19.09.2012 | (Trans)disciplining urban studies in the cultural studies [1]

Some remarks about the necessary coalescence of urban and cultural research

The article discusses “transdisciplinarity” and “interdisciplinarity”, and illustrates the benefits of a transdisciplinary approach for combined spatial and cultural analysis, to improve research at the intersection of urban and cultural studies. By Volker Kirchberg, Lüneburg (D).

Sometimes looking up a word in a dictionary can be enlightening. In the Oxford Dictionary we find: ?d?s?pl?n 1. the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience, 2. a branch of knowledge…” (Oxford Dictionary). This ambiguity is one of the reasons why we are now concerned with the term “transdisciplinarity”.

Turning away from disciplinary knowledge?

Faced with global problems involving a complexity that cannot be understood, much less solved, by a single scientific discipline, over the last decades a critical reflection on scientific ways of thinking and methods of work has taken place among researchers with the result that the production of knowledge in disciplines and university institutions is unable to solve major global problems. Overcoming disciplinary borders is thus at the core of the scientific process of transdisciplinarity. In contrast to interdisciplinarity, this type of knowledge production aims not only at supplementing the traditional multidisciplinary methodologies of the disciplines, peacefully coexisting alongside each other, but it aims at unifying them. Transgressing disciplinary norms is necessary in order to conduct transdisciplinary research, creating new knowledge; and relinquishing sovereignty by individual disciplines is a necessary condition. There are a lot of reasons why this is not easy. One reason is that there is no clear methodology for blending different knowledge into one discipline-free knowledge. In addition breaking free of disciplinary constraints requires courage, as from the perspective of a discipline one is disqualified –– as “undisciplined” – ergo as unscientific. And there is also the uncertainty as to whether such an undertaking will be successful. Who defines this success, if not the individuals and institutions that are the disciplines themselves? Furthermore the goal of solving real-world problems, often of global dimensions, may only be reached in the long term and success comes, if at all, late in one’s career. Two things then are necessary from participants in transdisciplinary research – and from their funders – patience and tolerance.
The necessity of disciplines working together more closely is inevitable, when confronted with the social, economic and ecological threats to the world. Some examples of problems that need transdisciplinary solutions are aspects of poverty, the growing gap between poor and rich within and between nations, the unsustainability of business activities, insufficient and unfair health care, the risks of technology, climate change and so on. Disciplinary approaches to these problems rarely amount to more than “treating the symptoms”, whether by engineers, businesspeople or physicians. There is never an attempt to discover the deeper causes and then rigorously eliminate them, because the disciplines sanction “outside-the-box” thinking as non-academic. This dogmatic position leads to simplistic and antagonistic positions that have little to do with social reality.
A transdisciplinary science is unequivocally problem-oriented. This concentration on the search for solutions makes it necessary for actors in many disciplines to communicate with each other and reach an understanding on many levels. It takes time for each discipline to understand each other’s language and to accept that no single discipline has a better perspective on the problem and its solution. Science taking place outside the universities must also be admitted as an equal partner in these research processes. Diverse actors introduce a variety of points of view and skills which is why transdisciplinarity is characterized by the flat hierarchies that often characterize structures outside the university (which is still dominated by institutionalized, disciplinary-authoritarian structures).
Not wanting to dissolve disciplinary boundaries right away, a first step towards transdisciplinarity would be to transfer knowledge, without bias, between the individual disciplines. Many research topics are investigated by more than one discipline, without them being aware of it. First of all, transdisciplinarity must contextualize and disseminate disciplinary knowledge. Transdisciplinarity would then provide a corrective to the disciplinary distortions of knowledge and create a more general intellectual atmosphere that would counteract the oppressive hegemony of more confined disciplinary climates. The difference between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary knowledge production can perhaps be explained as a mosaic. Interdisciplinarity is the narrow view of individual relationships between the small pieces of a scientific mosaic, while a broader view of the mosaic (and so the ability to recognize the actual motif of the mosaic) is first possible through a transdisciplinary process.
There are of course other related terms such as multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. Multidisciplinarity means studying a topic not from the perspective of one but of a number of disciplines arrayed side by side. Interdisciplinarity is the transfer of methods and models from one discipline to another. Transdisciplinarity however goes beyond that by focusing on the common knowledge beyond the knowledge of the individual disciplines. Transdisciplinarity means the production, interpretation and evaluation of knowledge above any single discipline.
“Change of knowledge” follows the path from disciplinarity to transdisciplinarity, from

