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Notes Toward a Social Epistemology of

Transdisciplinarity *
La ncessit de la transdisciplinarit provient des dveloppements des connaissances et de la
culture la fois complexes, hybrides, non-linaires et htrognes. Pour faire avancer le
project propos, il faudra dvelopper simultanment une structure conceptuelle, un
vocabulaire et des pdagogies nouvelles. La recherche des nouvelles institutions doit
s'accompagner des efforts pour construire des coalitions et soutenir les stratgies
intgratives des institutions qui existent dj.
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
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:
unirfying approaches
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 Congrs Mondial de la Transdisciplinarit (Convento da

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Bulletin Interactif du Centre International de Recherches et tudes transdisciplinaires n 12 - Fvrier 1998
Centre International de Recherches et tudes Transdisciplinaires - mis jour le 10 fvrier 1998