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Mobilizing transdisciplinary collaborations: collective reflections on decentering academia in knowledge production

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 April 2019

Gabriela Alonso-Yanez*
University of Calgary, Canada
Lily House-Peters
California State University, Long Beach, USA
Martin Garcia-Cartagena
Massey University, New Zealand
Sebastian Bonelli
The Nature Conservancy, Chile
Ignacio Lorenzo-Arana
Ministry of Housing, Planning and Environment, Uruguay
Marcella Ohira
Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research, Uruguay
Author for correspondence: G. Alonso-Yanez, E-mail:

Non-technical summary

Global sustainability challenges and their impact on society have been well-documented in recent years, such as more intense extreme weather events, environmental degradation, as well as ecosystem and biodiversity loss. These challenges require a united effort of scientists from multiple disciplines with stakeholders, including government, non-government organizations, corporate industry, and members of the general public, with the aim to generate integrated knowledge with real-world applicability. Yet, there continues to be challenges for these types of collaboration. In this commentary, we describe processes of collective unlearning that serve to decenter academia in collaborations leading to a more equitable positioning of practitioners engaged in collaborative global sustainability research.

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Copyright © The Author(s) 2019

The participatory approach to knowledge production at the center of transdisciplinary (TD) science arguably has immense potential to improve responses to wicked global sustainability challenges with the goal of generating societal and ecological benefits (Cornell et al., Reference Cornell, Berkhout, Tuinstra, Tabara, Jager, Chabay and Otto2013; Mauser et al., Reference Mauser, Klepper, Rice, Schmalzbauer, Hackmann, Leemans and Moore2013; Djenontin & Meadow, Reference Djenontin and Meadow2018). TD science is characterized by research collaborations between academics and actors beyond academic arenas. Policy and scientific initiatives that advance TD collaboration and synergistic interactions among scientists and other producers and users of knowledge increasingly inform the global landscape of research, policy, and practice in sustainability science and global environmental change (Lang et al., Reference Lang, Wiek, Bergmann, Stauffacher, Martens, Moll and Thomas2012; Balvanera et al., Reference Balvanera, Daw, Gardner, Martin-Lopez, Norstrom, Speranza, Spierenburg, Bennett, Farfan, Hamann, Kittinger, Luthe, Maass, Peterson and Perez-Verdin2017). Institutional administrative policies and cultures of research and education also reflect the growing influence of and an increasing commitment to transdisciplinarity, as do national and international funding bodies that support scientific innovation (National Research Council, 2014; Reference Cooke and Hilton2015; Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research, 2017; International Science Council, 2017).

Rhetorical discourses for best practices and innovation in sustainability-oriented science urge collaboration, synergy, and transgression across traditional disciplinary boundaries and the inclusion of actors beyond academia (Klein, Reference Klein2014; Tejedor, Segalas & Rosas-Casals, Reference Tejedor, Segalàs and Rosas-Casals2018). And while practitioner involvement in sustainability research is growing, the realization of spaces for these types of actors to occupy more equitable positions in sustainability research processes remains rare (Brandt et al., Reference Brandt, Ernst, Gralla, Luederitz, Lang, Newig, Reinert, Abson and von Wehrden2013). Furthermore, in practice, TD sustainability science often faces challenges arising from slow institutional change and immature support structures for researchers (Rikakis, Reference Rikakis2009; Halevi, Reference Halevi2012). For example, it has been reported that collaborative work in science customarily necessitates a difficult process of breaking through individual epistemological and cognitive orientations to find common ground (Ramadier, Reference Ramadier2004; Hall et al., Reference Hall, Stokols, Stipelman, Vogel, Feng, Masimore, Morgan, Moser, Marcus and Berrigan2012). This process entails acknowledging and integrating different, and often conflicting, approaches to formulating research problems, developing shared conceptual toolkits, and designing protocols to structure inquiry-based activities, including data collection and analysis (Pohl & Hadorn, Reference Pohl and Hadorn2008; Balvanera et al., Reference Balvanera, Daw, Gardner, Martin-Lopez, Norstrom, Speranza, Spierenburg, Bennett, Farfan, Hamann, Kittinger, Luthe, Maass, Peterson and Perez-Verdin2017; Pischke et al., Reference Pischke, Eastmond, Alonso-Yanez, Halvorsen, Schelly, Handler, Pischke and Knowlton2019a). Furthermore, collaborative endeavours are often nested within institutional and organizational settings that are generally poorly equipped to enable innovative strategies for collaboration (Stokols et al., Reference Stokols, Misra, Moser, Hall and Taylor2008; Mauser et al., Reference Mauser, Klepper, Rice, Schmalzbauer, Hackmann, Leemans and Moore2013). These multiple micro (individual) and macro (institutional and organizational) dimensions add to the complexity of successfully operationalizing transdisciplinarity within sustainability science and practice.

