Demarcating transdisciplinary research in sustainability science—Five clusters of research modes based on evidence from 59 research projects

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The discourse revolving around “new modes of knowledge production”—particularly in sustainability-oriented research—seems to suggest a duality of transdisciplinary versus non-transdisciplinary research. Yet, in reality, a spectrum of transdisciplinary research modes may be expected. This article offers an empirically grounded distinction of five research modes, based on a cluster analysis of 59 completed sustainability-oriented research projects. Projects in one cluster approximate a transdisciplinary ideal type, while another cluster combines almost purely practice-oriented projects. Among the three remaining clusters with varying degrees of practitioner interaction, one cluster assembles projects with strictly academic research, while realizing substantial societal impact. Furthermore, our analyses indicate that the choice of research mode strongly depends on the funding context, with mission-oriented funding encouraging more collaborative modes. Overall, clusters with more practitioner interaction display stronger societal outputs and impacts at the cost of academic outputs and impacts. Beyond the demarcation of transdisciplinary research modes in sustainability science, our empirical analysis revealed three important tensions related to the theory and practice of this research approach: the duality of science and society (and scholars and practitioners); imbalances in the involvement and influence of different societal actor groups; and tensions between societal and academic outputs and impacts.

Original languageEnglish
JournalSustainable Development
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)343-357
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - 01.04.2022

Bibliographical note

The authors would like to thank the members of our advisory group, Antonietta di Giulio, Rico Defila, Michael Pregernig, Arnim Wiek and Michael Stauffacher, for their constructive and valuable feedback in early stages of this research; Nicolas W. Jager for reviewing the clustering procedure; the German Research Foundation for providing the funding for the research project Modes of sustainability‐related research in comparison (MONA): Modes of research and their impact on scientific and societal project outcomes under grant numbers NE1207/4‐1 to Jens Newig and LA3024/1‐1 to Daniel J. Lang; staff from the German Research Foundation and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research for their support in preparing the data collection; project heads, researchers and practitioners involved in the investigated sustainability‐oriented research projects for providing us with project documents, as well as for participating in a survey and semi‐structured interviews; our student assistants Marie Josefine Hintz, Marie Weiß, Marion Blome, Sophia Schönig, Maria Brück, Silke Bölts, Alina Langkau, Franziska Steinbrügge, Jakob Wondra and Inga Melchior for their long‐term and outstanding support with regard to data collection and data editing in preparation for this article.