In academia, we are used to assigning ourselves to small pockets of knowledge with rigid walls around them. Scholars in one discipline hardly communicate with those in another. In those disciplines, we nurture ourselves and communicate with each other within them. We prepare our students in them.  We specialize in them and sometimes overspecialize in them. There are hierarchies in them, with the highest hierarchy being that of Professor. The Professor is supposed to know most, defend the knowledge in the discipline at all costs within its rigid walls.  

As far as the discipline is concerned its body of knowledge is pure and should not be polluted by other knowledges. We prepare our students in the disciplines as if they will all become small professors and ensure that they interact academically with only their kind. All this is referred to as the culture of knowledge called disciplinarity. Knowledge workers produce knowledge or acquire knowledge from others of their kind and pass it onto to young scholars to reproduce the discipline and entrench it as a unique body of knowledge. Within each discipline is what we call intradisciplinary, which simply means working, teaching and learning within the discipline. Scholars in each discipline communicate with each other and may or may not promote and reward each other, depending on many factors. Quite often intrigues arise especially when the issues have to do with reward and promotions. Cliques are not uncommon. One clique may work to exclude another from accessing academic resources, including promotion, rewards or Chairs of departments, faculties, schools or institutes.

Sometimes the disciplines are called academic tribes. They are amalgamated in broader bodies of knowledge called faculties or schools. These are territories of knowledge, knowledge workers and knowledge consumers. The faculties or schools are sometimes called Territories, which depict territoriality with minimum interaction with other territories. These brooder bodies of knowledge are the humanities or arts, the social sciences and the natural sciences.

Although the world is today more integrated than in the 20th century, thanks to the World Wide Web, which does not respect the rigid walls of the disciplines and the territoriality in universities, disciplinarity continues to be the dominant knowledge culture or system in most universities of the world just as was the case during the 20th Century. However, we now know that disciplinarity is not the only culture or system of knowledge. There are other cultures or systems of knowledge, producing knowledge and preparing scholars and professionals differently. These are multidisciplinarity, crossdisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and non-disciplinarity or extradisciplinarity.

So, while we have disciplinary scholars or professionals, we can have multidisciplinary, crossdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and non-disciplinary or extradisciplinary scholars or professionals.

All these alternative knowledge cultures or systems are sometimes referred to as the sustainability sciences, team sciences or the liberal sciences. They tend to encourage broadening of the mind, freedom to think and question, genuine interaction, and sustainable education, producing future-ready professionals. Unfortunately, most universities of the world have chosen to remain strictly disciplinary and closed-ended rather than open ended, in a world, which is diminishing and becoming more and more integrated, thanks to the World Wide Web and the new knowledge production systems..

Disciplinarity is working within a discipline. Multidisciplinarity is a knowledge system in which different knowledge workers from different knowledge disciplines work together, drawing ideas or knowledge from the others, but without really mixing with one another. Crossdisciplinarity is a knowledge practice where a knowledge worker views his or her discipline from the perspective of another. a knowledge practice in which knowledge is integrated and methods from other disciplines are used using a real synthesis of approaches. Transdisciplinarity is creating a unity of intellectual frameworks beyond one’s discipline. Nondisciplinarity or extradisciplinarity is knowledge discourse, which does not involve disciplines of knowledge.

The most advanced of scholars and/or professionals are the nondisciplinary or extradisciplinary scholars and professionals because in their work they do not evoke or refer to disciplines. They are the best positioned to tackle our complex problems, which do not respect the simplistic solutions of the disciplinarians. Such problems are nowadays called wicked problems. They include climate change, armed conflicts, governance, environmental degradation, and education. Nondisciplinarians or extra disciplinarians are more comfortable interacting with the non-academic world, such as that occupied by traditional society, which may be referred to as nondisciplinarians or extradisciplinarian because it has nothing to do with the culture or practice of disciplines.

A movement for the reintegration of knowledge via crossdisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and nondisciplinarity or extradisciplinarity is gaining momentum and sweeping across universities on the globe. It is a revolution in higher education. Despite the overall resistance to integration or reintegration of knowledge, many university campuses, especially in the West, have accepted that it is no longer fashionable to cast knowledge into small pockets of knowledge in one academic environment as if interconnectivity and interdependence are alien to society, or as if universities are separate from the wider society.

Apparently, there is gender imbalance in the knowledge integration/reintegration movement.  Women scholars, such as Bammer, Klein and Lyall, dominate the movement. The resistance to integration or reintegration is by the male gender, which was in fact the one that initiated the process of disciplining knowledge. Most so-called slow professors, who are resisting knowledge integration and reintegration are male. Could this be because women’s brains are designed to see the world as a whole rather than parts of it? I don’t know.

If we are to go by the reasoning I am advancing here, the most primitive, yet predominant knowledge production culture or system is disciplinarity, Multidisciplinarity, which is no more than glorified disciplinarity, is preferred by most universities of the world because it does not challenge disciplinarity. It attempts to bring the disciplines more closely together but does not allow them to meaningfully interact. Knowledge workers reduce the distances between themselves and may get interested in what knowledge workers in other disciplines are thinking and doing but not to the extent of opening up to them. If they work on a common problem and produce a report, each one will input his or her ideas or analyses independently of the others. If the product is a book, each chapter will reflect the thinking, analyses, interpretations and reasoning of the knowledge worker in one discipline. Even the conclusions will be desegregated.  Multidisciplinarity thrived especially during the early 1980s, in response to the emergence of the other knowledge-production cultures at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s.

We can as well refer to nondisciplinarity as the most advanced extradisciplinary knowledge production and integration culture in the sense that it is free from disciplinary limitations. Cultures and traditions throughout the world remain nondisciplinary. Local Indigenous knowledge on most of the globe is nondisciplinary. Even during the times of the great ancient thinkers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, knowledge production was nondisciplinary because, until Aristotle introduced them, disciplines did not exist.