Notably, within the sustainability science scholarship, transdisciplinarity has itself been described as a ‘wicked problem’ (Norris et al., Reference Norris, O'Rourke, Mayer and Halvorsen2016) due to the need to navigate complex governance issues across various individual and institutional domains. Despite these challenges, the profile of transdisciplinarity is being elevated as a pathway forward to address pressing global sustainability problems. As a result of ongoing shifts in research funding and institutional priorities, an increasing number of individuals and teams are experimenting with strategies to engage and open equitable spaces for a broad range of diverse stakeholders and knowledge users to co-create place-based, solution -and transformation-oriented research (Podesta et al., Reference Podesta, Natenzon, Hidalgo and Ruiz Toranzo2013; Steelman et al., Reference Steelman, Nichols, James, Bradford, Ebersöhn, Scherman, Omidire, Bunn, Twine and McHale2015; Balvanera et al., Reference Balvanera, Daw, Gardner, Martin-Lopez, Norstrom, Speranza, Spierenburg, Bennett, Farfan, Hamann, Kittinger, Luthe, Maass, Peterson and Perez-Verdin2017).

In this short commentary, we describe and discuss a multi-national TD collaboration, drawing upon the authors’ experiences after 5 years of collaborative work investigating how established teams negotiate the process of conducting place-based social-ecological research in a global sustainability context. The research collaboration described in this study was established on the basis of grant-funding specifically targeted to building TD research capacity in global environmental change science among early career scientists and practitioners across the Americas region. We analyse and reflect on how being part of a diverse group – both epistemologically and in practice – has shaped the ways in which we engage with each other, co-design research, overcome conflict when it arises, and reflect on the profound transformations occurring within key institutions through our own experience with long-term collaboration.

We situate our commentary within current scholarship in Science of Team Science (SciTs) and social experiential learning to describe and reflect on our participation in a multi-year TD collaboration (Wenger, Reference Wenger2000; Fernandez-Gimenez et al., Reference Fernandez-Gimenez, Ballard and Sturtevant2008; Fiore, Phillips, & Sellers, Reference Fiore, Phillips and Sellers2014; Christie, Reference Christie2017; Parker, Racz, & Palmer, Reference Parker, Racz and Palmer2018). For decades, a radical change in the way that knowledge is produced has been taking place. Knowledge production is no longer solely affiliated with individual disciplinary contexts, nor limited to academic institutions. Rather, there is growing attention to knowledge that is produced within open and shifting organizational boundaries with an expanding scope of participating actors (Pischke et al., Reference Pischke, Halvorsen, Mwampamba, House-Peters, Eastmond, Ohira, Pérez Volkow, Fragoso Medina, Halvorsen, Schelly, Handler, Pischke and Knowlton2019b). Furthermore, knowledge production in sustainability science is increasingly oriented towards broader impacts that translate research outcomes into policy and practice to achieve particular, useful, and actionable ends (Hadorn, Pohl & Bammer, Reference Hadorn, Pohl, Bammer and Frodeman2010; Brandt et al., Reference Brandt, Ernst, Gralla, Luederitz, Lang, Newig, Reinert, Abson and von Wehrden2013; Chan Nuñez, Reference Chan Nuñez2015; Toikka, Miettinen, & Tuunainen, Reference Toikka, Miettinen and Tuunainen2016; Parker, Racz, & Palmer, Reference Parker, Racz and Palmer2018). Central to action-oriented TD teamwork is a process of social experiential learning described as “an intentional process of collective self-reflection through interaction and dialogue among diverse participants or stakeholders” (Fernandez-Gimenez et al., Reference Fernandez-Gimenez, Ballard and Sturtevant2008, p. 22). This suggests that TD knowledge production is practice-based, formed through action, experience, and joint reflection of the members involved (Parker, Racz & Palmer, Reference Parker, Racz and Palmer2018).

