Communication processes in intercultural transdisciplinary research: framework from a group perspective

  • Jue WangEmail author
  • Thomas Aenis
  • Tuck Fatt Siew
Original Article


Transdisciplinary research (TDR) that aims at the co-production of knowledge in the process of addressing sustainability problems requires effective communication among scientists and practitioners. In international TDR cooperation, it is recognized that particular attention must be paid to intercultural communication, to enhance knowledge integration and mutual learning. However, there is little knowledge about the role of communication in TDR and how TDR group members with diverse socio-cultural backgrounds can communicate effectively. In this paper, we present a theoretical analysis on transdisciplinary communication, with a particular focus on group dynamics and intercultural communication. On this basis, we develop a framework for TDR communication that encompasses topics and indicators for successful communication. This framework was applied in a Chinese–German project conducted in Xishuangbanna, Southwest China, to guide the transdisciplinary communication processes. We focused on the development of trusted relationships among scientists and practitioners in the TDR team, while simultaneously accomplishing various tasks, such as problem framing and scenario development. In this study, we provide insights into intercultural communication in TDR, particularly in the context of Europe–Asia transdisciplinary cooperation. Our findings show that power relations, translator roles and researchers’ mindsets influence effective communication and successful knowledge integration. In the future, additional attention should be paid to improving the supporting system and institutional arrangement for transdisciplinary communication.


Communication framework Transdisciplinary research Stakeholder Intercultural communication Group dynamics 



This work was supported by German Federal Ministry of Education and Research [FKZ: 01 LL 0919] under the Sustainable Land Management program.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Aenis T (2010) A communication model for transdisciplinary consortium research. In: Darnhofer I, Michaela G (eds) Building sustainable rural futures: the added value of systems approaches in times of change and uncertainty. BOKU, Vienna, pp 500–509Google Scholar
  2. Bagnol B, Clarke E, Li M, Maulaga W, Lumbwe H, McConchie R, de Bruyn J, Alders RG (2016) Transdisciplinary project communication and knowledge sharing experiences in Tanzania and Zambia through a One Health Lens. Front Public Health 4:10. Google Scholar
  3. Baker EA, Homan S, Schonhoff SR, Kreuter M (1999) Principles of practice for academic/practice/community research partnerships. Am J Prev Med 16(3):86–93. Google Scholar
  4. Balsiger PW (2004) Supradisciplinary research practices: history, objectives and rationale. Futures 36:407–421. Google Scholar
  5. Belli G (2010) Bridging researcher-practitioner-gap: wiews from different fields. In: Reading C (ed) Data and context in statistics education: towards an evidence-based society. International Statistical Institute, VoorburgGoogle Scholar
  6. Berlo D (1960) The process of communication. Rinehart & Winston, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  7. Blaettel-Mink B, Kastenholz H (2005) Transdisciplinarity in sustainability research: diffusion conditions of an institutional innovation. Int J Sustain Dev World Ecol 12(1):1–12. Google Scholar
  8. Bonebright DA (2010) 40 years of storming: a historical review of Tuckman’s model of small group development. Hum Resour Dev Int 13:111–120. Google Scholar
  9. Boon WPC, Chappin MMH, Perenboom J (2014) Balancing divergence and convergence in transdisciplinary research teams. Environ Sci Policy 40:57–68. Google Scholar
  10. Bracken LJ, Bulkeley HA, Whitman G (2014) Transdisciplinary research: understanding the stakeholder perspective. J Environ Plan Manag 58:1291–1308. Google Scholar
  11. Brandt P, Ernst A, Gralla F, Luederitz C, Lang DJ, Newig J, Reinert F, Abson DJ, von Wehrden H (2013) A review of transdisciplinary research in sustainability science. Ecol Econ 92:1–15. Google Scholar
