for a reflective use of a more inclusive and integral meta-theorising.

To grow into a more multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary endeavour, future leadership and organisation research needs to break the largely univocal narrative and open up to multiple and innovative methods. For this to happen, approaches and methods from disciplines outside the scope of management studies, social psychology or social sciences in general and non-traditional disciplines need to be re(dis-)covered. These other approaches then need to be juxtaposed against one another and against the field’s traditional narrative (Lowe & Gardner, 2000).

Organisation and leadership research need to open up and branch out beyond the safe and comfortable research conventions to capture the comprehensive and dynamic qualities involved in phenomena involved in a more integral way. Accordingly, there is a need for developing boundary concepts[ix] and a ‘synergistic alliance’ between and across conventional disciplinary boundaries and relations of phenomena in organisations and leadership (practices) in an integrative fashion. This also implies first-, second- and third-person perspectives (singular and plural forms) with each of their inherent methodologies or modes of inquiry (Torbert et al., 2004). All of them can help to inform the way research seeks out different approaches for understanding the complex dimensions of leadership and its followership connection in organizations.

The “first-person” perspective – related to subjective awareness and meaning of personal experience and action – can be assessed via self-reporting or biographic (ethno-)methodologies. For approaching the “second-person”, that is the interpersonal perspective, the use of dialogue and direct communication, and methodologically qualitative interviews, are ways to disclose multiple voices and an understanding of individual and collective sense-making. Finally, for the “third-person”,empirical observation and methods of behavioural or systemic sciences can be used for investigating quantitative data with rigor. An integral methodology recognizes the validity of behavioural, functionalist and reductive analyses and quantitative investigations. Bringing these perspectives together highlights the different possibilities that exist for investigating how they might interrelate for a better understanding of leadership in organizations. Furthermore, the outlined premises and arguments make it possible to view leadership research as a process of social construction itself, and to view research as part of the investigated and narrated relational process.

Hence, the research process can be interpreted as a way of going on in a relationship, constructing knowledge and social validation. To facilitate multi-loguing heterachical ways of relating (Hosking et al., 1995; Hosking, 2006), the research methodology of participatory action research (Reason, 1994, Reason & Bradbury 2001), and the deployment of further interpretive research strategies, with a strong ‘situational’ focus (Alvesson, 1996), and case study methodologies (Yin, 1994) seem particularly suitable. In particular, qualitative oriented research practice will become increasingly important for a better understanding of complex embedded interrelated phenomena as contextually rich as leadership is (Bryman, 2004; Bryman et al., 1996; Conger, 1998). Moreover, from an integral perspective, quantitative and qualitative research can be mutually informative and illuminating in the study of organisation and leadership and can also be combined (Bryman, 1988: 127-56; 1992; 2004). By studying a topic simultaneously or concurrently with both methods at the same time or in cycles, depending on the problem, it can be better understood. In a similar way to meta-triangulation (Lewis & Grimes, 1999), an integral meta-theoretical orientation may help theorists to gain an appreciation of possible knowledge and reduce their commitment to a favoured and “provincial” point of view that is to gain a more reflexive appreciation.

Moreover, it facilitates a shift from a narrowed towards a more rich, contextualized and multi-dimensional theory building, offering a greater conceptual, explanatory and interpretative potential.For this the complex integral framework needs to be methodologically operationalized in detail, in terms of determining constructs and variables, setting and testing research questions, hypotheses, antecedents, moderators, mediators, outcomes and their inter-relations.

Exploring leadership and organisation as a processual and interrelational event [x] (Bradbury & Lichtenstein, 2000; Uhl-Bien, 2006) implies a methodological focus on relations, connections, dependences and reciprocities investigating specific encounters, relational issues or situations (Wood, 2005).

For this orientation a methodological relationalism (Ritzer & Gindoff, 1992; Ritzer, 2001) provides a base for a well-suited meta-theoretical approach, as it extends to include the relationship of individuals and collectives to the biophysical subsystems.

