Integration and Implementation insights - Integration, part 2: the "how"

In this post, Julie Thompson Klein draws together and guides us through the “abundance of resources” that exist to help teams working on inter- and transdisciplinary projects, in different contexts with a mix of expertise, find common ground and advance common goals. The post includes links to five searchable repositories to assist researchers in this sphere. This post originally appeared on the Integration and Implementation Insights blog and is reposted with permission.

The “how” of integration focuses on pragmatics of process, with emphasis on methods. Toward that end, following the part 1 blog post on the “what” of integration, this blog post presents insights from major resources, with emphasis on collaborative research by teams.

Some widely used methods are well-known theories, for example general systems. Others are practiced in particular domains, such as integrated environmental assessment. Some utilize technologies, for example computer synthesis of data. And others, such as dialogue methods, target communication processes.

Dialogue methods

McDonald, Bammer, & Deane (2009) catalogued 14 dialogue methods that foster communication for understanding a real-world problem, taking into consideration the number of participants, characteristics of process, locus of control, degree of structure, required preparatory work, strengths, and limitations. They grouped them in 2 categories:

  1. Dialogue methods for understanding a problem broadly: integrating judgments (including Citizens’ Jury, Consensus Conference, Consensus Development Panel, Delphi Technique, Future Search Conference, Most Significant Change Technique, Nominal Group Technique, Open Space Technology, Scenario Planning, Soft Systems Methodology)
  2. Dialogue methods for understanding particular aspects of a problem: integrating visions, world views, interests, and values (specifically Appreciative Inquiry, Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing, Principled Negotiation, Ethical Matrix)

McDonald, Bammer, & Deane also illustrated use of the methods in case studies on the environment, public health, security, and technological innovation.

A broad-based compilation of methods

In a primer for knowledge integration, Bergmann, et al. (2012) defined and compared more than 40 methods, illustrating them with 11 transdisciplinary projects in areas such as land management, health services, housing renovation, urban design and mobility, and human-machine communication. They grouped the methods into 7 categories:

  1. Conceptual clarification and theoretical framing
  2. Research questions and hypothesis formation
  3. Screening, using, refining, and further developing of scientific methods
  4. Integrative assessment procedures
  5. Development and application of models
  6. Artifacts, services, and products as boundary objects
  7. Procedures and instruments of research organization.

Within each category, some examples are more prominent than others. In the first category, for example, the concepts of “vulnerability,” “resilience,” and “sustainability” were formulated for the novelty of societal problems. In inter- and transdisciplinary projects the same concept–such as “space”–may also be understood differently by representatives of different specialties, requiring clarification and agreement on a shared definition. Heuristics may be developed as well for analyzing a particular problem, constructing an appropriate framework and an interactive communication model.

Tools for integration in collaborative research

In a chapter on “Integration” for the Handbook of Transdisciplinary Research, Pohl, van Kerkhoff, Hirsch Hadorn, & Bammer (2008) correlated types of collaboration with means of integration, while guiding readers to pertinent case studies in the Handbook. When defining forms of integration that occur in transdisciplinary collaboration, they borrowed Rossini and Porter’s model (1979):

  1. Common group learning
  2. Deliberation among experts, team members with expertise in particular components of a problem amalgamate their views. Integration occurs during one or more rounds of exchange.
  3. Specific sub-group or individual undertakes the task of integration.

As for the means of integration, Pohl, van Kerkhoff, Hirsch Hadorn, & Bammer identified four primary classes of “tools”:

  1. Mutual understanding depends on effective communication, including understanding the meaning of terminology in other disciplines
  2. Theoretical concepts facilitate mutual understanding by transferring concepts between fields, adapting disciplinary concepts, and creating new joint bridge concepts that merge disciplinary perspectives
  3. Models appear across a continuum from purely quantitative (mathematical) to purely qualitative (descriptive)
  4. Products include technical devices, a development plan, or new treatment protocols.

The table below depicts the relationship of forms and means in a matrix that yields 12 primary ways of integrating. While the project design for a particular research project might fit neatly into one cell, integration will often require researchers to change and to adapt both forms and means during the actual research process.

Question-based schema

Question-based schema also guide the process of integration. In the context of natural resource management, Bammer and participants in an Integration Symposium hosted by Land and Water Australia (2005) proposed a framework based on 6 questions:

  1. What was the transdisciplinary integration aiming to achieve and who was intended to benefit?
  2. What were the elements (e.g. discipline and practice perspectives) that were being integrated in a transdisciplinary manner?
  3. Who was doing the transdisciplinary integration?
  4. How was the transdisciplinary integration being undertaken?
  5. What was the context for this transdisciplinary work, which might have affected any of the other elements (e.g. the aims, methods, impact)
  6. How was impact measured?

Gabriele Bammer (2013) further identified categories of concepts and methods for each question. For instance, 6 categories are applicable for the question “which knowledge?” (ie Question 2): a systems view, scoping, boundary setting, framing, values, and harnessing and managing differences. The question-based approach to integration not only helps teams clarify the process of conducting transdisciplinary research, it can also help them reflect on their actions and areas for improvement.