  12. Cash DW (2001) “In order to aid in diffusing useful and practical information”: agricultural extension and boundary organizations. Sci Technol Hum Values 26:431–453. Google Scholar
  13. Cash DW, Clark WC, Alcock F, Dickson NM, Eckley N, Guston DH, Jager J, Mitchell RB (2003) Knowledge systems for sustainable development. Proc Natl Acad Sci 100:8086–8091. Google Scholar
  14. Cassidy K (2007) Tuckman revisited: proposing a new model of group development for practitioners. J Exp Educ 29(3):13–17. Google Scholar
  15. Falk-Krzesinski HJ, Contractor N, Fiore SM, Hall KL, Kane C, Keyton J, Klein JT, Spring B, Stokols D, Trochim W (2011) Mapping a research agenda for the science of team science. Res Eval 20(2):145–158. Google Scholar
  16. Gaventa J, Cornwall A (2008) Power and knowledge. In: Reason P, Bradbury H (eds) Handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice. SAGE, London, pp 70–80Google Scholar
  17. Gersick CJ (1988) Time and transition in work teams: toward a new model of group development. Acad Manag J 31(1):9–14. Google Scholar
  18. Gibbons M (1999) Science’s new social contract with society. Nature 402(6761 Suppl):C81–C84. Google Scholar
  19. Ginsburg MB, Gorostiaga JM (2001) Relationships between theorists/researchers and policy makers/practitioners: rethinking the two-cultures thesis and the possibility of dialogue. Comp Educ Rev 45:173–196. Google Scholar
  20. Hadorn GH, Bradley D, Pohl C, Rist S, Wiesmann U (2006) Implications of transdisciplinarity for sustainability research. Ecol Econ 60:119–128. Google Scholar
  21. Hall ET (1976) Beyond culture. Doubleday, NewYorkGoogle Scholar
  22. Hall TE, O’Rourke M (2014) Responding to communication challenges in transdisciplinary sustainability science. In: Huutoniemi K, Tapio P (eds) Heuristics for transdisciplinary sustainability studies: solution–oriented approaches to complex problems. Routledge, Oxford, pp 119–139Google Scholar
  23. Hall KL, Vogel AL, Stipelman B, Stokols D, Morgan G, Gehlert S (2012) A four-phase model of transdisciplinary team-based research: goals, team processes, and strategies. Transl Behav Med 2:415–430. Google Scholar
  24. Harris F, Lyon F (2013) Transdisciplinary environmental research: building trust across professional cultures. Environ Sci Policy 31:109–119. Google Scholar
  25. Harris F, Lyon F (2014) Transdisciplinary environmental research: a review of approaches to knowledge coproduction. ESRC Nexus Network, SwindonGoogle Scholar
  26. Hirschkorn M, Geelan D (2008) Bridging the research-practice gap: research translation and/or research transformation. Alta J Educ Res 54:1–13Google Scholar
  27. Höchtl F, Lehringer S, Konold W (2006) Pure theory or useful tool?: experiences with transdisciplinarity in the Piedmont Alps. Environ Sci Policy 9:322–329. Google Scholar
  28. Hofstede G (1984) Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Sage Newbury Park, LondonGoogle Scholar
  29. Hofstede G (1990) Cultures and organizations: software of the mind. McGraw-Hill, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  30. Jahn T (2008) Transdisciplinarity in the practice of research. In: Bergmann M, Schramm E (eds) Transdisziplinaere Forschung: integrative Forschungsprozesse verstehen und bewerten. Campus, Frankfurt, pp 21–37Google Scholar
  31. Jahn T, Keil F (2015) An actor-specific guideline for quality assurance in transdisciplinary research. Futures 65:195–208. Google Scholar
  32. Jahn T, Bergmann M, Keil F (2012) Transdisciplinarity: between mainstreaming and marginalization. Ecol Econ 79:1–10. Google Scholar
  33. Jakobson R (1960) Linguistics and poetics. In: Sebeok T (ed) Style in Language. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 350–377Google Scholar
  34. Johnson BB (2012) Climate change communication: a provocative inquiry into motives, meanings, and means. Risk Anal 32:973–991. Google Scholar
  35. Kim Y, Lee B (1995) R&D project team climate and team performance in Korea: a multidimensional approach. R&D Manag 25(2):179–196. Google Scholar
  36. Klein JT (2004) Prospects for transdisciplinarity. Futures 36:515–526. Google Scholar
  37. Klein JT (2014) Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity: keyword meanings for collaboration science and translational medicine. J Trans Med Epidemiol 2(2):1024Google Scholar