Following an integral methodological pluralism and epistemology, a meta-theoretical modelling not only provides a shared language for addressing the basic patterns and problems of leadership research practices. Moreover, it can also be used as a functional and strategic guideline that is careful not to reduce, oversimplify, isolate or fragment our understanding of leadership.

Offering enriched perspectives and developmental orientations, an integral meta-theory of organisation and leadership need to be designed to illuminate blind spots, reductionist pictures and interpretations of theories and findings as well as critically questioning mistaken or misleading assumptions, self-critically including one’s own. Such integral meta-theoretical orientation not only helps to generate a reflexive sensitivity to contextual factors, and embediment as well as innovative conceptual flexibilities and leverage in leadership studies and to develop empirically supported new ideas and theories. Rather, it may also contribute to more timely relevance and the development of integral understandings for students, practitioners, thus facilitating corresponding practices of leading, following and organising.

Regarded integrally, theory and practice are both essential parts of a whole (holon) that have become artificially separated and have evolved into more narrow meanings. Theory without data is empty, and furthermore without the constant test of practice is liable to become dogmatic, formulaic or just plain wrong. In turn, data and practice without theory, i.e. critical reflection, is blind or falling into a mere action-driven practice often blind to the big picture, embedment and consequences. Conversely, an integration of theory and practice may help to bridge the divide between practitioner and academic perspectives towards co-operative inquiry (Heron & Reason, 2001) or co-research (Hartley & Benington, 2000) possibly leading to an effective symbiosis (Zaccaro & Horn, 2003).

Open Questions

Moving further into an integral meta-theoretical orientation (in leadership and organisation) cross-disciplinary studies generates many challenging issues and open questions to be explored. The following list some of those:

  • What role does a trans-boundary cyber-cooperation and dissemination of information and knowledge via new communication technologies and media play for the emergence of inter- and transdisciplinary research?
  • How can the broad range of methodologies – used in social, organisational and leadership and others sciences – be seen and acknowledged as distinctively important approaches and knowledges that are each appropriate for particular set of problems and levels of complexities?
  • How to systematise plural perspectives of theories and methodologies of into a flexible and accommodating integral meta-theory, without fusing or merging them into an ‘unifying’ single framework nor inherently contradictory, stultifying relativism? In metaphorical terms: What is needed (for avoiding the specialization and fragmentation trap) is a third alternative that is neither a sterile, over-tended mono-cultural garden nor a scruffy weed patch where anything grows.
  • How can an integral meta-theory avoid both a theoretical monism, and a dissolved pluralism thus not falling into the traps of modernist reifying petrification or postmodern melting liquefaction of concepts and theories, i.e. turning either to dogmatic dead buildings or fleeting mirages, parodies and jeux d’esprit?
  • How can it remain critical to become not a kind of “super-theory” as an all-encompassing meta-narrative for (organisation and management/leadership ) research, nor getting lost in local ‘petit recits’?
  • How to ensure that it is not another modernist “grand narratives”, nor postmodern “any-thing” story, but critically moving through and beyond pre-modern, modern and postmodern positions towards an inclusive and integral (in~t(h)e~gral) meta-study?
  • How to develop a language and forms of presentation that show the inter-connections and relationships between various theoretical and methodological view- and standpoints while they are moving and not getting tucked into a representationalism?
  • How can an integral meta-theorization create and further develop a model that parsimoniously can display meta-theoretically reflected constructs, methods, findings and their inter-relationships?
  • How do we know and evaluate according to rational standards that a meta-theory (e.g. of organisation and leadership) includes all relevant interpretative lenses in a logical and consistent way?
  • How to find an adequate ‘trade-off’ between simplicity/complexity, generality, and accuracy while creating, constructing and justifying or evaluating theories (van de Ven, 2007: 135)?
  • How to uncover the ‘sub-theoretical level’ or the underlying ‘infrastructure’ of theory, so that the understanding can be applied appropriately to theoretical and empirical studies in social and organisational contexts of leadership?
  • In which way does an integral meta-study encompasses not only a systematic review of (qualitative and quantitative) research methodologies, results and findings, but also inherent and perhaps more cogently, socio-historic, paradigmatic, tangential, and idiosyncratic perspectives on “understandings” of a topic at a given point in time and location (Paterson et al. 2001)?
  • How can the differentiated levels of integral meta-studies that is experiential and empirical layers, the conceptual, middle-range studies layers and the reflective meta-layers of sense-making (Edwards & Molz, 2009) be interpreted as co-creating and mutually constitutive inter-woven layers of meaning and developmental dynamics?
  • How to move on the three legs of empirical, theoretical and meta-level realities as they dance as a dynamic transformational ensemble and thus form a holarchy of knowing and sense-making?
  • How to reinvented and reaffirm a commitment to critique?