  • simplicity to complexity,
  • unambiguousness to hybridity,
  • linearity to non-linearity,
  • universality (of what has been unified) to integration (of what is different),
  • fragmentation to cooperation,
  • stabilizing boundaries to creating permeable membranes,
  • short-term (unsustainable) to long-term (sustainable) research, and
  • individual knowledge (of the few) to a dialog about knowledge (by the many that are systematically networked).

Mode 1 and Mode 2

In order to better understand the difference between disciplinary and transdisciplinary knowledge creation, two types of knowledge production, so-called “Mode 1” and “Mode 2”, should be introduced. Mode 1 is the kind of knowledge production found in disciplinary sciences. It emphasizes the equality of the disciplines as well as the hierarchy of knowledge within a discipline. Mode 2 is the kind of knowledge production found in transdisciplinary sciences. It accepts the heterogeneity of and the hierarchical inequalities between disciplines, while requiring the researcher to see himself as a peer with equal rights, whose actions are social and who tries out new, innovative and non-conformist ways to solve problems – really the mode to enter scientific “frontier land”. In this sense Mode 2 knowledge production discovers and cultivates non-disciplinary intellectual resources much better than Mode 1 ever could. Research becomes more flexible, is project-based and, regarding both time and structure, is more loosely attached to a single discipline.

Reasons for the emergence of Mode 2 knowledge production can be summarized as follows:

  1. New communication and information technologies enable individuals and groups to discuss research topics and develop them even over geographic distances.
  2. The evaluation of science occurs not only by its own internal criteria but also by external criteria, which make their presence felt in new research objects and strategies.
  3. As a result, there is an increasing tendency within the universities to produce scientific research with practical applications, without the sometimes demoting effect that “applicability” has in academia.
  4. There is a new critical reflexivity in science regarding its social responsibility.

One of the most important differences between the disciplinary Mode 1 and the transdisciplinary Mode 2 is the opening of science to society outside the university, and thus to non-institutional knowledge. In Mode 1 it is not only the ways of knowing that underline the hard borders between disciplines, but even that the languages of the disciplines are meant to be understood primarily by colleagues within a given discipline and not outside the discipline. Science in this form is seen as incomprehensible by disciplinary outsiders. In fact, in Mode 1 it is only within the discipline and within the disciplinary peer group that consensus should be achieved on which research questions and findings are important. The greater this intra-disciplinary consensus is, the more valuable scientific knowledge is. A consequence of this way of thinking and producing knowledge is the separation into disciplines and the atomization of consensual knowledge. Ever smaller groups of researchers are willing to accept ever more specialized knowledge while rejecting anything else as irrelevant. This fragmentation of knowledge is however unacceptable as a problem-solving strategy. The criteria of scientific success or quality cannot continue to be defined by the discipline. If for example a discipline (and its methodology) rejects a given finding because it does not fit into the culture of this discipline, then this should not be seen as a falsification of the research as long as these results contribute to the cross-disciplinary production of knowledge in Mode 2.
If Mode 2 knowledge production is becoming more important, then this has two consequences, which can be evaluated differently. First, the knowledge landscape will become more heterogeneous and cross-disciplinary knowledge networks will emerge. Second, due to the focus on solving real-world problems, the creation of “socially robust knowledge” will become more important. It should be noted that the search for universally valid, all-explanatory (basic) laws can as a result suffer. In general, Mode 2 will displace Mode 1 knowledge production for three reasons of changed communication styles: (1) communication between science and (knowledge) society will increase, (2) communication between individual researchers belonging to different disciplines will increase, and (3) communication among economics, social sciences and the liberal arts and with natural sciences and engineering will increase.
Mode 2 knowledge production will not however replace Mode 1. Academic education will remain the teaching and learning of disciplinary knowledge.Mode 1 knowledge will still be taught alongside Mode 2. In a later period of their training and career researchers must however decide whether they would like to remain in the Mode 1 of disciplinary knowledge production (e.g., in basic research) or whether they would like to work in a problem-solving oriented, applied Mode 2.

