Transdisciplinary Reflections: Transdisciplinarity as Play and Transformation

October 2012 / Column

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

Americans have historically been a very practical people. Delving too much into the realm of theory and ideas, let alone epistemology, has often been viewed askance; a somewhat effete egghead distraction from the business of getting things made and done. Theory is a complex and problematic term, and it’s also far more pervasive than we may think—even among those inclined not to be sympathetic to too much, or even any, theorizing. I suggest that there is a danger in what I see as an increasing anti-intellectual tendency to dispose of theory or suggest theory is simply an abstract opinion,  as in “it is just a theory,” or some intellectual framework removed from reality: so many castles in the air.

Most inquiry is intra-paradigmatic, meaning it goes on within an established discipline and theoretical framework. The fundamental disciplinary and theoretical assumptions remain largely unchallenged. Integral scholarship tends, by definition, to be inter- or transdisciplinary. A central dimension of transdisciplinarity is that it should be meta-paradigmatic. Transdisciplinarity involves moving across disciplines and across theories. This means understanding the fundamental assumptions underlying disciplines and theories as well as their underlying paradigms. Many years ago Magoroh Maruyama coined the somewhat unwieldy but useful term “paradigmatology” in an important paper on cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural communication that still deserves a wider readership.

Disciplines and theories create understandings of specific topics through sets of distinctions. In the process of transdisciplinary inquiry we acknowledge that, because of its complexity, our topic will be studied in a way that goes beyond the boundaries of one specific discipline or theoretical framework. We study how the topic has already been approached through a plurality of theoretical lenses in different and probably non-communicating disciplines. It is helpful to understand how these lenses construct the topic; how they frame our understanding of it; what distinction they make about what is central and peripheral; what the unit of analysis is; what matters and what does not matter; and what is illuminated as well as what is obscured, ignored, or simply left out.

So, in that sense, transdisciplinarity and integral scholarship require engaging theory rather thoroughly and really becoming aware of how it shapes our understanding of the world. But the term “theory” is getting bashed around a bit these days. There are many ways in which the use of the term “theory” is problematic. I want to point out some major areas of possible confusion, mostly because they are the source of considerable debate; and in the process also highlight some of the dangers of ignoring theory.

Disimissing Theory

At the most basic level there are the “giving theory the elbow” critiques, such as we find in the evolution debate: “it’s just a theory.” This popular use of the term views theory as a dirty word and dismisses it as, essentially, abstract speculation. The theory of evolution is therefore entirely speculative, flimsy at best, with little relationship to facts. Where is your missing link, Mr. Darwin? What about the eyeball? It is just a story a particular group of people tell, and there are really no criteria to differentiate between the speculations of an evolutionary biologist and those of a layperson. Anyone can make up a story and, therefore, a theory. In this context, theory is often opposed to fact, as in, a fact is real, a theory is not.

This more popular dismissal of theory is complicated by the relativization of science as a way of knowing coming from a variety of sources, including of course the work of Thomas Kuhn, sociologists of science like Bruno Latour, and feminist philosophers like Lorraine Code, Evelyn Fox Keller, Carolyn Merchant, and others. If before the way natural scientists used the term theory was arguably more clearly defined and precise than the way social scientists did; now it all seems to be getting more confusing. This adds a twist because it is a slippery slope from relativization and challenge to complete dismissal. The often virulent backlash against so-called postmodern authors has largely been about a sense that it rips knowledge from any moorings and leaves us with nothing to hang on to—no foundation at all.

Over the last decade or so I have become increasingly concerned that theory is simply not appreciated any more. Now let’s be clear, theory has never been loved in the US to the extent that it has been in Europe. Recently the sociologist Howard Becker steered me clear of a book by a well-known French sociologist whose work I know he thinks of highly. “Don’t get that one,” he told me, “it’s not very good. It’s his theory book. He had to write it because in France you’re nobody until you have a theory.”

A source of confusion in the postmodern debate is, I believe, cross-cultural. The French love to play with ideas and words in a way that most Americans find troubling and perhaps irresponsible. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari argued that philosophy is about the creation of concepts—therefore, a creative process. Invention, not discovery. This sort of thing is alien to what might be called our latent positivism and our explicitly practical action orientation. But taken too far, our pragmatism becomes anti-intellectualism, and before we know it we’re in the land of Dumb and Dumber.

Recently I read a review of a book in which two chapters were described as entirely theoretical. The author argued that these chapters had no practical implications or application. This reflects another longstanding coupling in theory’s rather promiscuous history—the debate about theory and practice, or praxis. The philosophical debate on the relationship between theory and praxis is extensive; but the complete divorce between theory and practice, as if the two were exact opposites, is problematic. Don’t give me theory! Give me something useful. Give me something practical.

I have also been continually struck by the aversion to theory in workshops and management training seminars. While I appreciate the focus on action and practicality, I am concerned that people are increasingly unable or unwilling to read a theoretical work and consider what its implications and applications might be.

French and American Cultures

Grappling with the infinite play of abstraction may be more of a French thing, but in the US we like models because models suggest movement, direction, and how to get from A to B. The trend towards “7 steps to . . .” “The 5 ways to. . .” “8 lessons of. . .” type books reflects a process of translation. Somebody takes a complex set of ideas—say chaos theory; or positive psychology; or, more recently, the latest insights from neuroscience—and frames them in easy to understand steps or lessons—a model. All well and good. The problem arises when we seemingly lose our ability to make sense of theory independently of the priestly class of professional translators. When we need translators to make sense of theory and show us the five or seven or eight steps, we move from a sense of the practical to essentially asking somebody to tell us what and how to do things. At what point do we just want to follow orders and not think for ourselves? At what point do we begin to lose track of our own implicit theories, of our beliefs and assumptions, and the way they shape our understanding of and action in, the world?