For responding to these questions and quests further overarching as well as detailed meta-theoretical mapping is required in order to move through the conceptual landscapes and emerging theoretical grounds.

As the new era of (organisation and leadership) research tends and evolves more and more into one of converging evidence and integration (van Seters & Field, 1990; Avolio 2007[xi]), the challenge will be to critically synthesize accumulated knowledge and develop further epistemologies in such a way that we can begin to construct hybrid, but not eclectic approaches covering and inter-relating diverse perspectives. Offering an inclusive, meta-theoretical framework and heuristic system of analytical lenses, integral theory may provide a clearer, more comprehensive picture of occasions of organisation and leadership, as it focuses on the specific, but interconnected, processes of intentional, behavioural, cultural and social-systemic domains.

Basically, as a differentiated reminder of the multifaceted wholeness and tremendous multi-dimensionality of phenomena in organisation leadership, further integral investigations and implementation are likely to serve as a helpful antidote to short-term orientations, biased approaches, and one-sided orientations in conventional studies. With this, an integral meta-thinking protects against an ideological narrowness of knowledge acquisition. Employing an emerging integral theory and corresponding research practice provides then as a base on which to build more sustainable organizations and leadership practice. In other words, effective and reflexive organisational and leadership processes and practices of the 21st-century will be those that understand, foster and help to create and enact a more integral way of leading and following, conceptually and practically.

Assessing and investigating different perspectives requires itself further developed integral methodologies. For this advancing, it will be necessary to investigate and integrate various perspectives on leader- and followership or organisation systematically. A more comprehensive proto-integral meta-theory of leadership and corresponding conclusive judgments will not be possible without considering and incorporating various levels of analysis in theory, measurement, data analysis and interpretation (Yammarino et al., 2005) and opening up for new approaches as outlined in the following final section.

Embodied and Sensual Methodology Mixed Method & ScholArtistry

Future embodied integral organisation and leadership research would be enriched by exploring bodily-mediated spatial, temporal and cultural realities and tacit experiences by using a sensually oriented methodology and aesthetic ethnographies and interpretations (Warren, 2008; Stoller 1997).

Research is “fully alive and creative when wide-eyed and involved, when it sees, touches, hears, tastes, and feels” (Sandelands & Srivatsan 1993: 19), thus when it is using and refining embodied sensory faculties.

Part of the emerging field of embodied research practice is that of an art-based research (McNiff, 2007; 2008). Art-oriented research uses artistic processes and expressions in all of the different forms and media of the arts, as a way of understanding and examining experience by both researchers and the people and phenomena involved in their studies. Being an application of the larger epistemological process of artistic knowing and inquiry, the field of art-based research can serve as an innovative approach for investigating experiences and phenomena in professional practice (McNiff, 1998).

Where ‘method meets art’ (Leavy, 2009) researchers can include experimenting with performative, visual, musical, poetic, narrative forms of inquiry or other forms of expression and audio-visual possibilities, like image elicitation, photos, sounds, videos, scenes, stories etc.

