Trans-disciplinarity – Towards overcoming denial of our denial in scholarship

elephant skipping
Elephant resorts to ‘skipping’ to get our attention!

Unpacking a trans-disciplinary research approach


If I did not take a trans-disciplinary approach to assess if the strategies, techniques and tactics we use and advocate as peacebuilders in South Africa’s unequal, transitional context –

  • I would not have learnt that (and how) we replicate macro level denial at the micro level;
  • nor would I have learnt about the links between manifestations, patterns and cultures of denial;
  • nor that it obscures the very thing we want to reduce or eliminate – manifestations, patterns and cultures of violence that constitute the ‘structure of invisible/visible’ violence.

Transdisciplinarity is in its infancy and/or mostly ignored. I argue that this pervasive blindspot in academia helps to maintain an unequal status quo.


Many orthodox scholars simply write off a trans-diciplinary approach to research as ‘too difficult’.  This is true.  However, it is not simply an ‘approach’ that is tethered to ‘choice’. For those who are serious about peace with justice, trans-disciplinarity constitutes a comprehensive means to understand and act against pervasive injustice, including how we conduct research.

As researchers we can, like Edward Said,  ‘realise suppressed voices, invisible facts and other hidden elements’ in our data by adding another step after conducting inductive and deductive analyses.  This step is an ‘interplay analysis’ as described later.

First the nuts and bolts of transdisciplinary research:

What is our view on Knowledge Production?

During his Africa Day speech, 2017, Professor Mahmood Mamdani pointed out that universities are regarded as the ‘authorised’ Knowledge Producers and that scholarship is largely based on theories produced in the West.  By contrast, through the vantage point of decolonisation of universities called for by students, he argued that –

We need to theorise our own realities and compare these to theories developed in other contexts’ instead of using theories from the West as ‘turnkey solutions.

Discussant, Dr Siphokazi Magadla argued that –

If the project of colonial university was to produce respectable subjects … the moment to decolonise is also the moment to save the university.

She posed the important question –

How do we theorise when reaction is so excessively militarised and students are targeted in these university spaces?

 (found at


Knowledge is produced every day by people inside and outside of these authorised spaces. Specifically, peacebuilding practitioners (the area I know best) are aware that that the boundary between authorised knowledge, lived experience, and knowledge gained in practice, is artificial!

Transdisciplinarity is a way to collapse these artificial boundaries between disciplines and beyond the academy; as well as between different levels of analysis, temporality, and cross-cutting phenomena.

Existing inter- and multi-disciplinary approaches

Judicious combinations of many current inter- and multi-disciplinary approaches already allow us to cross artificial boundaries when studying phenomena that cannot be confined to a single discipline. These are Intersectionality popularised by black feminists, the 360° evaluation used in Human Resources; Contrapuntal analysis used by Edward Said, the Ecosystemic approach used in Community Psychology, amongst other boundary crossing, multi-perspectival approaches.

Scholars who believe in the unity-of-knowledge, can craft a trans-disciplinary approach, as needed, to study phenomena that constitute the ‘problematiques of the 21st Century’ (Max Neef 2006:5).  Baxter (2011:152) argues that meaning is constructed through the ‘interplay of contrasting discourses’.  She suggests a general analytic question for contrapuntal analyses i.e  –

What are the competing discourses [about an issue] and how is meaning constructed through their interplay?  

Summary of the ‘interplay’ findings that arose from a juxtaposition of inductive and deductive analyses (P.226):

The manifestations and patterns of denial that were revealed by an examination of the black box of victim offender mediation [restorative justice], were found to be linked to a larger conspiracy of silence which has become a culture of denial about information that is dissonant with the master narrative of the ‘miracle nation’.

The findings show that restorative justice stakeholders have tacit and explicit knowledge of structural factors that interact with individual propensity to produce crime [commit visible violence], but do not or cannot act on this knowledge for a variety of reasons summarised as –

(i) procedural blindness as illustrated by the accounts of participants in figures 7.3 and 7.4;

(ii) substantive deafness as exemplified by the analysis of participants’ accounts, and observation of a victim offender mediation session; and

(iii) a complicit silence which is not explained by the lack of funds and resources.

I will write another blog post on the nuts and bolts of the trans-disciplinary approach as applied in multi-phase action research since 2005. This now includes Knowledge co-produced with an extended network of peers consisting of a transdisciplinary spectrum of people from inside and outside of the academy.  We co-produce knowledge in the course of ground-truthing and calibrating previous research findings.

* Thanks to Pritima Osman for posting this delightful elephant picture which sparked this post and caused me to put myself hours behind with other deadlines : )



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