In another question-based model, I defined 4 stages:

  1. Initial set-up
  2. Organizational and conceptual framework
  3. Social learning and communication
  4. Collaboration and integration.

Yet, echoing Bergmann, et al. (2012), ongoing attention to integration using pertinent methods and tools is crucial in a generative process based on collaboration and a unifying principle or theory that fosters creativity, rather than imposing a fixed formula that is unresponsive to contingencies of contexts and priorities of all stakeholders (Klein 2003).

Searchable repositories

Repositories comprise an appropriate closing section when reviewing the “how” of integration. To recall from the earlier blog post on “what” integration means, repositories collect resources, in contrast to blueprints that present designated procedures and models. Several online collections collect and organize resources that are valuable for inter- and transdisciplinary research:

I2S (Integration and Implementation Sciences)

Hosted by the Australian National University, this website is part of a global network initiative to improve research on complex real-world problems. The “Resources” link presents tools, cases, and approaches along with information about pertinent journals, professional association and networks, and conferences.

Interdisciplinary Research Short Guides

This set of wiki-based guides for interdisciplinary research provides digests for developing and reviewing proposals, building and managing research teams, managing challenges, plus topics of leadership, evaluation, and funding. Related guidelines also appear in Lyall, Bruce, Tait, and Meagher’s 2011 book on practical strategies.

Td–net (Network for Transdisciplinary Research)

The td-net toolbox on “Co-producing Knowledge” focuses on solving complex problems in collaboration with stakeholders in society. It provides a wide international audience with links to pertinent methods, practical experiences, criteria, and related toolboxes, while guiding choice of options and their applicability.

Team Science Toolkit

The US-based National Cancer Institute’s Team Science Toolkit is a user-generated searchable repository of resources on team science, which is often interdisciplinary in nature. The primary categories of resources are methods and measures, supported by an annotated bibliography along with Editor’s Picks.

AIS (Association for Interdisciplinary Studies)

The “About Interdisciplinarity” at the “Resources” link on the AIS website covers definitions, philosophy, history, and best practices spanning communication, teaching, research, administration, and public policy analysis. It also provides links to other online resources.

In short, an abundance of resources exist to help researchers and educators create productive matches between their needs and methods that are available. Knowing what they are is a crucial step to advancing common goals and objectives.

References and other resources:

Bammer, G. and LWA Integration Symposium Participants. (2005). Guiding principles for integration in natural resources management (NRM) as a contribution to sustainability. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, 12, supplementary issue: 5-7.

Bammer, G. (2013). Disciplining interdisciplinarity, integration and implementation sciences for researching complex real-world problems. ANU E-Press: Canberra, Australia.

Bergmann, M., Jahn, T., Knobloch, T., Krohn, W., Pohl C. and Schramm, E. (2012). Transdisciplinary research methods, a primer for practice. Campus Verlag:Frankfurt, Germany.

Klein, J. T. (1990/91). Applying Interdisciplinary Models to Design, Planning, and Policy-Making. Knowledge and Policy, 3, 4: 29-55.

Klein, J. T. (2003). Thinking about interdisciplinarity. Colorado School of Mines Quarterly,103: 101-114.

Lyall, C., Bruce, A., Tait, J. and Meager, L. (2011). Interdisciplinary research journeys, practical strategies for capturing creativity. Bloomsbury Academic: London, United Kingdom.

McDonald, D., Bammer, G. and Deane, P. (2009). Research integration using dialogue methods. ANU E-Press: Canberra, Australia. Online:

Pohl, C. and Hirsch Hadorn, G. (2007). Principles for designing transdisciplinary research. Oekom Verlag: Munich, Germany.

Pohl, C., van Kerkhoff, L., Hirsch Hadorn, G. and Bammer, G. (2008). Integration. In: G. Hirsch Hadorn, H. Hoffmann-Riem, S. Biber-Klemm, W. Grossenbacher-Mansuy, D. Joye, C. Pohl, U. Wiesmann and E. Zemp (Eds.), Handbook of transdisciplinary research. Springer: New York, United States of America, pp: 411-24.

Repko, A., F. and Szostak, R. (2016). Interdisciplinary research, process and theory. Sage: Thousand Oaks, California, United States of America.

Rossini, F., A. and Porter, A., L. (1979). Frameworks for integrating disciplinary research. Research Policy, 8: 70-79.

About the author

Julie Thompson Klein is Professor of Humanities Emerita and Faculty Fellow for Interdisciplinary Development at Wayne State University (USA). She is also an Associate member of the TdLab in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH-Zurich. She has diverse interests in and publications on interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and digital humanities. She is a recipient of the Kenneth Boulding Award for outstanding scholarship, the Yamamoorthy & Yeh Distinguished Transdisciplinary Achievement Award, the Joseph Katz Award for Distinguished Contributions to General and Liberal Education, and a Science of Team Science Recognition Award.