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Transdisciplinarity is a principle of scientific research and intradisciplinary practice that describes the application of scientific approaches to problems that transcend the boundaries of conventional academic disciplines. Such phenomena, such as the natural environment, energy, and health, may be referred to as transdisciplinary or approached and better understood through a process of transdisciplinary modeling.
A similar concept is interdisciplinarity which usually refers to collaborative projects in which scientists from several fields work together. In his work On Transdisciplinarity, Jürgen Mittelstrass argues that interdisciplinarity is actually transdisciplinarity:
- "Interdisciplinarity properly understood does not commute between fields and disciplines, and it does not hover above them like an absolute spirit. Instead, it removes disciplinary impasses where these block the development of problems and the corresponding responses of research. Interdisciplinarity is in fact transdisciplinarity." 
A different approach of transdisciplinarity than the one of Mittelstrass was developed and described in 1987 by the 163 researchers of the International Center for Transdisciplinary Research (CIRET). A Charter of Transdisciplinarity was adopted at the 1st World Congress of Transdisciplinarity (Convento da Arrabida, Portugal, november 1994).
In the CIRET approach, transdisciplinarity is radically distinct from interdisciplinarity.
Interdisciplinarity concerns the transfer of methods from one discipline to another. Like pluridisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity overflows the disciplines but its goal still remains within the framework of disciplinary research.
As the prefix "trans" indicates, transdisciplinarity (a term introduced in 1970 by Jean Piaget) concerns that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond each individual discipline. Its goal is the understanding of the present world, of which one of the imperatives is the overarching unity of knowledge. The transdisciplinarity is defined by Basarab Nicolescu through three methodological postulates : the existence of levels of Reality, the logic of the included middle, and complexity.
In the presence of several levels of Reality the space between disciplines and beyond disciplines is full of information. Disciplinary research concerns, at most, one and the same level of Reality ; moreover, in most cases, it only concerns fragments of one level of Reality. On the contrary, transdisciplinarity concerns the dynamics engendered by the action of several levels of Reality at once. The discovery of these dynamics necessarily passes through disciplinary knowledge. While not a new discipline or a new superdiscipline, transdisciplinarity is nourished by disciplinary research; in turn, disciplinary research is clarified by transdisciplinary knowledge in a new, fertile way. In this sense, disciplinary and transdisciplinary research are not antagonistic but complementary.
As in the case of disciplinarity, transdisciplinary research is not antagonistic but complementary to multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity research. Transdisciplinarity is nevertheless radically distinct from multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity because of its goal, the understanding of the present world, which cannot be accomplished in the framework of disciplinary research. The goal of multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity always remains within the framework of disciplinary research. If transdisciplinarity is often confused with interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity (and by the same token, we note that interdisciplinarity is often confused with multidisciplinarity) this is explained in large part by the fact that all three overflow disciplinary boundaries. This confusion is very harmful, because it hides the huge potential of transdisciplinarity.
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Transdisciplinarity in Human SciencesEdit
[Excerpt from Medicus 2005, with the authors permission:]
The range of transdisciplinarity becomes clear when the four central questions of biological research ((1) causation, (2) ontogeny, (3) adaptation, (4) phylogeny [after Niko Tinbergen 1963, cf. Aristotle: Causality / Four Major Causes]) are graphed against distinct levels of analysis (e.g. cell, organ, individual, group; [cf. Nicolai Hartmann 1940/1964, see also Rupert Riedl 1984]):
In this “scheme of transdisciplinarity”, all anthropological disciplines (paragraph C in the table of the pdf-file below), their questions (paragraph A: see pdf-file) and results (paragraph B: see pdf-file) can be intertwined and allocated with each other [for examples how these aspects go into those little boxes in the matrix, see e.g. the table The Framework of Anthropological Research. (pdf)]. This chart includes all realms of anthropological research (no one is excluded). It is the starting point for a systematical order for all human sciences, and also a source for a consistent networking and structuring of their results. This “bio-psycho-social” orientation framework is the basis for the development of the "Theory of Human Sciences" and for a transdisciplinary consensus. (In this tabulated orientation matrix the questions and reference levels in italics are also the subject of the humanities.)
- Hartmann Nicolai: Der Aufbau der realen Welt, Berlin, 1939 (2nd Ed. 1964), de Gruyter
- Basarab Nicolescu, "Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity", State University of New York Press, New York, USA, 2002, translation from the French by Karen-Claire Voss.
- Rupert Riedl: The Biology of Knowledge. Chichester, 1984, John Wiley
- Thompson Klein, Julie; Grossenbacher-Mansuy, Walter; Häberli, Rudolf; Bill, Alain; Scholz, Roland W.; Welti, Myrtha (Hrsg.) (2001). Transdisciplinarity: Joint problem solving among science, technology, and society. An effective way for managing complexity. Basel: Birkhäuser
- Niko Tinbergen: On Aims and Methods in Ethology. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 1963, 20: 410-433
- Transdisciplinary Case Studies at ETH Zurich
- International Transdisciplinarity Networks
- International Center for Transdisciplinary Research The site of the International Center for Transdisciplinary Research (CIRET). E-zine "Transdisciplinary Encounters".
- Charter for transdiciplinarity
- Transdisciplinary Studies The book series dedicated to transdisciplinary research.
- Gerhard Medicus. Theory of Human Sciences. (ppt; with explanations in the notes)
- Article by Basarab Nicolescu entitled A New Vision of the World : Transdisciplinarity (URL accessed on 23 May 2006)
- Gerhard Medicus, 2005. Mapping Transdisciplinarity in Human Sciences. (pdf)
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