Notes Toward a Social Epistemology of Transdisciplinarity *


La nécessité de la transdisciplinarité provient des développements des connaissances et de la culture à la fois complexes, hybrides, non-linéaires et hétérogènes. Pour faire avancer le project proposé, il faudra développer simultanément une structure conceptuelle, un vocabulaire et des pédagogies nouvelles. La recherche des nouvelles institutions doit s'accompagner des efforts pour construire des coalitions et soutenir les stratégies intégratives des institutions qui existent déjà.


The need for transdisciplinarity arises from developments in knowledge and culture that are characterized by complexity, hybridity, non-linearity, and heterogeneity. Advancing the proposed project will require developing a common conceptual framework, vocabulary, and pedagogies. Designing new institutions is important, but it must occur alongside coalition building and supporting integrative strategies in existing institutions.

Biographical Statement

Julie Thompson Klein is Professor of Humanities at Wayne State University. She has published widely on interdisciplinary research and education and consults internationally on the design, operation, and evaluation of interdisciplinary programs and projects.


I study the social epistemology of knowledge practices. Social epistemology attempts to reconcile normative philosophy with an empirical sociology of knowledge (Fuller l988). It provides a method for examining the interplay of social and cognitive factors, the forms that ideas take in institutions, and competing claims about knowledge. The particular claim before us is the Transdisciplinarity project.


The project aims to build a general unifying perspective across knowledge and culture. This idea is not new. A number of concepts and theories have promoted a comprehensive vision that metaphorically encompasses all areas of knowledge. The most prominent are general systems, cybernetics, structuralism, phenomenology, Marxism, and feminism. The term is also the label for older disciplines with synoptic scope, such as philosophy and history, as well as new fields, including cultural futuristics, human population biology, peace research, policy sciences, and sociobiology (Klein l990, 63-71).These approaches promote comprehensive worldviews. However, they also encounter the problem of holism. When they reduce all phenomena to one metaphor, theory, or ideology, transdisciplinary schema risk becoming monolithic projects or closed systems. Ultimately, as well, the multitude of unifying proposals has exacerbated the fragmentation of knowledge

The most widely known definition is the one used in the first international seminar on interdisciplinarity. "Transdisciplinarity" was defined as a common system of axioms for a set of disciplines. Several theorists in that project are credited with coining the term, including Jean Piaget and Andre Lichnerowicz. Erich Jantsch (l972), though, became the most widely associated with the idea. Jantsch proposed an education-innovation system viewed as a multi-level, multi-goal hierarchy. His scheme fostered mutual enhancement of all epistemologies on the basis of generalized axiomatics. Jantsch conceded that transdisciplinary coordination was an ideal beyond the complete reach of science. Yet, he believed the idea could guide science in its evolution.

More recently, a new definition has appeared. Gibbons, et al. (1994) identify a fundamental change in the ways that scientific, social, and cultural knowledge are being produced. The elemental traits are complexity, hybridity, non-linearity, reflexivity, heterogeneity, and transdisciplinarity. The new mode of production is "transdisciplinary" in that it contributes theoretical structures, research methods, and modes of practice that are not located on current disciplinary or interdisciplinary maps. One of its effects is to replace or reform established institutions, practices, and policies. Problem contexts are transient and problem solvers mobile. Emerging out of wider societal and cognitive pressures, knowledge is dynamic. It is stimulated by continuous linking and relinking of influences across a dense communication network with feedback loops. As a result, new configurations are continuously generated.

This new use of the concept is relevant to the Transdisciplinarity project. However, Gibbons, et al. focus primarily on the context of application and use, leaving the human sciences, culture, and production of fundamental knowledge relatively silent. The theory, while powerful, sidesteps what Basarab Nicolescu calls the "reason of understanding."

Knowledge and Culture

By the year l987 there were 8,530 definable knowledge fields (Crane and Small l992, l97). This staggering number is the result of both increasing specialization and interdisciplinary overlaps. The Transdisciplinarity project calls attention to developments in science and technology that have made complexity and hybridity universal traits of knowledge production today. The inner development of the sciences has posed ever broader tasks leading to interconnections among natural, social, and technical sciences. The same object -- an organism -- is simultaneously a physical (atomic), chemical (molecular), biological (macromolecular), physiological, mental, social, and cultural object. As mutual relations are reconsidered, new aggregate levels of organization are revealed and "multidisciplinary" is becoming a common descriptor of research objects (Habib 1990, 6). The eight-volume series published by the National Research Council in the United States, Physics through the l990s, provides ample evidence of these developments.