  38. Knapp K (2015) Intercultural communication in EESE. EESE Strategy Paper No.4. Retrieved 15 July 2017.
  39. Kok K, Bärlund I, Flörke M, Gramberger M, Holman I, Sendzimir J, Stuch B, Zellmer K (2015) European participatory scenario development: strengthening the link between stories and models. Clim Change 128:187–200. Google Scholar
  40. Lang DJ, Wiek A, Bergmann M, Stauffacher M, Martens P, Moll P, Swilling M, Thomas CJ (2012) Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustain Sci 7:25–43. Google Scholar
  41. Lewis RD (2006) When cultures collide: leading across cultures, 3rd edn. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, LondonGoogle Scholar
  42. Lienert J, Schnetzer F, Ingold K (2013) Stakeholder analysis combined with social network analysis provides fine-grained insights into water infrastructure planning processes. J Environ Manag 125:134–148. Google Scholar
  43. Liu Q (2003) Understanding different cultural patterns or orientations between east and west. Investig Linguist 1:21–30. Google Scholar
  44. Liu Y, Gupta H, Springer E, Wagener T (2008) Linking science with environmental decision making: experiences from an integrated modeling approach to supporting sustainable water resources management. Environ Modell Softw 23:846–858. Google Scholar
  45. Long SD, Vaughan L (2006) Interpersonal communication. In: Rogelberg SG (ed) Encyclopedia of industrial and organizational psychology. SAGE, Thousand Oaks, pp 363–367Google Scholar
  46. Lynam T, De Jong W, Sheil D, Kusumanto T, Evans K (2007) A review of tools for incorporating community knowledge, preferences, and values into decision-making in natural resources management. Ecol Soc 12(1):5Google Scholar
  47. Miller D (2003) The stages of group development: a retrospective study of dynamic team processes. Can J Adm Sci 20(2):121–143. Google Scholar
  48. Miller TR (2012) Constructing sustainability science: emerging perspectives and research trajectories. Sustain Sci 8:79–293. Google Scholar
  49. Mitchell C, Cordell D, Fam D (2015) Beginning at the end: the outcome spaces framework to guide purposive transdisciplinary research. Futures 65:86–96. Google Scholar
  50. Newcomb TM (1953) An approach to the study of communicative acts. Psychol Rev 60:393–404. Google Scholar
  51. Pohl C (2005) Transdisciplinary collaboration in environmental research. Futures 37:1159–1178. Google Scholar
  52. Pohl C (2011) What is progress in transdisciplinary research? Futures 43:618–626. Google Scholar
  53. Popa F, Guillermin M, Dedeurwaerdere T (2015) A pragmatist approach to transdisciplinarity in sustainability research: from complex systems theory to reflexive science. Futures 65:45–56. Google Scholar
  54. Reed MS, Graves A, Dandy N, Posthumus H, Hubacek K, Morris J, Prell C, Quinn CH, Stringer LC (2009) Who’s in and why? A typology of stakeholder analysis methods for natural resource management. J Environ Manag 90:1933–1949. Google Scholar
  55. Rickards T, Moger S (2000) Creative leadership processes in project team development: an alternative to Tuckman’s stage model. Br J Manag 11(4):273–283. Google Scholar
  56. Rockstrom J, Steffen W, Noone K, Persson A, Chapin FS, Lambin E, Lenton TM, Scheffer M, Folke C, Schellnhuber H, Nykvist B, De Wit CA, Hughes T, van der Leeuw S, Rodhe H, Sorlin S, Snyder PK, Costanza R, Svedin U, Falkenmark M, Karlberg L, Corell RW, Fabry VJ, Hansen J, Walker B, Liverman D, Richardson K, Crutzen P, Foley J (2009) Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecol Soc 14(2):32Google Scholar
  57. Rogers EM (1983) Diffusion of innovations, 3rd edn. Free Press of Glencoe, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  58. Romero-Lankao P, Borbor-Cordova M, Abrutsky R, Günther G, Behrentz E, Dawidowsky L (2013) ADAPTE: a tale of diverse teams coming together to do issue-driven interdisciplinary research. Environ Sci Policy 26:29–39. Google Scholar
