All 4 entries tagged Transdisciplinarity

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July 04, 2013

"Bodies" in Open Space Learning

‘Bodies’ in the context of an interdisciplinary project is a hugely diverse theme and the task of covering the current, relevant debates and topics could seem like a daunting prospect.

The Open Space Learning (OSL) session on Bodies was born from needing to explore what ‘Bodies’ means to an interdisciplinary project, and to begin the process of generating sub-themes and subsequent content for the GK module.

As I come from a Women’s Studies and Sociology background, it felt important to gather ideas from other disciplines and seek help to embrace what ‘Bodies’ means to other disciplines within academia. I know how a Feminist Sociologist might interpret ‘Bodies’, but I needed to know more about how the theme might be understood within differing frameworks.

Open Space Learning is a pedagogic methodology that pursues a move away from the traditional lecture/seminar framework of university teaching and learning, it

“Seeks to offer a transdisciplinary model of pedagogy that has the potential to transform the student experience in higher education by creating conditions in which learning is immediate, enactive and alive” (Monk et al, 2011:1)

Using ‘open spaces’ rather than the more conventional classroom-with-desks, OSL strives to break down the power relationship and hierarchy of the teacher/student model. The members of the group work alongside the facilitator and by collectively and actively engaging with the teaching materials (which could be text, images, objects, performance), seek to produce new and alternative knowledges. (Ibid)

OSL encourages a physical engagement with the materials and a sense of embodiment not possible in the more traditional classroom or lecture setting (Monk et al, 2011:2). It therefore seemed like an obvious choice when planning an event to investigate Bodies and a useful vehicle through which to explore the theme and it’s complexities.

I as facilitator provided a range of images and pieces of text relating to “Bodies” in some way. I divided the group into 2 and gave each group the same resources. I asked the groups to then ‘make sense’ of the images, to discuss their personal and group interpretations and to feedback on their thoughts understandings of the images and discussions.

I wanted to use a variety of images and pieces of texts to instigate discussion, consider sub-themes and what it all means for the GK project and eventual MA module – from both the perspective of teaching methods and content.

There are therefore, 2 main issues to consider when reflecting upon the session itself:

1. With regards to content generation, was the OSL session useful? And

2. With regards to OSL as a teaching method – did it work and could it work for the GK module?

As for content generation, the session resulted in more questions than answers really, but it was still useful. We had some interesting conversations, and there were definitely some ideas to take away.

As a teaching method, it could definitely work, but there are some important issues to consider. Generating images and pieces of text from the facilitator’s perspective is problematic. One sets out with the intention of covering as much as you can, but sometimes, producing and sourcing resources from outside of your discipline or knowledge set, can be difficult. It’s really important to seek outside contributions – I did request images and pieces of text, and did get some very useful contributions, but this could have been more diverse if people were more forthcoming with their own ideas and images/texts.

Also, there is a limit on how many images you should use – too many and the exercise becomes difficult and therefore ineffective. I had to cut out some of the images I had sourced, and found myself regretting my editing choices on the day. Bodies is such a huge theme that perhaps it needed more than one session. That said, I was (am) a complete novice at facilitating this kind of seminar/workshop/session and so somebody with more expertise would probably have made more use of the method and therefore generated more useful results.

The OSL framework incites debate and discussion, and encourages and enables the questioning of your own interpretations of a range of materials. I will definitely be making time to learn more about this as a teaching method, and using it in my own teaching as well as recommending it in the creation of the GK module.


Monk, N et al, (2011) Open Space Learning: A study in transdisciplinary pedagogy, London: Bloomsbury

May 01, 2013

Some Thoughts on Going ‘Trans–‘

El Topo leaving for a plateau.

At the first meeting of our group we had a rather stimulating discussion about the political underpinnings of such fashionable concepts as inter-, multi- and trans-disciplinarity, guided by the theoretical exposition offered by Hark (2007). One of the questions that emerge in Hark’s (2007) paper, and on which we have spent a considerable amount of time, is how seriously we should treat the critical aspirations of some such projects, given how comfortably they often sit within the politics of the academia - itself situated in the neoliberal market - and their ambiguous relation to the ordinary disciplinary structures. The challenge for the Gendered Knowledges in particular, it appears, is how to think critically of the institutions of the Higher Education, which not only provide the material conditions for our work, but also legitimize (or not) the conceptual and methodological strategies available to researchers.