Historical and contemporary examples

Transdisciplinary knowledge is actually nothing new. Charles Darwin’s research into the evolution of life could be put at the top of the list, because his findings were relevant to both natural sciences and liberal arts. Both his predecessors and followers advanced far-reaching theses in the social sciences (e.g., Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer). In the 20th century the unity of sciences envisioned by Humboldt was broken by the progressive modernization and professionalization of the natural sciences. In the social sciences, which emerged in the era of industrialization, there were numerous inner-disciplinary fault lines, e.g., between qualitative and quantitative research, between micro- and macrosociology or between the importance of biological predispositions and individual freedoms. But there were exceptions. Especially in anthropology (associated with Franz Boas, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson) there were attempts to mediate between disciplines.
Today in particular new research fields tend to be transdisciplinary, such as feminist studies. As an example I could give a study on the religious beliefs of women and the consequences for their social position. This study draws equally on the science of religion, history and sociology. First interdisciplinary knowledge on attitudes towards euthanasia, the acceptance of homosexuality and male violence were put side by side. However, a transdisciplinary approach was needed in order to discover the cause, i.e. religious belief, of these specific social problems.
Furthermore at the level of supranational organizations such as the WHO or UNESCO very large scale transdisciplinary studies are undertaken, such as for example on ecological economic sciences (joining, e.g., neoclassical economics and ecological research), on a social-science oriented epidemiology (which investigates the reasons for an increased incidence of communicable diseases) or the cooperation of evolutionary biologists, linguists, psychologists, semioticians and philosophers (who find a relationship between the extinction of animal and plant species with the global decline in cultural diversity). Especially the environmental sciences are pioneers in the transdisciplinary production of knowledge. Technology assessment, cognitive neurobiology and contemporary evolutionary biology should be mentioned in this context.

And the cultural studies?

I have briefly mentioned that today in particular the environmental sciences are characterized by transdisciplinarity. To what extent are there approaches towards transdisciplinarity in the cultural studies field? Is this scientific methodology even an appropriate one for cultural studies? If transdisciplinarity is primarily used to find solutions to global problems, then which problems should the cultural studies be concerned with? Which disciplinary boundaries are there in the cultural studies that need to be overcome or dissolved? Is this really necessary? Or should the cultural studies first deal with these questions in their individual disciplines, in literature studies, in anthropology, in sociology, in history, in psychology, in geography, in communication and media sciences and so on, before exchanging disciplinary findings on an interdisciplinary basis? Will the patient and long-term “teamwork” crucial to transdisciplinary projects be met with a success that would justify the effort? These questions cannot of course all be satisfactorily answered. But using as an example the cultural studies interpretations and analyzes of the broad research topic “Culture for the City”, we will pursue this question.
The question arises as to whether and to what extent urban questions, issues, and commentaries discussed by cultural scientists have a transdisciplinary dimension. It should be the task of the cultural study scientists to acknowledge and to account for transdisciplinary elements in their respective topics and understand their importance for scientific advancement.
The topics in cultural studies that focus on or considerably touch urban issues are manifold. For instance, at a lecture series at my university, our cultural studies faculty took on the following topics, all recognizing and incorporating the above transdisciplinary issues: geography, film science, environmental sciences, art history, urban sociology, urban studies, sociology of music, media science, urban planning, literary studies, visual studies and image studies, and philosophy. But this categorization in disciplinary topics is reductive and would certainly be criticized by the lecturers of this lecture series. The urban geographer is not only an engineering scientist but also in the presentation of his findings a sustainability researcher. The film scientist is also a student of media production, urban history and urban development. The environmental scientist researches in the sociology of technology the relationship between humans and the environment. The art historian is also a semiotician and communication scientist. The urban sociologist is also a psychologist and political scientist. The urban studies researcher is also a social historian and literary studies scholar. The socio-musicologist is also an urban studies researcher and economic geographer. The media scientist is also a cultural historian and political scientist. The urban planner is also a social historian and social education researcher. The literary studies scholar is also an environmental psychologist and geographer. The research who studies visual images is also a cultural sociologist and criminologist, and the philosopher is also sociologist and psychologist. All of these examples can be interpreted, good-willed, as features of “transdisciplinarity” that go beyond “interdisciplinarity”.

