Transdisciplinary Reflections

Column / August 2012

Five Dimensions of Applied Transdisciplinarity

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

There’s an emerging literature arguing for the importance of a transdisciplinary approach, outlining its philosophical roots, and articulating the need for transdisciplinarity in our present situation. Transdisciplinarity is already branching out in many different forms and on many different levels, from the highly theoretical to the more applied. In the following pages I’d like to explore an over-arching framework for applied transdisciplinarity. In other words, it’s one way to get started doing transdisciplinary inquiry, and getting a sense of what it actually might involve.

I want to propose five dimensions that constitute the basis of transdisciplinarity. These dimensions are the foundation for transdisciplinary work as I see it. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that they are the dimensions of transdisciplinarity, the generally agreed on dimensions, necessary but not sufficient, or anything like that. Simply that I have found them useful in the practice of transdisciplinarity, in my own experience researching and teaching. They emerge from my immersion in the research on inter- and transdisciplinary approaches, drawing from Morin to Klein, Nicolescu to Newell, Augsburg to Leavy. They are not so much theoretical dimensions as practical dimensions: they represent aspects and moments of research. Together they form a heuristic for transdisciplinary work, and are intended as an opportunity to open up dialogue about the process of inquiry itself.

Five Dimensions for a Heuristic of Transdsciplinarity

The 5 dimensions of transdisciplinarity are grounded in a set of questions I believe we need to ask ourselves when embarking on any project we believe should be transdisciplinary. In this issue’s column I provide a brief introduction to these dimensions, and I’ll provide more extensive examples and theoretical foundations in coming issues.

1) Inquiry-Based rather than Discipline-Driven: What are the characteristics of the phenomenon we want to understand? Based on these characteristics, why does our research need to be transdisciplinary? What are the limitations of existing disciplinary perspectives? What do disciplinary perspectives leave out that in our view is important in order to develop rich and complex understanding of the phenomenon? At this stage we need to be able to give an extensive description of the issue we want to explore. This should preferably happen through a narrative, a story, an incident, anything that connects the issue to the “real” world. Then we can articulate the various aspects of our inquiry, and show why it cannot be contained within the boundaries of only one discipline. Inquiry based means we look at our subject matter without the restrictions of a disciplinary lens. We look at a phenomenon, and describe it. Then we see what the issues are we want to understand, and draw from appropriate disciplines.

2) Trans-paradigmatic rather than Intra-paradigmatic: Once we step outside the confines of disciplinary knowledge, what does the available research literature have to say about our subject? What disciplinary perspectives already exist? What is Dominant Disciplinary Discourse—in others words, in what discipline might we find most of the work on our topic, even if there is no research specifically on our topic? How are various perspectives constructed, using what fundamental assumptions? Traditionally knowledge is of course organized by disciplines. Within those disciplines there are different frames, different perspectives on the issues being studied. Most researchers work within the confines of one particular perspective, and apply that perspective but do not necessarily question it. A Trans-paradigmatic perspective involves an awareness of the many different ways a particular question can be framed, and an understanding of the underlying assumptions of those perspectives, both within specific disciplines and across them, in the sense that different disciplines may address a specific topic such as leadership from different theoretical perspectives. It also means that while we cannot know every individual piece of research ever done about our topic, we can still have an understanding of the many ways in which the topic has historically been approached. Key literature here is found in the philosophy of social science. Brian Fay’s Contemporary Philosophy of Social Science (Fay, 1996) provides a very useful framing of key questions. Of particular interest is the fact that Fay’s book is influenced by, and draws extensively on, Robert Kegan’s work and presents a dialectical, postformal approach.