Our understanding of knowledge, though, would be incomplete if equated solely with science. Indeed, the Latin word "scientia" meant "knowledge." The humanities and social sciences also exhibit complexity and hybridity, heterogeneous practices of the same discipline, overlapping problem domains, and crossfertilizations of tools and methods. Many classically-framed disciplinary objects and concepts have been reformulated as multi- and interdisciplinary objects and concepts. Furthermore, many knowledge fields are of recent origin, and a significant number of them evolved from crossfertilizations of hierarchically unrelated knowledge fields, new mission-oriented fields, and interdisciplinary subject fields (Dahlberg l994, 60). The list of new knowledges spans operations research, biochemistry, and molecular biology; environmental studies, peace research, and cognitive science; social psychology, policy sciences, and area studies; women's studies, cultural studies, and the transformation of older disciplines of literary studies, history, and art history.

The complexity and hybridity of the knowledge system is further apparent in the diversity of institutional structures, many of them hybrid in nature. Hybridization reflects the need to accomplish tasks at the boundaries and in the spaces between systems and subsystems (Gibbons, et al l994, 37). Over the latter half of the twentieth century, new alliances with industry and government, think tanks, projects, and teamwork have become more prominent. In business and industry, intraorganizational projects have been appearing more frequently as ad hoc projects, teams, working groups, and task forces. Likewise, in academe, matrix structures, research institutes and centers, interdisciplinary studies, networks and invisible colleges have increased. The growing presence of hybrid communities documents the widely perceived gap between the traditional structure of knowledge and the needs and interests of the modern world. These structures enable collaboration, integrative problem solving, and development of new hybrid fields. Like holisms, however, they also contribute to fragmentation.

Boundary crossing is not strictly academic. The erosion of older nation states, the globalization of economic activities, information technologies and networks, international transport of goods & people, and new cultural particularisms have created a "new constellation" (R. Bernstein l99l), often dubbed "postmodernism." One of its central features is the reversal of the differentiating, strong classificatory dynamic of high modernity and increasing de-differentiation, de-insulation, and hybridization of cultural categories, identities, and previous certainties (Muller & Taylor l994, l7-l8). Contests of legitimacy continue, systems of demarcation persist, and regulative and sanctioning mechanisms are still enforced. However, transdisciplinarity, transculturalism, transnationalism have blurred and reordered older binary cultural, social, political, and epistemological distinctions and categories.

As older borders and identities have weakened, the need for transdisciplinarity has become greater but, simultaneously, more difficult.

Developing "The Luxuriance of the Plural"

In his exposition of Transdisciplinarity, Nicolescu (l993) writes of the "luxuriance of the plural." This "New Renaissance" will require "perpetual movement across thresholds." The core concepts reside in the very developments in knowledge and culture that make Transdisciplinarity necessary. While different in their particularities, they share common features, depicted in the difference between the left column and the right:

simplicity complexity
singularity heterogeneity
insulation hybridity
linearity non-linearity
unity unirfying approaches
consensus agreement
fragmentation coherence
universality dialogue of the local-regional-global

The Transdisciplinarity project also recognizes the problem of language. Languages of concordance exist, prominent among them general systems, mathematics, and computers. They cannot simply be applied, however. One of the lessons from the history of interdisciplinary experiments is that interlanguages develop from acts of integration, not prior to them. Indeed, emergence is one of the core elements of intercommunication. Linguistics suggests a model of how a transdisciplinary language might develop. A "pidgin" is an interim tongue, based in partial agreement on the meaning of shared terms. A "creole" is a language that develops within a main subculture. Transdisciplinarity, like other boundary-crossing projects, will begin with a pidgin, with interim agreement on basic concepts and their meanings. With development, a more stable creole may form. In an analogy to physics, an integrative rhetoric develops by "bootstrapping" up through lower-level translation of disciplinary perspectives to higher levels of conceptual synthesis (Fuller 45). In an analogy to information theory, in working across differing perspectives and levels what is first perceived as "noise" becomes perceived as a "signal" (Paulson 199l, 40-43).

This process will not deny difference. Integrative communication occurs within Alteritaet, a consent-dissent/agreement-disagreement structure that builds on the unaccountable, misunderstandings, and the unforeseeable. Quality of communication thus becomes an important element of appropriate criteria (Vosskamp 1994). Shared ideas and concepts function, in effect, as "boundary concepts" with dual capacity. The idea of "boundary concept" emanates from studies of science and social science. In the work of particular groups, a concept may have both specificity and general meaning that enables connection across heterogeneous groups and sites. Relatedly, boundaries are characterized by on-going tensions of permanency & passage. Demarcations have the power to be divisive barriers, but they are also permeable membranes (Klein l996).

An analogy to the European Union comes to mind. The general problems of Europe do not necessarily correspond exactly to the problems of each regional group and vice-versa. In detailing each European border, Michel Foucher combines its segments into an "envelope" that is treated as a mixture of problems, not a single homogeneous configuration (l988, 443). Dialogue across local sites, regional areas, and global concerns is vital to transactions. Distinct zones of transdisciplinary interaction will develop, functioning as "trading zones" that facilitate dialogue and cooperation without dissolving the particularities of the local and the regional (Klein l996). Without autonomy, Erich Jantsch reminded us, symbiosis will degenerate into fusion with complete loss of participants' identities (l98l, l09).

