Feedbacks as a bridging concept for advancing transdisciplinary sustainability research (2022)


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Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability

Volumes 26–27,

June 2017

, Pages 114-119

The emergence of transformation as a core component in sustainability science and practice has opened an exciting space for transdisciplinary research. Yet, the mainstreaming of transformation has also exposed epistemological rifts between diverse research perspectives, presenting significant challenges for transdisciplinary teams. Using coral reef social–ecological systems as an example, we explore how these points of tension may be addressed using a three stage process: Firstly, promoting epistemological transparency, where different kinds of knowledge framings are made explicit; secondly, employing feedbacks as a bridging concept to effectively engage with complex system dynamics from multiple perspectives; and finally, encouraging plurality, rather than the unification of epistemologies, to foster innovative, diverse, and sustainable pathways during this formative moment for global environmental sustainability.


Most scholars looking critically at sustainability agree that growing inequality, environmental degradation, and climate change will not be remedied through incremental adjustments to the status quo. Instead, they believe that more fundamental transformations in broader social, political, and economic systems are needed [1]. Interest in societal transformation has opened exciting spaces for collaborative, diverse, and inclusive research that seeks equitable and sustainable development pathways [2, 3••, 4, 5]. Transdisciplinary research — which addresses questions of broad societal interest and fosters integration not only among researchers from different disciplines but also with individuals and organizations from outside academia — is particularly attuned to sustainability [6, 7, 8].

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Despite having shared objectives, the surge in interest in transdisciplinary research has exposed epistemological fissures within and between research communities, presenting challenges for transdisciplinary teams [9]. Fundamental differences in the way that knowledge is generated and interpreted, which translate into differences on how research is framed and conducted, can impede dialogue. Similarly, the dominance of one approach can systematically marginalize contributions from other paradigms [10]. For example, Cote and Nightingale suggest that the authority of ecological notions of resilience for understanding social–ecological system sustainability, ‘has led to a kind of social analysis that hides the possibility to ask important questions about the roles of power and culture’ [11, p. 479]. Narrow analyses can mean that critical insights are lost; and as a result, research recommendations may exacerbate unintended consequences, unsustainable practices, and inequality.

We explore how these points of tension may be overcome using a three-stage process. First, we call for greater epistemological transparency, where different worldviews are made explicit. Second, we propose the notion of feedbacks as a useful heuristic to facilitate transdisciplinary dialogue, accommodate a diversity of perspectives, and shift research focus onto difficult-to-identify relationships and interactions that shape sustainability. Third, we make the case for epistemological plurality as a step towards operationalizing the transdisciplinary research that is required to support the transformative turn in sustainability science.

Section snippets

Epistemological transparency

Everyone has an accent, except me.

Like accents, all researchers have an epistemological perspective; a set of beliefs about what constitutes knowledge, how it is produced, and how it should be applied. Through epistemology, which is developed (in part) during our disciplinary training, we define what counts as legitimate research questions (conceptual framing), how the objects and processes of study are considered to relate to one another and to the world (theoretical framing) and the

Feedbacks as a bridging concept

Striving for epistemological transparency is a step towards understanding discipline-specific differences but it does not support movement through and beyond those differences. A bridging concept is an idea that provides common ground, enabling communication between people. We suggest that the notion of feedbacks can serve as a useful bridging concept for transdisciplinary teams by providing a shared language that facilitates dialogue and by helping to highlight complex and hidden interactions,

Plurality as a way forward

Global change research (and politics) is entering a formative moment, and it's important that a range of epistemic communities shape its content and tenor looking ahead

[30, p. 301]

As a final step for facilitating transdisciplinary research, we suggest plurality as a useful way forward. To explore what plurality in sustainability science might entail in practice, we align ourselves with Nightingale's [16••, p. 41] assertion that ‘new insights are gained both by triangulating data from different


Meeting today's sustainability challenges offers opportunities to advance the field of sustainability science and to understand Earth's potential futures according to diverse human values and aspirations [23]. Scholarly engagement and debate on this subject indicate that plurality in sustainability research will only increase in significance and necessity [3••, 5, 17, 33, 34, 35]. In this paper, we have proposed a three stage process — epistemological transparency, feedbacks as a bridging

References and recommended reading

Papers of particular interest, published within the period of review, have been highlighted as:

• of special interest

•• of outstanding interest

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