Theorizing processes of collective learning in TD collaborations is a growing area of research attention (Gerlak & Heikkila, Reference Gerlak and Heikkila2011; Herrero, Dedeurwaedere, & Osinski, Reference Herrero, Deduerwaedere and Osinski2018). Within the contours of the Latin American TD scholarship, we note synergies and divergences from European approaches to collaborative research. An area of alignment between the bodies of thought is increasing visibility of processes of social learning in long-term collaborative research networks. An area of thought we find emphasized more in the Latin American scholarship is attention to the role of and possibility afforded by deconstruction and challenging epistemic power structures. Chan Nuñez (Reference Chan Nuñez2015) describes ‘knowledge ecosystems’ as groups of collaborators who draw upon varied types of knowledge produced by distinct communities of practice, only partially relying on the knowledge production process followed by academic scientists. Espinosa Torres, & Pons Bonals (Reference Espinosa Torres and Pons Bonals2015) introduce the concept of ‘de-constructors’ to describe the responsibility of academic actors engaged in community-based TD research collaborations to expose hidden assumptions and contradictions of instrumentalist approaches to knowledge production.

Following this literature, we argue that, in order to truly engage in TD work, all actors involved – especially academics – need to participate in processes of deliberate social unlearning, to enable the decentering of academia in both the processes and politics of TD knowledge production and knowledge translation. Thus, for us, social unlearning serves as a method to decenter academia. That is, a deliberate process of acknowledgement, removal and replacement of academia-driven precepts, canons and practices from a primary or central role in any TD process of joint work. This intervention argues that when the place of academia is decentered within TD collaboration, attention is drawn to other ways of engaging the world and aims to jointly open spaces for other knowledge communities to take on active roles. Consequently, decentering academia offers opportunities for the emergence of alternative forms of knowledge production and for actors beyond academic arenas to engage more meaningfully in the collaborative process of TD work. Our intention is not to invite a wholesale rejection of academic culture and knowledge production systems in TD work. Rather, our aim is to recognize that processes of decentering academia in collaborations that bring together academics, practitioners, and others, may facilitate a genuine openness to ascertain knowledge claims brought up by diverse actors and allow us to join other communities in their unique practices of knowledge production.

It is surprising that few first-hand accounts exist of teams’ learning experiences as a site for inquiry (for a few examples see, Binder, Absenger-Helmi, & Schilling, Reference Binder, Absenger-Helmli and Schilling2015; Espinosa Torres, & Pons Bonals, Reference Espinosa Torres and Pons Bonals2015; Pischke et al., Reference Pischke, Knowlton, Phifer, Gutierrez Lopez, Propato, Eastmond, Martins de Souza, Kuhlberg, Picasso Risso, Vernon, Garcia, Chiappe and Halvorsen2017), especially given the rapidly expanding body of TD research within team science, in particular the role TD collaborations play in shaping current generations of scientific knowledge (Fiore, Reference Fiore2008; Wuchty, Jones, & Uzzi, Reference Wuchty, Jones and Uzzi2007; Hall & O'Rourke, Reference Hall, O'Rourke, Huutoniemi and Tapio2014), and the opportunities these collaborations provide to inform policy and practice (Pregernig, Reference Pregernig2006; Stokols, Reference Stokols2006; Falk-Krzesinski et al., Reference Falk-Krzesinski, Börner, Contractor, Fiore, Hall, Keyton, Spring, Stokols, Trochim and Uzzi2010; Schnapp, Reference Schnapp2012). This gap in the existing body of TD scholarship is significant, as there are insufficient accounts that capture the TD team experience and social experiential learning dynamics from the perspectives of the team members themselves. Describing the stories, tools, and formal and informal learning processes of teams engaged in the practice of TD sustainability science has the potential to provide important insights.

We used a qualitative narrative approach (Clandinin et al., Reference Clandinin, Murphy, Huber and Orr2009; Espinosa Torres, & Pons Bonals, Reference Espinosa Torres and Pons Bonals2015) as the foundation for our inquiry into social experiential learning and TD teamwork in the context of global sustainability research in the Americas region. This approach provided a framework to capture and reflect on our experiences and to reveal the uniqueness of our teamwork processes, while allowing us to be active narrative storytellers and narrative analysts. Data for the inquiry included informal conversation notes, e-mail messages, field notes, and focus group transcripts. We employed thematic analysis to examine the data collected, identifying key patterns that occurred in and through our collaborative learning processes. Data analysis also focused on detecting narrative passages that spoke to the larger institutional and organizational boundaries of our work.

Our six-member team first met in 2014 as a result of a two-part intensive international TD capacity building workshop series led by an international funding agency. This initial shared training experience enabled us as uniquely positioned to observe and evaluate our collaboration through a TD lens. Since 2014, the team has collaborated on several projects exploring large, international scientific collaborations that address place-based sustainability challenges and global environmental change in the Americas. Our team is a practice-oriented research group characterized by high levels of international, cultural, gender, disciplinary, and academic-practitioner diversity. Three of the six members of our team belong to policy and practice sectors: 1) a non-governmental environmental conservation organization, 2) an intergovernmental funding agency, and 3) a member of the Ministry of Environment in a South American country. Two members are assistant professors currently affiliated with universities in North America and one member is completing his doctoral degree in a university in New Zealand. The majority of the team members are Latin Americans, with one member from the US. Three of the team members are female, and three are male. The team members also represent diverse disciplinary backgrounds spanning the natural and social sciences and architecture.