Future research can use art in qualitative research or developing arts-informed research (Knowles and Cole, 2008) for creating a scholARTistry (Knowles et al., 2007). Provoked by art (Cole et al., 2004), old and new forms of research can inform, perform, reform, and transform what is thought, felt, and known about the world and embodied beings within it. Based on embodied self-awareness, which involves researchers probing their own embodied responses and include reflexive embodied empathy (Finlay, 2003; 2005).

Artful, inquiring researchers can get involved in creating new understandings by placing their issues, forms and contents of study into aesthetics modes and artistic frames as well as alternative forms of gathering, interpretation and expression like images, photos, stories, scenes, sounds etc..

Investigating artistic inquiry and their use of senses and imagination in and for creating may inspire social scientist to develop a community of artist researchers (Cole & Knowles, 2008). In much the same way that artists do, responsive organizational researchers would then for example relate to and experiment with uncertainty, ambiguity, novelty and complexity in ways to open up and reveal alter-native possibilities of knowing.

However, art-based approach calls also for reflecting the persistent conflicts and tensions in art-oriented research (Eisner, 2008).[xii]Although arts-informed research runs counter to more conventional research endeavours with their more linear, sequential, compartmentalized form and distancing of researcher and participants, the challenge will be to keep an internal consistency, coherence and communicability as well as to advance some kind of generative patterned insights and knowledge that reflects the multidimensional, complex, dynamic, inter-subjective, and multi-contextual nature of experiences and realities in organisations.

As Knowles and Cole (2008: 68) summarise:

The transformative potential of arts-informed research speaks to the need for researchers to develop representations that address audiences in ways that do not pacify or indulge the senses but arouse them and the intellect to new heights of response and action. In essence, and ideally, the educative possibilities of arts-informed work are foremost in the heart, soul, and mind of the researcher from the onset of an inquiry. The possibilities of such educative endeavors, broadly defined, are near limitless; their power to inform and provoke action is only constrained by the human spirit and its energies.

Finally, the communication of research findings would also dare to find more aesthetic forms like experimental writing, blurring the boundaries between science and art. Further forms of research along those spiraling lines outlined here, can contribute to become sensible, and sense-able about senses and sensations that all ‘make sense’.

Concluding Remarks

As outlined in this paper, reaching across previously separate realms the meta-theoretical approach towards leadership provides an open invitation helping to find new ways to view problems, ask other kinds of questions, conduct creative research; construct new theories, reflecting about methodologies critically. By this it is hoped to contribute moves towards a deeper and more subtly interconnected conceptualization and understanding of what the phenomena of leading and organising mean theoretically and as a practical affair. Correspondingly, meta-theory as theoretical practice and an integral modelling provides a space for a critical and innovative inquiry and ranges of possible discovery, which may bring about new steps and levels of maturation of leadership and organisation science and its corresponding discursive practices as well as in relation to other social (and natural) science.

This maturation will be manifesting as a move and marked by leading towards integrating in more depth the relevance of ‘wisdom’. Accordingly a meta-theoretical integrated leadership and organisation studies will be one that is linked to theories of wisdom or revived forms of practical wisdom (Sternberg, 1998; Srivastva & Cooperrider, 1998; Küpers & Statler, 2008; Küpers, 2013). Critically being aware about that a wise research and research on wisdom and leadership are challenging and has its own tensions and ambiguities (Rooney et al. 2010: 214), leadership and organisation research may benefit from the development of research methods based on wisdom theory rather than traditional research epistemology (Rooney & McKenna, 2008). As a pragmatic practice a ‘wise’ leadership and organisation comprises and enacts influencing and developing individuals, teams and organizations and their various relevant dimensions integrally (Küpers, 2007). A theory of a wise leadership and organisation would integrate the body (physical or embodied incorporated), mind (cognitive, logical, rational thought), heart (feelings, emotions, moods), and spirit (Moxley, 2000).Striving for an integrity of being, knowing, doing and effectuating this supports processes for achieving (authentically) a worthwhile purpose that meets present and future needs sustainably and with this contributes to the well-be(com)ing of all members and stakeholders of organizations (Küpers, 2005).

