Transdisciplinary Studies are an area of research and education that addresses contemporary issues that cannot be solved by one or even a few points-of-view. It brings together academic experts, field practitioners, community members, research scientists, political leaders, and business owners among others to solve some of the pressing problems facing the world, from the local to the global.
Transdisciplinary studies are related to a set of ideas such as interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and integrative studies. What sets transdisciplinary studies apart from the others is a particular emphasis on engagement, investigation, and participation in addressing present-day issues and problems in a manner that explicitly destabilizes disciplinary boundaries while respecting disciplinary expertise. They are built around three key concepts: transformative praxis, constructive problem-solving and real-world engagement. The advocates of transdisciplinary studies argue that they come from the nature of the 21st century world, with its loss of a unifying narrative of knowledge, the continuing destabilization of disciplinary boundaries, and the transgressive character of the times. Our world, they claim, requires a contextualizing of knowledge in order to address complex worldwide issues (such as global warming and ethnic cleansing) and a collaboration across academic disciplines that includes non-academics in solving problems and addressing global issues.
Transdisciplinary studies as a field of academic activity is rooted in the Charter of Transdisciplinarity, adopted at the First World Congress of Transdisciplinarity at the Convento da Arrábida, Portugal in 1994. It is clear from the beginning of the document that transdisciplinarity is not another method or another field of research. At its core, the charter lays out an ethos, a call to a way of life, a “personal moral commitment.” It begins with what can only be called a pessimistic overview of the world in the late 20th century, a complex world riddled with conflict and verging on self-destruction, a world where the secular and the spiritual, the scientific and the humanistic, are divorced and unable to speak to each other.
In the preamble, phrases such as “the triumph of techno-science,” “productivity for productivity’s sake” and “a new brand of obscurantism” raise ominous visions of a world on the edge. The fifteen articles of the charter that follow reject a variety of forces that threaten humanity: the reduction of human beings to “formal structures” and of reality to a “single level governed by a single form of logic.” It rejects those that “strive for mastery,” the “claim to total objectivity,” and the refusal of “dialogue and discussion,” as well as claims to primacy by particular cultures, market economics, and specific disciplines.
Hope lies in “the transdisciplinary vision,” an “open-minded rationality” that encompasses not only science, both natural and social, and the humanities, but also “spiritual experience,” a “transhistorical horizon,” “transcultural” meaning, and “transnational” citizenship. It is a rigorous rationality that must also be open to “the unknown, the unexpected and the unforeseeable,” including “myth and religions,” while rejecting dogmatism, ideology, and intolerance.
The values embedded in the transdisciplinary vision are basic: sharing, respect, and resolve. As with any ethos, it calls for a commitment not to a method or practice, but to a way of being; not to a new religion or metaphysics, but to a new way of life. The binary distinctions between the public and the private, the mental and the physical, the object and the subject, are transcended in this new vision. It is a distinctly postmodern point-of-view, calling on women and men, on “transdisciplinary-minded persons of all countries” to join in bringing this vision into reality, into “everyday life.” It is a bold vision; some might even say an impossible one, filled with a zeal for justice, equality, inclusion, and true democratic decision-making.