In the next section, we provide three examples drawn from our team's collective reflections to illustrate how we experienced processes of social unlearning, including challenging taken for granted power structures, and decentering academia. In the final section, we highlight insights gained from these experiences and the potential to contribute to new avenues in TD sustainability science.

1. Decentering academia through social unlearning

A consistent theme across our narratives refers to a shared interest in structural transformation, focused on practical attempts to challenge and transform the institutional structures of which we are a part and that shape our professional activities, including for example traditional funding conventions for global sustainability research. As we see it, this required our team to engage in deliberate processes of unlearning well-established organizational routines to transform and readjust procedures, systems, and processes that we previously considered conventional and taken for granted.

In the first example, the team member affiliated with the intergovernmental funding agency shared her interest in revising the funding infrastructure for collaborative research networks, to better support the integration and equitable positioning of practitioners and actors beyond academia in action-oriented TD sustainability research. For instance, while an orientation towards collaborative, community-based research had been a defining feature of the funding agency she is affiliated with, the communication channels for promoting grants and disseminating calls for proposals was dominated by academic listservs and mailing lists mostly targeting senior and established scholars in the natural sciences. However, the results of funded projects that emerged from this engagement strategy (i.e. primarily targeting well-established, senior-career natural science academic actors) tended to fall short of the proposed TD outcomes for collaborative knowledge production and knowledge translation laid out in the research proposals. As a result of engaging in collaborative social learning experiences with our team and the research findings that emerged from our work, the funding agency is now in the process of broadening their audience and targeting young professionals from a wider variety of fields and sectors in their TD capacity-building workshops and research funding calls for proposals.

In a second example, the members of the team who are early career professionals affiliated with universities identified an interest to challenge the formal controls and normative regulations that structure our academic activities within our institutions. This process involved acknowledging, questioning, openly discussing, and at times, challenging the parameters and practices of our own disciplines, as well as, the set of practices, traditions, and habits of mind that go along with being trained in, and becoming professionals who work within, the academy. For example, in order to attempt to engage in collaborative work, we had to unlearn previous training in our own narrow disciplinary and methodological niches. Most of our career training in academia consisted of valuing specialized knowledge, developing disciplinary-specific methodological practices, and achieving a stable epistemological affiliation and disciplinary identity. In such an intellectual environment, building TD collaborations was foreseeable by many of us as possible only if built on top of our own disciplinary foundations, guided by our strong academic and disciplinary identities (i.e. geographer, educator, agronomist). However, our shared TD work invited us to discuss, and ultimately deconstruct, our established bodies of knowledge and their associated practices of knowledge production in more depth. These processes of disciplinary deconstruction challenged each of us to reconsider the value we assign certain epistemic traditions over others and how these values were reflected in and served to shape how we designed our collaborative work.

In designing the methodology of our research, early in our collaboration, the multi-national team came together face-to-face to develop a survey instrument to be implemented during the first phase of research data collection. On this occasion, a significant dialogical clash flared between academic scientific worldviews and practitioner perspectives focused on epistemological value judgements, or put another way, what forms of knowledge count. In this example, academic team members overwhelmingly placed significant value on knowledge produced through evidence- and data-based factual information, while practitioners’ perspectives tended to value experiential and anecdotal forms of knowing as also having legitimate credibility. To succeed in collaboratively designing our survey instrument in a manner that would strengthen, rather than erode trust between team members, we had to productively resolve this inter-team conflict. We assumed a critical deconstructive process to elicit, disclose, question, and discuss our own epistemological values and how they shape the way we each see and interpret the world. Through this collective experience we were able to identify and deconstruct what each of us had taken for granted in our disciplinary training and what we considered to be conventional in how work is conducted in our own fields. This process of social unlearning – characterized by a shared, intentional departure from previous routines and systems of meaning associated with our individual professional practices – enabled a number of important shifts in our TD collaboration. By decentering academia in the research design process, deconstructing taken-for-granted discipline-based assumptions, and renegotiating the value assigned to other-than-academic ways of knowing, actors beyond academic fields were able to move beyond a token participation role to take key leadership roles in shaping the research design.

