Transdisciplinarity distinguishes itself from mono-, multi- and inter-disciplinarity in that it – as research methodology – has developed specific principles, practices and methods of co-producing knowledge with social partners when facing real-world problem situations that are too complex to tackle with theoretical knowledge alone. In other words, transdisciplinarity is an appropriate research methodology when it becomes absolutely imperative to bring practical / experiential / tacit knowledge systems into the research process to develop context-relevant problem statements and research questions capable of producing system, target and transformation knowledge. Epistemologically speaking, the latter are three different kinds of knowledge, each with their own internal logics and epistemic objects. Methodologically speaking, the question is how – with what methods / practices – do we co-produce these different kinds of knowledge?

With its strong emphasis on using quantitative and qualitative methods, mixed methods has emerged and been widely adopted by many transdisciplinary practitioners over the years as a very useful methods approach in transdisciplinary case studies. However, its strong point is also its weak point because it tends to omit transformative methods from its repertoire of methods. For example, (participatory) action research approaches are either completely absent from mixed methods or are backgrounded by the foregrounding of said quant-qual methods. This results in yielding valuable insights into the understanding (Verstehen) and explaining (Erklärung) of problem situations, but not necessarily into changing (Verändern) them.

With this challenge in mind, this paper integrates narrative theory and action research into narrative action research (NAR) as an alternative – synergic – methods approach for doing transformative transdisciplinary research (TTDR). Basically, this comes down to adopting a one-to-many approach of using NAR for co-producing said systems, target and transformation knowledge. Guided by the principle of distributed ethnography, NAR is particularly useful when dealing with multiple social partners distributed geographically, institutionally, administratively and, very importantly, experientially – ranging from formal ‘legitimised’ stakeholders, with a mandate to speak and make decisions on behalf of others, to informal social actors, with no mandate to speak for others, only themselves. The lived realities of this wide range of social partners always produce many different and differing narratives and a key challenge in this is that of collaborative sense-making – namely, figuring out together the directionality of any social change processes in light of said different and differing stories – in short, allowing emerging narrative patterns to guide the praxis of radical incrementalism.

Learn more in Dr John van Breda’s recently published article here.