Multi- and inter-disciplinary enterprises, it is proposed, are derivative from the pre-existing disciplines and as such, we may add, are a part of the general economy of academic exchange, without necessarily engaging with the university’s outside (Nowotny, Gibbon & Scott, 2001: 181). Even when an interdisciplinary project thus construed does not eventually crystallize into an independent discipline, though Nowotny et al. (2001) argue such is the dominant tendency, it is always organized in a hegemonic fashion of a unified theoretical whole governed by a set of fundamental axioms or overriding concerns – notwithstanding, of course, the plurality of resources it may draw on and colonize in turn. One difficulty, then, for an academic project with political ambitions consists in finding a way of breaking down the hegemony of the institutionalized knowledge, and inter- and multi-disciplinarity, at least as presented by Hark (2007), offer little hope of actually meeting this objective. In what follows, I will sketch out a brief outline of trans-disciplinarity conceived broadly alongside Deleuzian lines, as a possible methodological alternative.

The first thing to note is that Deleuzian ‘trans-‘ does not refer primarily to a relationship between the pre-established structures, say of academic disciplines, but rather a relation between a structure (conceptual, political, institutional, etc.) and its outside (Alliez, 2011: 38) Such relationship is par excellence dynamic and it works towards destabilizing of the former as a power centre. Neither is it a question of “adding a higher dimension” to what we already have, which could consist in the creation of an interdisciplinary program with a view of imposing new sovereign significations on the pre-existing fields (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 6). Instead, the aim of Deleuze and Guattari’s trans-disciplinary machine is a production of an entirely non-foundational knowledge. Their second joint project, A Thousand Plateaus, is itself an attempt at thinking a non-foundational philosophy. The book does not consist of chapters, but of what they call plateaus – assemblages of observations on different matters spanning from psychoanalysis, linguistics, politics, etc., to even geology, which are to be read in no distinct order, thus potentially forming a wide range of different conceptual connections.

Deleuze and Guattari portray the processes of knowledge production in charmingly quirky terms borrowed from botany. The concepts operative in different disciplines are defined as rhizomes, subject to the laws of organic growth, which see them constantly forming new heterogeneous connections, or strategic bio-alliances, with other organic entities. “[…] any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order.” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 7) The arborescent, or tree-like, organization of knowledge – proceeding from the fixed foundation-stem - is for them an artificial, and the most unwelcome blockage to the natural processes of proliferation of discourses, which despite its pretences itself feeds on the rhizomatic modes of production (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 11). As a consequence, each chapter-plateau making up A Thousand Plateaus stages a rhizomatic dismantling of different foundational structures of knowledge, without offering any newly fixed order in their stead. Their point, after all, is to liberate the creative energies, as much in the conceptual as in the material sense.

Rather than exploring Deleuze’s late philosophy in any depth, I would just like to highlight what could be an interesting application of the rhizomatic model of knowledge to our current project. Going rhizomatic about gender or sexuality is by all means compatible with what Katha, following Fish (1991), describes in an earlier note as a ‘radical interdisciplinarity,’ which, she says, consciously “relates to broader social and political questions and struggles.” The rhizomatic manner of relating to such political concerns would perhaps consist in engaging the academic apparatus with the real-world language games and actual political practices, by way of a perpetual process of cross-interrogation, rather than the establishing of a new disciplinary platform. While the institutional framework remains the material basis of social research, the absorption of concepts and strategies from outside of the university could set it in a motion of un-founding and work towards new creative transformations. The politics of the academia could thus find a sensible counter-balance.

An interesting example of going transdisciplinary about sex is furnished by a recent paper by Stella Sandford (2011). Her positive conclusion notwithstanding (that sex should be something akin to Kant’s transcendental illusion), it is interesting to note just how she carries out her investigation. Sandford assumes, and rightly so, that concepts operative in distinct disciplines are not their sole property. Instead, they usually derive from common linguistic practices, which vary across linguistic communities. Should a concept be employed by more than one discipline, as it is the case with sex, then this also causes further semantic divergence. Sandford traces some of such differences and maps on them a series of more or less known attempts at defining sex. Eventually, she develops a new critical concept of sex which draws on, and accounts for these various tendencies.

Something along the lines of Sandford’s own project, that is to say, a process of forging connections leading away from the institutionalized ways of talking about inequality, gender, etc., could not only enrich our understanding of the issues in question, but also, potentially, prove more promising politically. It is more than certain that the pattern described here overlaps in significant respects with other conceptions of a range of x-disciplinarities, of which I am not aware, as I think it does with the ‘radical interdisciplinarity’ suggested by Katha. The general upshot is therefore not to claim the primacy of transdisciplinarity, but simply to draw attention to the methodological strategies implicit in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, which could be of assistance in formulating our own research agenda.