The Transdisciplinarity project will also require attention to institutional structures and pedagogical strategies. The sociologist of education, Basil Bernstein (l990), predicted greater movement toward integrated codes in education as society became more fragmented & specialized. Integrated codes are characterized by new forms of interdependence and cooperation. They heighten awareness of the difference between insulation and hybridity. Insulation stresses the interdictory, impermeable quality of cultural boundaries, textual classification, and disciplinary autonomy. Hybridity stresses essential identity and continuity, permeability of classificatory boundaries, cultural meanings, and domains. Hybridity is not dominant, but the framework of debate in education has shifted, putting hybridizers on the offensive, and insulators on the defensive (Muller & Taylor l994). Designing new institutions will be important, but it would be a mistake to overlook or dismiss existing models of integration and coherence.

Throughout the meeting at the Convent of Arrabida, "interdisciplinarity" was a taboo word. This posture is not unique. An "anti- and "post-disciplinary" rhetoric pervades the humanities, signifying discontent with prior interdisciplinary experiments that merely combined existing organizations of knowledge. It is legitimate to distinguish the Transdisciplinarity project from older interdisciplinary forms and activities. However, the success of the project will be foreshortened if the record of interdisciplinary institutional strategies, pedagogies, and criteria is ignored (Klein & Doty l994; Klein & Newell l996). Many of the lessons are conducive to building a "transdisciplinary attitude." Coalition building is also a necessary activity, linking other groups and projects concerned with creating coherence and unifying perspective. A genuinely "transdisciplinary attitude" must not establish, from the very start, self-imposed borders.

Erich Jantsch, in an earlier project to build coherence based on new ideas in science, was mindful of the same cross-currents as participants in the First World Congress on Transdisciplinarity. "In mastering the emergent concordant structures of knowledge," he wrote, "we make them tools for mastering our own future" (l98l, 11). In doing so, Basarab Nicolescu wrote more than a decade later, we are "incurable knights errant, rekindlers of hope" (l993, ll).

Interdisciplinary Studies Program (CLL)
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan 48202 (U.S.A.)

*   Communication au Premier Congrès Mondial de la Transdisciplinarité (Convento da Arrábida, Portugal, 2-6 novembre 1994).


Bernstein, Basil. The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse. Volume IV. Class, Codes, and Control. London: Routledge, l990.

Bernstein, R. The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/ Postmodernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, l99l.

Crane, Diana & Henry Small. "American Sociology since the Seventies: The Emerging Crisis in the Discipline." In Sociology and its Publics: The Forms and Fates of Disciplinary Organization, ed. Terence Halliday & Morris Janowitz, pp. l97-34. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, l992.

Dahlberg, Ingetraut. "Domain Interaction: Theory and Practice." Advances in Knowledge Organization, 4 (l994): 60-71.

Foucher, Michel. Fronts et Frontieres: Un Tour de Monde Geopolitique. Paris: Librairie Artheme Fayard, l988).

Fuller, Steve. Social Epistemology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, l988.

Gibbons, Michael, et al. The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. London: Sage, l994.

Habib, Hedi- Bel. Towards a Pragmatic Approach to Interdisciplinarity in the Behavioral and Medical Sciences. Karlstad, Sweden: Center for Research in the Humanities, University of Karlstad, l990.

Jantsch, Erich. "Towards Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity in Education and Innovation." In Interdisciplinarity: Problems of Teaching and Research in Universities, pp. 97-121. Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, l972.

Jantsch, Erich (Ed.). The Evolutionary Vision: Toward a Unifying Paradigm of Physical, Biological, and Sociocultural Evolution. Boulder: Westview, l98l. "Introduction," pp. 1-14; "Unifying Principles of Evolution," pp. 83-ll5.

Klein, Julie Thompson. Crossing Boundaries: Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisci-plinarities. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, l996.

Klein, Julie Thompson. Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, l990.

Klein, Julie Thompson & William Doty, eds. Interdisciplinary Studies Today. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, l994. V. 58 in the New Directions in Teaching and Learning series.

Klein, Julie Thompson & William Newell. "Interdisciplinary Studies." In Handbook on the Undergraduate Curriculum, ed. Jerry Gaff & James Ratliff. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, l996

Muller, Johan & Nick Taylor. "The Gilded Calabash: Curriculum and Everyday Life." An unpublished manuscript l994.

National Research Council. Physics Through the l990s. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, l986.

Nicolescu, Basarab. "Towards a Transdisciplinary Education." Paper presented at a conference on "Education of the Future." Sao Paulo, Brazil. 4-8 October l993.

Paulson, Ronald. "Literature, Complexity, and Interdisciplinarity." In Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, ed. N. Katherine Hayles, pp. 37- 53. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, l991.

Vosskamp, Wilhelm. "Crossing of Boundaries: Interdisciplinarity as an Opportunity for Universities in the l990s." Issues in Integrative Studies, 12 (l994).

Bulletin Interactif du Centre International de Recherches et Études transdisciplinaires n° 12 - Février 1998

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