The implications of theoretical anemia are considerable. They go beyond what might be thought of (tellingly) as the abstruse academic domain inhabited by alien eggheads. There are implications for basic citizenship, for elections, for understanding the different perspectives presented by political parties, for excavating their assumptions, for understanding their implications, and so on. I am writing this in the days leading up to the 2012 election; and there are a lot of half-baked, undigested theories floating around. The “you didn’t build this” debate, which is polarizing left and right is essentially about an individualistic, closed system view of the individual vs. a more communitarian, socially constructed view. For the Ayn Randian individual, to quote Sinatra and Brown, “I did it my way, and I don’t want nobody to give me nothing.” To suggest I didn’t do it alone is to attack me as an individual, to attack hard work, to bring up the specter of dependence, and worse. For the more communitarian view, an individual exists within a social system, in a network of relationships, and we need to acknowledge the role of the larger social and environmental systems including direct and indirect government support. It takes a village. Very different perspectives, different assumptions, different implications, consequences, etc. These views have become incommensurable, it seems.

What is lacking is a more thoughtful unpacking of the implications of these perspectives, their theoretical roots, and their implications and applications. It is easy to remain stuck in slogans and emotional calls about the virtues of the individual or community. We can easily remain on this surface level if we don not know how to excavate our theoretical assumptions and if we do not acquire the ability to entertain ideas, as John Lilly used to say. We might, therefore, embrace the notion of being able to play with ideas and appreciate them as creative products or ways of framing the world but holding them lightly without excessive attachment. Particularly if they’re our own.

For those who feel such a playful approach to ideas is simply not appropriate in an age of great change and potential global disaster, I highly recommend Richard Bernstein’s work. He draws heavily on hermeneutics and a sophisticated reading of the pragmatist tradition, particularly in his wonderful books Beyond Objectivism and Relativism and The Abuse of Evil: Politics and Religion after 9/11. In the latter, a powerful discussion of pragmatic fallibilism in the face of great danger, and the need for the ability to engage a serious threat without becoming immobilized by indecision. He convincingly argues that it is possible to be a pragmatic fallibilist, to continually question one’s premises and theories, to believe one’s ideas and theories are fallible, and still take action despite the call of absolutism and unreflective reaction/action.

Leadership

In the field of leadership even a cursory assessment of the literature shows the plurality of theories and models of the mainstream discourse. There is also the movement towards so-called leaderless organizations. There are other recent developments, such as post-heroic leadership, which challenge the very premises of the ways we think about leadership, down to the unit of analysis and the basic cultural archetype of the leader.

With this great, rich, and yet confusing, pluralism, it is all too easy to either throw one’s hands up in despair or simply salivate when the bell of the newest model or theory emerges, going from one to the next, in an endless quest. Developmental psychology offers an interesting way of approaching this issue.

William Perry’s important work on cognitive development was based on 10 years of research on the way undergraduate students changed their thinking based on their college experiences. For the sake of convenience, Perry’s research can be summarized as presenting three main stages.

The first of these stages is dualism. We make a clear distinction between the self and the external world. Knowledge resides in the external world. Knowledge is absolute truth, and learning involves searching for the appropriate authority. Any differences in perspectives are reduced to right-wrong, good-bad. We reject ambiguity because it suggests that the proper authority has not been found.

The second stage is multiplicity. Perry’s research suggests that the exposure to a pluralistic world breaks down absolute categories of right and wrong as we begin to see there are many different perspectives and a lot of grey areas. Rather than believing in a single, absolute truth, we believe that there are as many truths as there are people. The loss of the right answer swings us towards the view that anything goes—that all perspectives are just a theory—and that one is as good as the next. The self becomes a source of knowledge; and, in fact, there is a privileging of subjectivity. “You see it your way, I see it my way.” An anti-authoritarian position can develop as a reaction to the conformism of dualism.

Perry’s third stage is contextual relativism. It emerges from an ongoing grappling with multiplicity, as well as the realization of the ultimate futility and the nihilism of multiplicity. If everybody is right—or nobody is wrong—how can we make any choices or commitments? Whereas dualism saw the source of knowledge as external and objective, and multiplicity as internal and subjective, contextual relativism reconciles the two in dialogue and appreciates the importance of context in making choices. It looks for knowledge in the interaction between self and world as an ongoing inquiry.

Perry’s work points to the kind of complex thought articulated by the French philosopher Edgar Morin, to Bernstein’s pragmatic fallibilism, and to the work in post-formal thinking familiar to readers of this journal. It also points to the importance of cultivating a more complex, post-formal way of thinking in order to do justice to transdisciplinary work. It frames our encounter with a plurality or multiplicity of views, not as a reason for despair, but as a challenge to develop new thinking and creative inquiry. This would recognize the need to grapple with theoretical perspectives as creative openings into the world, which are themselves viewed through our own set of, often mostly implicit, assumptions about the world. One way to begin approaching theory, therefore, is to recognize that we all have our own theories, our own set of creative frames and openings to the world, our own epistemology. As Gregory Bateson put it, anybody claiming not to have an epistemology simply has a bad one.

Transdisciplinarity framed in this way becomes more than simply engaging in research using a plurality of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives. It becomes an inquiry into the nature of knowledge, as well as demanding of the researcher an ongoing process of self-reflection and self-inquiry – an elucidation of how we ourselves create our understanding of the world, how that understanding emerged through our own personal and social history, by being embodied and embedded, and how it (and we ourselves) can be opened and indeed transformed as we develop a more nuanced, creative epistemology and way of being in the world.

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.