Overarchingly, such a wisdom-oriented leadership and organisation research could become part of a post-paradigmatic phronetic social science (Flyvbjerg, 2001; 2006; 2012). An intepretation of phronesis (practical wisdom) in the context of scientific practice understand it as an embodied, situated practical deliberation and judgments that involves tacit knowledge, considerations of power-knowledge relations and discursive constructions that influence subject formation (Chishtie, 2012: 112). As this can be related to epistemologies within professional knowledge such phronetic research invites a radical re-thinking and raising important questions. These may among other rather than asking what (organisation or) leadership is, enquire into what (organisation or) leadership is for (Ladkin, 2010). For example: How can leadership contribute not only for maximising economic and functional objects like efficiency, productivity and growth, but for optimal flourishing, entailing integral health, happiness, dignity, ethical practices, service for others and the achievement of creative potentials etc as part of an integral understanding and practice!

If the evolution of the paradigms and theories in leadership and organisation studies reflects the economic, technological, societal and social realities and changes and cultural developments that have and will take place, then a corresponding meta-theoretical and integral thinking helps to find relevant, future-oriented, and more sustainable (dis-)courses for the “~ship” with an well~organised household to sail, setting out for a different creative pathways to explore new worlds across disciplinary boundaries.

One acute political and critical question will be: How to develop more inter- and transdisciplinary research and teaching or education within the overarching global-governmental logics and politics of disciplinary regimes and neo-liberalism (Davies & Bansel, 2007)? How to deal with the usage of one-sided forms of (technical-instrumental) rationality and exerting pressures of accountability, performativity, and regulation as well neo-conservative economic and political reforms in contexts of fiscal and monetary stringency and programmatic distrust, which are affecting not only institutions for education and research, but other spheres of civic society as well.

Who dares to cross disciplines, experiences often a non-inviting, or even hostile ground, personally, interpersonally, and institutionally. These realities of academic structures are increasingly characterized by managerialism, evaluations and rigid regulations, accreditation and accounting systems, funding structures, discipline-bound evaluation schemes, career development paradigms, which may be hindrances for the practice of integral inter- and transdisciplinary research.

How can we envisage and co-create a “University of the Future” (Molz, 2009), which incorporates also a more wise cross-disciplinary research and teaching practices?

Scenario Integral Higher Education (Molz, 2009)


• Cross-disciplinary and cross-border trajectories become more frequent.
• Cross-boundary trajectories are required (across disciplines, cultures, occupations, theory-practice).
• Diversity sensitivity (non-dogmatic attempt to roughly balance within student groups male and female students, students with different social class background, students from different cultures, students with different levels of professional experience etc.)


• All possible options combined according to arising needs and pragmatic possibilities
• Non-scholars are invited to the learning community (like artists, spiritual or political leaders, social activists, policy makers and other practitioners) & staff, all are actual students and teachers of other students and teachers. It is recognized that each member of the learning community has a specific profile of expertise and levels of development across all domains considered together


• Students as co-designers of their curriculum seizing the opportunity to cultivate and develop their uniqueness.
• Study and research programs are developed and steered by various, flexibly developing transnational, transdisciplinary and inter-institutional consortia overlapping with each other as a loosely coupled knot-work sharing integral values and practices and jointly over-laying and making use of the (infra) structures of the (post)modern higher education institutions.


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[1] As Lewis and Kelemen stated (2002, p. 253) … researchers have produced an explosion of varied, often contentious approaches. Modern and postmodern stances, for example, offer contrasting positions in the paradigm debate… Such theoretical diversity may enrich understandings of pluralism and paradox. Yet polarisation of modern paradigms and ruptures between modern and postmodern stances inhibit researchers from tapping this potential.

[2]Integrative meta-theorising can be performed across the variety of intra-, multi-, cross-, inter-, trans-, and post-disciplinary projects, while pursuing the following goals (Ritzer, 2006)

1. Metatheorising for understanding (MU). Here extant theories are reviewed to gain a familiarity and understanding of their core characteristics and those of the research programmes, paradigms and disciplinary contexts in which they might be located.