We can as well refer to nondisciplinarity as the most advanced extradisciplinary knowledge production and integration culture in the sense that it is free from disciplinary limitations. Cultures and traditions throughout the world remain nondisciplinary. Local Indigenous knowledge on most of the globe is nondisciplinary. Even during the times of the great ancient thinkers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, knowledge production was nondisciplinary because, until Aristotle introduced them, disciplines did not exist. Non-disciplinarity is naturally interactive and most profoundly links the academic, practitioner and the ordinary citizen.

Transdisciplinarity is the only one of the new knowledge production systems that approximated nondisciplinarity in pursuing genuine interaction. As Nicolescu (1997) wrote, it aims to go beyond all disciplines and understand the present world by achieving the unity of knowledge, which nondisciplinarity best achieves. Like nondisciplinarity, it involves intense interaction between academics, practitioners and the citizenry in order to promote a mutual learning process between them. (Steiner and Posch, 2006). Indeed, together with nondisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity is a new knowledge production system that aims to achieve meaningful and effective stakeholder involvement.  

The recent advocacy for public diplomacy in the Nile Basin can result in effective stakeholder involvement in the processes of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) if the pursuit of transboundary water governance for inclusive development and environmental sustainability is accompanied by institutional opening up to nondisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. The wicked problems of the Nile Basin such as large dam building and climate change can best be addressed by evoking transdisciplinarity and, for that matter, nondisciplinarity knowledge systems for effective problem-solving in the Nile Basin involving large projects such the large dams, which have been the preferred projects in the Basin.

As Klein (2015).points out, the problem-solving discourse puts strong emphasis on social purpose (of projects). It takes a pragmatic approach to address social missions by integrating knowledge and skills from all disciplines in large-scale projects and processes such as the big dam projects and processes, preferred by the member governments of NBI.

According to Klein, the discourse, entitled transgression, serves the rhetoric of critiquing and reformulating the status quo imposed by dominant assumptions in scientific generation; and the discourse of transcendence seeks to produce a general theory of science and systems. Transgression, as Klein explains, “moves beyond instrumental integration” as it concentrates on scientific and systems uncertainties and high decision stakes. By renouncing disciplinary truth claims, this discourse is related with the concept of Mode 2 knowledge production in which a “new social distribution of knowledge” occurs due to contributions from wider range of organizations and stakeholders in producing “socially robust and necessary knowledge”. This approach transgresses the expert/lay dichotomy and therefore leads to new partnerships between academe and society.

On the other hand, Klein submits that the discourse of transcendence has included holistic approaches aimed at reorganizing the structure of knowledge towards unity, i.e. a universal scientific explanation. Some examples include systems theory, policy sciences, philosophy, and unification theories in physics.

This century and/or millennium is not only a century of new and different knowledge production and/cultures, but also coproduction of knowledge with stakeholders in society. Klein tells us that it is an obvious tenet of the transdisciplinary discourse with the aim of solving complex problems that originate in society. Accordingly, an education model based on feedback between academic and non-academic system designers and innovators that leads to new categories of methods and tools forms the vision of transdisciplinarity. It is greatly suitable for the NBI, which has tended to generate more problems than solve problems associated with its projects and processes., in which the overwhelming majority of its professionals are from disciplinary backgrounds. Let me end this article by citing Klein thus:

“The discourses of problem-solving, transgression and transcendence exhibit some overlaps in their interpretation of transdisciplinarity. Taken together, knowledge integration across disciplines and societal stakeholders, creative and collaborative design of new problem-solving methods, and basing all these around specific, large-scale real-world problems can be considered as the core of transdisciplinarity. The implication of transdisciplinarity for socioeconomic engagement of academics, then, would be breaking internal as well as external organizational barriers (in academe) that function against knowledge integration, and opening up for a problem-oriented knowledge co-production mission together with peers and nonpeers. Accordingly, exploitation of the synergy hidden within the transdisciplinary approach requires redefinition of knowledge production strategies at both intra-academe and multi-stakeholder knowledge society level. This not only calls for brand new research policies, but also for unprecedented type of organisations designed according to the transdisciplinary work principles in order to pursue its goals”.

Time to take transdisciplinarity seriously in the Nile Basin arrived long ago. Both the Nile Basin governments and their intergovernmental organizations cannot afford to postpone institutionalizing transdisciplinarity if they are to involve all stakeholders in the development of the Basin. There is need for the governments and the NBI to be at the forefront of transforming our strongly disciplinary universities into crossdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and of course transdisciplinary centres of higher education. Or else they should together priotize integrating and integrative knowledge in the basin by setting up a separate college of crossdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary education and research to produce future-ready professionals who can engage in critical thinking, genuinely interact with the non-academics in dynamic teams in promoting sustainability in the development processes in the Basin.  

The references below were adopted from Saeed Moghadam Saman’s “What is transdisciplinarity? What does it mean for academics’ collaboration?”

Klein, J.T. (2015). Reprint of “discourses of transdisciplinarity: Looking back to the future”. Futures, 63, 68-74.

Nicolescu, B. (1997). The transdisciplinary evolution of the university condition for sustainable development. Paper presented at the International Congress of the International Association of Universities. Bangkok, Thailand: Chulalongkorn University. 12 – 14 Nov. 1997

Steiner, G. and Posch, A. (2006). Higher education for sustainability by means of transdisciplinary case studies: an innovative approach for solving complex, real-world problems. Journal of Cleaner Production, 14 (9), 877-890.

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Written by Oweyegha Afunaduula (2)

I am a retired lecturer of zoological and environmental sciences at Makerere University. I love writing and sharing information.

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