Alliez, É. (2011) Rhizome (With no return), Radical Philosophy, 167, pp. 36-42.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Hark, S. (2007) Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity, Graduate Journal of Social Science, 4(2), pp. 11-33.

Nowotny, H., Scott, P., Gibbons, M. (2003) Introduction: ‘Mode 2’ Revisited: The New Production of Knowledge, Minerva, 41(3), pp. 179-194.

Sandford, S. (2011) Sex: A transdisciplinary concept, Radical Philosophy, 165, pp. 23-30.

March 26, 2013

Inter– or trans–disciplinary: the perils of definitions (and diagrams)

Recently, I started drawing diagrams to visualise my thoughts. This has been particularly useful for mapping the intersection between fields or schools of thought as it allows precise delineations of the subject under consideration. Like mind maps, they help to order, elucidate and explain. Or so I thought when I started.

My first reaction to the difficulty in understanding the specificities of inter- and trans-disciplinary (as discussed in Sabine Hark’s article Magical Sign) was to render them in visual form. I hoped this would allow insight into the subject, however in the end it has raised more questions than it yield answers.

During the discussion itself I drew a preliminary diagram which looked like a smiling face:

Diagram 1

I strove to illustrate that whilst the basis of inter-disciplinary study assumes the communication between distinct fields (the arrows), trans-disciplinary attempts to erase the boundaries between them (depicted as the green oval which envelops them).

However, this diagram would assume that the fields are entirely distinct from one another. This is not the case. One of the issues raised at the reading group was the notion that advocating the "purity" of a particular discipline functions as a legitimising strategy. To be recognised it needs to be distinguished from others (a necessary prerequisite for its right to exist as a discipline). There are subjects which would be considered "pure": mathematics for example would be a science, no question. Yet some disciplines, whilst recognised "in their own right", are nevertheless seen to draw on, or bridge between, different fields. Gender Studies is a prime example. Looking back at my diagram, where exactly would I place gender studies? Would it go in social sciences? Humanities? Or maybe on one of the arrows?

What we are dealing with, it seems, are "degrees of purity". To accommodate this I’ve drawn another diagram.

Diagram 2

Some subjects would lie at the edges of the circles, some closer to the centre, and by extension closer to the blurred space of the inter-disciplinary. Yet, if trans-disciplinary is once again the green circle which envelops them, than what is the blurry bit in the middle where all the circles intersect? Wouldn't that be a more apt delineation of trans-disciplinary? So once again I drew a new diagram.

Diagram 3

The circles are now permeated to show that none of them are "closed sets". What do they open into, however? What is that vast white space which surrounds them? The space of possibility? I honestly don't know.

However, that is not the only problem with diagram 3. I began wondering: why have I only drawn three circles? Where in this diagram would law go? Or engineering? What about applied sciences? Would it go between science and social science? Shouldn't science be re-labelled as "natural science"? The questions just kept pouring in, leading me to "update" the previous diagram. The problem of the white space remained.

Diagram 4

This left another pressing question. Whilst the intersections between social sciences and humanities and social science and science are easily visualised, what of the intersection between humanities and sciences? Does it really exist? What would it look like?

Pondering this, I was led to a book I have read recently: José van Dijck's Mediated Memories in the Digital Age. In her work, van Dijck attempts to account for the ways in which memory changes in relation to technological advancement. Her argument is nuanced and she does not, as I may have accidentally suggested, argue that technology changes our memories, but rather it should be seen as a two-way process. New media offer new ways to accommodate the evolution of human perception of the self. Of interest to this discussion is her insight into neuroscience as an attempt to explain the workings of memory. As an example, she argues that recent research has led to understanding memory not as a storage space, where remembering means simply calling forth something which has been put away in our brains (as previously envisioned), but rather, every time we remember we conjure the past anew, within the parameters of the present. Thus, new technologies offering not only storage but also the possibility of altering our memory objects ("doctoring" photographs for example) result in a more flexible approach to dealing with memory. In her research she not only draws on neurobiological research, but also argues that science could greatly benefit from studies which concern themselves with the representation of memory. The ways we strive to visualise our relation with the past in the arts could provide crucial insights into our brains, as well as bridge new pathways for exploration in which science, social science and humanities would go side by side.