2. Metatheorising for preparing new middle-range theory (MP): The purpose of MP is to review and analyse theories so that a new theory can be developed within that domain (Turner, 1990). Most metatheorising falls within this type. In fact, most research begins with metatheorising of this kind in that the current landscape of theoretical perspectives is introduced that summarise to identify opportunities from new conceptual contributions.

3. Metatheorising to build overarching theory (MO). MO is metatheory building. Its aim is to review and analyse extant theory in some domain and to build a metatheoretical system that accommodates and integrates those theories (see, for example, Witherington, 2007). Hence, MO always involves MU.

4. Metatheorising for adjudication (MA). MA develops or uses MO for evaluating other theories in a particular field. The capacity to assess and critically analyse other theory is a quality that all metatheoretical frameworks possess (see, for example, Abrams & Hogg, 2004).[1]

[3] Abbott(2001) argued that interdisciplinarity is old news and that a serious interest in interdisciplinarity appears to be an almost stable concomitant of the disciplinary system. “Indeed, the long history and stability of interdisciplinarity—unsuspected by its current publicists—raise the interesting question of why interdisciplinarity has not transformed the intellectual system, even though now that it has been a permanent feature of the American intellectual landscape for so long. (p. 134). Abbott’s response to this question is that interdisciplinarity presupposes disciplines and is thus not able to replace the disciplinary organization of knowledge. Abbott, A. (2001). Chaos of disciplines. Chicago:University of Chicago Press.

[4] Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity: An Interview’. www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/jrinterview.html.

[5] “The creation of our current global problems, and our inability to respond adequately to these problems, has much to do, in other words, with the long-standing, rarely noticed, structural irrationality of our institutions and traditions of learning, devoted as they are to acquiring knowledge dissociated from learning how to tackle our problems of living in more cooperatively rational ways. Knowledge-inquiry, because of its irrationality, is designed to intensify, not help solve, our current global problems. Inquiry devoted primarily to the pursuit of knowledge is, then, grossly and damagingly irrational when judged from the standpoint of contributing to human welfare by intellectual means. At once the question arises: What would a kind of inquiry be like that is devoted, in a genuinely rational way, to promoting human welfare by intellectual means? I shall call such a hypothetical kind of inquiry wisdom-inquiry … (Maxwell, 2007, p. 103). “This revolution —intellectual, institutional and cultural— if it ever comes about, would be comparable in its long-term impact to that of the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, or the Enlightenment. The outcome would be traditions and institutions of learning rationally designed to help us acquire wisdom. There are a few scattered signs that this intellectual revolution, from knowledge to wisdom, is already under way. It will need, however, much wider cooperative support—from scientists, scholars, students, research councils, university administrators, vice chancellors, teachers, the media and the general public— if it is to become anything more than what it is at present, a fragmentary and often impotent movement of protest and opposition, often at odds with itself, exercising little influence on the main body of academic work. I can hardly imagine any more important work for anyone associated with academia than, in teaching, learning and research, to help promote this revolution.” (Maxwell, 2007, p. 113).

[6] Murray, T. (2006). Collaborative knowledge building and integral theory: On perspectives, uncertainty, and mutual regard. Integral Review: A Transdisciplinary and Transcultural Journal for New Thought, Research and Praxis, 2, 210–268.

[7] In addition to the scholarship of integration Boyer proposed the inclusion of further categories:

  • The scholarship of discovery that includes original research that advances knowledge.
  • The scholarship of application (also later called the scholarship of engagement) that goes beyond the service duties of a faculty to those within or outside the University and involves the rigor and application of disciplinary expertise with results that can be shared with and/or evaluated by peers.
  • The scholarship of teaching and learning that the systematic study of teaching and learning processes. It differs from scholarly teaching in that it requires a format that will allow public sharing and the opportunity for application and evaluation by others.