Finally, a third example concerns the inclusion of indigenous community members as genuine collaborators within our TD work. This example illuminates the ways that following respected protocols of engagement with indigenous communities can unexpectedly challenge entrenched institutional structures and practices in both academia and funding agencies. For example, there exist guidelines for connecting appropriately with keepers of traditional knowledge and cultural resource experts in indigenous communities. These guidelines clearly outline cultural observances to be followed by members of academia and other sectors who attempt to engage and conduct participatory research with traditional knowledge keepers and cultural resource experts. These protocols for collaboration and sustained dialogue include guidelines for invitations, honoraria, and offerings. Yet, aligning the protocols of engagement with strict funding agency budget rules and academic institutional structures for financial accounting has proven in our experience to be difficult. Often, such budget templates and financial guidelines for fund expenditures are rigidly designed to respond to and prioritize academic practices of knowledge production and translation, explicitly prohibiting the use of funds for cultural practices of reciprocity associated with gift-giving and other offerings to compensate the sharing of indigenous expertise and traditional ecological knowledge. To provide space for the genuine inclusion, acknowledgement, and equitable positioning of indigenous knowledge holders in collaborative TD research processes, it is necessary to engage in additional processes of social unlearning. In this specific case, to unlearn academic norms and priorities that structure knowledge production by challenging, adapting, and revising the strict and rigid funding categories that do not recognize respected indigenous cultural practices of research engagement.

In Table 1, we provide a chart/written record of the accounts we have outlined in this commentary.

Table 1. Insights from collective, team-based reflection on the role of social unlearning processes to mobilize solution-oriented transdisciplinary research for global sustainability challenges.

2. Conclusion – new possibilities for TD collaborations

In conclusion, our collective experience illustrates that processes of social unlearning produce the space and possibility for performing small acts aimed at decentering academic privilege and deconstructing academic power structures in the politics of TD knowledge production that may enable radical positive change. Our provocation contends that social unlearning provides a strategic approach to decentering academia in TD collaborations, a challenge that remains particularly difficult to solve in practice (Polk, Reference Polk2014). Thus, we argue that social unlearning practices such as deconstructing and disrupting institutionalized scientific norms and challenging entrenched institutional structures may hold the key to mobilizing alternative landscapes of TD place-based social-ecological research that is able to more effectively address and resolve global sustainability challenges. However, this process of social unlearning needs to occur within well-structured and carefully designed spaces of learning and collaboration that emphasize principles of good practice, including dialogue, interaction, trust, and ethical practice (Wenger, Reference Wenger2000; Fernandez-Gimenez et al., Reference Fernandez-Gimenez, Ballard and Sturtevant2008). Acknowledging the inevitability of researchers’ standpoints has implications that extend far beyond the reflections and examples from our team's experience offered here; to focus attention on ethical issues concerning the significant responsibility sustainability researchers have in the constitution and legitimation of moral and political frameworks and assumptions. We invite those currently working in the contexts of global sustainability, to pay attention to the types of structural and institutional transformations that TD work enables and the opportunities for democratic practices that TD spaces provide for meaningful participation and equitable positioning of diverse actors through joint work to resolve pressing social-ecological sustainability problems.

Author ORCIDs

Gabriela Alonso-Yanez, 0000-0002-0434-8624.



Author contributions

Gabriela Alonso-Yanez, Lily House-Peters and Marcella Ohira conceptualized and formulated the commentary theme. Martin Garcia Cartagena, Sebastian Bonelli, Ignacio Lorenzo Arana and Lily House-Peters conducted the investigation data/evidence collection process. Gabriela Alonso-Yanez prepared and wrote the initial draft of this commentary including substantive translation and conceptual content. Lily House-Peters and Martin Garcia Cartagena contributed significantly with manuscript content; specifically critical review, commentary and editing.

All co-authors contributed ideas and insights about their experiences in the team's TD efforts and reviewed the final manuscript.Footnote i

Financial support

This research is based upon work supported by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research under Grant PDS-TISG-2014 with resources from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and a University of Calgary Research Across Borders – International Research Seed Grant.

Conflict of interest


Publishing ethics

This manuscript is an original work, and does not duplicate any other previously published work. The manuscript has been submitted only to Global Sustainability and is not under consideration, accepted for publication, or in press elsewhere. All listed authors know of and agree to the manuscript being submitted to the journal. The manuscript contains nothing that is abusive, defamatory, fraudulent, illegal, libellous, or obscene.


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Table 1. Insights from collective, team-based reflection on the role of social unlearning processes to mobilize solution-oriented transdisciplinary research for global sustainability challenges.