  59. Russell AW, Wickson F, Carew AL (2008) Transdisciplinarity: context, contradictions and capacity. Futures 40:460–472. Google Scholar
  60. Schauppenlehner-Kloyber E, Penker M (2015) Managing group processes in transdisciplinary future studies: how to facilitate social learning and capacity building for self-organised action towards sustainable urban development? Futures 65:57–71. Google Scholar
  61. Scholz RW, Steiner G (2015a) The real type and ideal type of transdisciplinary processes: part I—theoretical foundations. Sustain Sci 10:527–544. Google Scholar
  62. Scholz RW, Steiner G (2015b) The real type and ideal type of transdisciplinary processes: part II—what constraints and obstacles do we meet in practice? Sustain Sci 10:653–671. Google Scholar
  63. Scholz RW, Lang DJ, Wiek A, Walter AI, Stauffacher M (2006) Transdisciplinary case studies as a means of sustainability learning: historical framework and theory. Int J Sustain High Educ 7:226–251. Google Scholar
  64. Shannon CE, Weaver W (1949) The mathematical theory of communication. University of Illinois Press, UrbanaGoogle Scholar
  65. Siew TF, Aenis T, Spangenberg JH, Nauditt A, Döll P, Frank SK, Ribbe L, Rodriguez-Labajos B, Rumbaur C, Settele J, Wang J (2016) Transdisciplinary research in support of land and water management in China and Southeast Asia: evaluation of four research projects. Sustain Sci 11(5):813–829. Google Scholar
  66. Star S, Griesemer J (1989) Institutional ecology, “translations” and boundary objects: amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907–39. Soc Stud Sci 19(3):387–420Google Scholar
  67. Steffen W, Richardson K, Rockström J, Cornell SE, Fetzer I, Bennett EM, Biggs R, Carpenter SR, de Vries W, de Wit CA, Folke C, Gerten D, Heinke J, Mace GM, Persson LM, Ramanathan V, Reyers B, Sörlin S (2015) Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347:129855. Google Scholar
  68. Tress B, Tress G, Fry G (2005) Integrative studies on rural landscapes: policy expectations and research practice. Landsc Urban Plan 70:177–191. Google Scholar
  69. Truffer B (2007) Knowledge integration in transdisciplinary research projects—the importance of reflexive interface management. GAIA Ecol Perspect Sci Soc 16:41–45. Google Scholar
  70. Tuckman BW (1965) Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychol Bull 63:384–399. Google Scholar
  71. Tuckman BW, Jensen MA (1977) Stages of small-group development revisited. Group Organ Stud 2(4):419–427. Google Scholar
  72. United Nations (2015) Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. Retrieved 15 July 2018.
  73. Wang J (2014) From information giving to mutual scenario definition: stakeholder participation towards sustainable rubber cultivation in Xishuangbanna, Southwest China. In: Schobert H et al (eds) Farming systems facing global challenges: capacities and strategies. Humboldt University, Berlin, pp 618–625. Google Scholar
  74. Wang J, Aenis T, Hofmann-Souki S (2018) Triangulation in participation: dynamic approaches for science-practice interaction in land-use decision making in rural China. Land Use Policy 72:364–371. Google Scholar
  75. Wickson F, Carew AL, Russell AW (2006) Transdisciplinary research: characteristics, quandaries and quality. Futures 38:1046–1059. Google Scholar
  76. Wiek A (2007) Challenges of transdisciplinary research as interactive knowledge generation—experiences from transdisciplinary case study reserch. GAIA Ecol Perspect Sci Soc 16:52–57. Google Scholar
  77. Wiek A, Walter AI (2009) A transdisciplinary approach for formalized integrated planning and decision-making in complex systems. Eur J Oper Res 197:360–370. Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Albrecht Daniel Thaer-Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural SciencesHumboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Institute of Physical GeographyGoethe University FrankfurtFrankfurt am MainGermany

Personalised recommendations