Closing remarks

Nowadays no discipline is occupied with only research objects that are purely disciplinary. In fact, all research topics overlap disciplinary borders; however, many disciplines are still not aware of this overlap. The topic “Culture and the City” is a case in point – for the better or the worse.
Interdisciplinarity is built on overlapping understanding and consensus, which allows knowledge to be unified. Interdisciplinarity searches for coherent, compatible knowledge, e.g., geographers search for relationships between mobility and urban development and sociologist for relationships between social communication patterns and urban development. It is possible to create a synthesis of these findings.
Transdisciplinarity on the other hand is built on the confrontation of different, even contradictory, findings. This confrontation will not necessarily end in consensus. Transdisciplinarity emphasizes the complexity of a reality that is and will remain contradictory. Neuroscience emphasizes for example the importance of the analog representation of an image of the city (in the minds of its inhabitants), while psychologists emphasize the cognitively processed representations of the city (with equivalent images). The latter analyzes the functional level (“perceptions of the city”), while the former looks at the spatial level (“storage of the city”).
Disciplinary processes emphasize the unity and so the simplification of a research object (i.e., the perspective on this object). The problem is that complex reality resists simplification. And so it must be deconstructed in multidisciplinary perspectives. The city is a construct of complex realities (from the point of view of geography, sociology, economics, architecture etc.). This cultural construct consists of contradictions that have to be resolved by transdisciplinary researchers without being eliminated. In multi- and interdisciplinarity objects are still analyzed individually, or neatly separated, in a number of disciplines. With the result that the scientific treatment (and logic) of the object is without contradictions. In the unity of the disciplines however transdisciplinarity places no value on a homogenous clarity, but on a holistic coherence (explanatory logic) of contradictory findings. Multi- and interdisciplinarity avoid paradoxes and contradictions in their findings, which strengthens the fragmentation of the disciplines. Transdisciplinarity on the other hand allows different perspectives on the research object, even if they are in opposition to each other.
“City” then can be seen from a behavioral psychology, a socio-cultural and a physical viewpoint (Ramadier 2004) but it is only when all of these perspectives are united that an insight into the special representation of the “city” can be gained. In particular the traditional dichotomy between nature/concreteness and culture/society has long prevented a transdisciplinary view of urban research. Today there is quite a lot of interdisciplinary but still only little transdisciplinary urban research. And it is similar in the cultural sciences, which in its diversity has still not found a transdisciplinary unity.


This article is a 2012 revised version of Prof. Dr. Kirchberg’s introduction to the lecture series on the transdisciplinarity of research in the fields of »city and culture« research (October 15, 2009) and of his closing remarks to this lecture series (January 28, 2010) at the Leuphana University Lueneburg. Comments welcome to Volker Kirchberg.



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[1]  Here, I use „cultural studies“ not in the specific sense of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies but in the broader sense of „cultural analyses“ or „cultural sciences“ (i.e., in German: „Kulturwissenschaften“) that encompasses many if not every type of studying relationships between „arts and culture“ and „society“.


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