[8] It is currently debated, whether this gap is unbridgeable or already happening of being bridged (Saari 2007; Kieser and Leiner 2009; Hodgkinson and Rousseau 2009). Saari, L. (2007). Bridging the worlds. Academy of Management Journal 50, 1043–1045. Kieser, A. and L. Leiner 2009. Why the rigour–relevance gap in management research is unbridgeable. Journal of Management Studies 46, 516–33. Hodgkinson, G.P., and D.M. Rousseau 2009. Bridging the rigor-relevance gap in management research: it’s already happening! Journal of Management Studies 46, no. 3: 534–546.

[9] According to Löwy (2004) a boundary concept is a cohesive, although loose conceptionalisation. It facilitates communication and cooperation between members of distinct groups without obliging members to give up the advantages of their respective social identities. By avoiding over-precisely definitions boundary concepts allow multidimensional analysis and creative exploration across disciplinary borders, creating a cognitive space in which multiple and foreign meanings can be elaborated. Löwy I (1992) The Strength of Loose Concepts – Boundary Concepts, Federative Experimental Strategies and Disciplinary Growth: The Case of Immunology. History of Science Vol. 30, Part 4 90: 371-396.

[10] Such a relational approach sees transforming and transformational leadership as an emerging event, that is, as a dispersed and inherently indeterminate process, which is continually reconfiguring itself. Through this relationality it becomes possible to transcend a possessive individualism, a regressive collectivism and an obsessive objectivism. Transforming is then not seen reductively as an identifiable entity sui generis based not only on individuality or inter-subjectivity or made objectively measurable. With a relational intelligibility in place transforming becomes factually based on processes that are jointly structured activities within a complex set of inter-relations between subjects and objects as an ongoing event of relating and responding. Out of these interconnections then embodied perceptions, feelings, cognitions and meanings, and communities, as well as structures and functions of transforming and of transformational leadership are continually created, re-created, questioned and re-negotiated It is the relational ‘space between’ (Bradbury & Lichtenstein, 2000), which is the medium not only of individual and collective identity and social relationships, but also of transformation of and between leaders and followers as well entire organisations. By recognizing the primacy of relational processes, these become form-in-media, in which transformation and transformational leadership are continuously co-created and changed in the course of being practiced and conceptualized (Küpers, 2010).

[11] “The agenda for theory and research in the field of leadership studies has evolved over the last 100 years from focuses on the internal dispositions associated with effective leaders to broader inquiries that include emphases on the cognitions, attributes, behaviors, and contexts in which leaders and followers are dynamically embedded and interact over time. Leadership theory and research has reached a point in its development at which it needs to move to the next level of integration – considering the dynamic interplay between leaders and followers, taking into account the prior, current, and emerging context – for continued progress to be made in advancing both the science and practice of leadership” (Avolio, 2007: 1). However, from the perspective of integral metatheory this call to move to the next level of integration needs to go beyond the issues outlined and requires further next steps and perhaps leaps on integrating leadership theory, research and practice (Avolio et al., 2010).

[12] For Eisner these are tensions between using open forms that yield diverse inter-pretations and forms that yield common understandings; between the particular and the general; between the desire to aesthetically craft form and the desire to tell it like it is. Furthermore, the tensions move between the desire to pursue new questions and puzzlements and the need in the practical world for answers, seeking what is novel or creative and the need to create work that has verisimilitude, the appearance of being true or real to the furniture of the world. Therefore, as expressed succinctly: “The concepts and processes that we have used in arts-based research are much more likely to work at the edge of possibility and address questions of meaning and experience that are not likely to be as salient in traditional research. Put another way, our basic concepts and methods participate in a new universe” (Eisner, 2008: 25).

 About the Author

Wendelin Küpers, PhD, is Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies at Karlshochschule International University. His phenomenological and cross-disciplinary research, teaching and consultancy moves around embodied, emotional and aesthetic dimension and integration in organisations and leadership. Previously, he was teaching in New Zealand and was the Integral Leadership Review Bureau Chief and Associate Editor for New Zealand.

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