3) Complex thinking rather than Reductive-Disjunctive thinking: How are we thinking about our topic? What is our “unit of analysis” or “system definition?” Are we separating and abstracting, or distinguishing and connecting? The Trans-paradigmatic dimension asks us to reflect on the plurality of ways that our topic has been framed in the context of its larger ecology. This dimension asks us to look at our own thinking, introducing a metacognitive and systemic/complex approach. (Particularly as outlined by Morin— 2008a, 2008b—complex thought is closely related to postformal thought. This will be the topic of a future column.) Our traditional way of thinking focuses on analysis, simplicity, and abstraction. This way of thinking mirrors the organization of knowledge into specific disciplines in universities. The danger is hyper-specialized silo-thinking that can take us ever deeper inside a single system, and cannot account for interrelations and how the system we have chosen to study interacts with, affects, and is affected by, its environment. Systems theory and cybernetics emerged in attempts to create tools and a language to reconnect and move across the disciplines that had become too closed and hyper-specialized. Complex thought integrates systems theory, cybernetics, and complexity theory to offer a way of thinking that accounts for context, interconnection, interdependence, change, and uncertainty. Attempting to do work across disciplines, connecting topics, ideas, and phenomena, with a way of thinking that separates, abstracts (etymologically: removes from context), and isolates is defeating the purpose.

4) Integration of the Inquirer rather than “Objective” elimination of inquirer: In traditional social science, the inquirer and his/her experience, subjectivity, values, etc., are to be completely removed form the inquiry in an attempt to duplicate the method of the natural sciences. In transdisciplinary research, the inquirer attempts to make her- or himself transparent through the process of inquiry, which involves a constant awareness of the inquirer’s participation, both in the potential for self-deception and for creativity. Why are we doing this research? What does it says about us, our motivations, and our life as a whole that we are choosing to research X rather than Y? What are our guiding assumptions, our beliefs, motivations, and implicit theories? Who are we influenced by? What has shaped our understanding of the world? Who are we, and how do we engage with and approach knowledge and knowing? What skills and theoretical frames do we bring to this inquiry, and where might we need to broaden our skill- and theory-base? Transdisciplinarity views inquiry as an opportunity for self-inquiry, and stresses the necessity for self-inquiry as a way of keeping our instrument tuned, as it were.

5) Creative Inquiry rather than Reproductive Inquiry: Transdisciplinarity frames entire inquiry as Creative Inquiry, and therefore as a creative process. How do we create our understanding of any phenomenon? How do we engage with the research literature, and also with our social and cultural context? Creative inquiry is a process of knowledge creation (Montuori, 2011a). Reproductive inquiry (Montuori, 2011b) does not account for creativity. The frame of Creative Inquiry stressed the constructive character of every inquiry.

Transdisciplinarity is not, in this view, either a research method or simply a way of doing research that utilizes a number of different disciplines. It is an altogether different way of thinking about knowledge, knowledge production, and inquiry. The emergence of transdisciplinarity itself offers a wonderful opportunity for inquiry into our own fundamental assumptions about knowledge, knowledge production, and inquiry.


Fay, B. (1996). Contemporary philosophy of social science. New York: Blackwell Publishers.

Montuori, A. (2011a). Creative inquiry. In N. M. Seel (Ed.), The encyclopedia of the science of learning. Heidelberg: Springer.

Montuori, A. (2011b). Reproductive learning. In N. M. Seel (Ed.), The encyclopedia of the science of learning. Heidelberg: Springer.

Morin, E. (2008a). On complexity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Morin, E. (2008b). The reform of thought, transdisciplinarity, and the reform of the university. In B. Nicolescu (Ed.), Transdisciplinarity. Theory and practice (pp. 23-32). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

About the Author

Alfonso Montuori, PhD, is Professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, where he designed and teaches in the Transformative Leadership M.A. and the Transformative Studies Ph.D. He was Distinguished Professor in the School of Fine Arts at Miami University, in Oxford Ohio and in 1985-1986 he taught at the Central South University in Hunan, China. An active musician and producer, in a former life Alfonso worked in London England as a professional musician. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on creativity and innovation, the future, complexity theory, and leadership. Alfonso is also a consultant in the areas of creativity, innovation and leadership development whose clients have included NetApp, Training Vision (Singapore), Omintel-Olivetti (Italy) and Procter and Gamble.