Could this be the trans-disciplinarity that we are aiming for? But wouldn't it still fall into one of the circles, even if simply for the purpose of shelving in the library? After all, in order to bridge, we do need two separate entities to exist in the first place.


van Dijick, José, Mediated Memories in the Digital Age (Stanford University Press, 2007)

Hark, Sabine, “Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity”, in Graduate Journal of Social Science 4:2 (2007), pp. 11-33.

March 16, 2013

Reading group – first session

An interdisciplinary reading group on interdisciplinarity – challenges and insights
Interdisciplinarity is an immensely popular yet contested term. The first session of our reading group brought together students and researchers from a range of departments to explore this concept in theory and practice. Passages from Sabine Hark’s article Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity served as a starting point for our discussion.

Sabine Hark is professor at the Center for Interdisciplinary Women’s and Gender Studies (ZIFG) at the Technical University Berlin. Her article Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity from 2007 discusses some of the theoretical, methodological, and institutional problems that arise from the inconsistent claiming and positioning of the term.

Borrowing from feminist literary scholar Sneja Gunew (2002: 47-65), Hark describes research in the fields of Women’s and Gender Studies as ‘a continuing experiment in interdisciplinarity’ (Hark 2007: 24). While Hark acknowledges that Women’s Studies combines topics, ideas and methods from a range of fields within and beyond the academy, she criticises that scholars in this and in many other fields tend to take interdisciplinarity for granted. According to Hark, interdisciplinarity in Women’s Studies is ‘as much a seriously underthought critical, pedagogical and institutional concept as everywhere else in the academic universe’ (ibid.: 23).

A number of recent publications and research projects on interdisciplinarity indicate that interdisciplinarity is by no means underthought or taken for granted. Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL), the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies (CIM), and the Gendered Knowledges project constitute only three examples of initiatives at the University of Warwick that explore and critically examine interdisciplinary in theory and practice.

As explained on the website, the Gendered Knowledges project seeks to ‘explore radical interdisciplinary pedagogies in relation to Gender and Sexuality’. What does that mean? Following Stanley Fish, radical interdisciplinarity ‘begins with the assumption that the political is always and already inside those precincts [i.e. academic disciplines] and that the line separating them from the arena of social agitation is itself politically drawn and must be erased if action within the academy is to be continuous with the larger struggle against exploitation and oppression’ (Fish 1991). Radical interdisciplinarity, in other words, does not only combine different academic disciplines, it also relates to broader social and political questions and struggles.

We have only begun to embark on this radical interdisciplinary project. The first session of our reading illustrated some of the challenges and insights that come with interdisciplinary discussions of interdisciplinarity within the academy. Although the participants shared a common interest in interdisciplinary topics and methods, they did not share a theoretical and methodological framework to discuss these issues. Scholars, ideas and methods that were familiar to some participants were new to others. The participants handled these challenges surprisingly well. They introduced each other to thinkers and ideas, drew diagrams to illustrate concepts and discussed the potentials and limitations of interdisciplinary approaches in relation to their own work.

Have our discussions led to a shared definition of and position on interdisciplinarity? Certainly not! Yet it became apparent that conceptualisations and uses of interdisciplinarity vary between and within disciplines and that these differences can be productive. Against the background of this discussion, it can hardly come as a surprise that we came to different conclusions. Some of us defended the concept of interdisciplinarity and argued that it remains an immensely productive tool for research on gender and sexuality. Others called for post-disciplinary theoretical frameworks that aim to overcome academic disciplines as such, or endorsed transdisciplinary approaches.

Like interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity has become a buzzword in Gender Studies. According to the feminist theorist and physicist Karen Barad, a transdisciplinary approach ‘remains rigorously attentive to important details of specialized arguments within a given field, in an effort to foster constructive engagements across (and reworking of) interdisciplinary boundaries’ (2007: 25). I believe that there are interesting theoretical and political similarities between Barad’s call for transdisciplinarity and Fish’s argument for a radical interdisciplinarity, but I hope we can explore these and other ideas in the next session of our interdisciplinary reading group on interdisciplinarity.


Barad, Karen (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham: Duke UP.

Fish, Stanley. Being Interdisciplinary Is So Very Hard to Do, in Issues in Integrative Studies 9 (1991), 97-125.

Gunew, Sneja (2002) ‘Feminist Cultural Literacy: Translating Differences, Cannibal
Options’, in Wiegman, Robyn (ed.), Women’s Studies on its Own,
Durham/London: Duke UP, 47-65.

Hark, Sabine. Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity, in Graduate Journal of Social Science 4 (2007), Special Issue 2, 11-33.

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