Undertaking individual transdisciplinary PhD research for sustainable development : case studies from South Africa

Van Breda, John ; Musango, Josephine K. ; Brent, Alan C. (2016)

CITATION:Van Breda, J., Musango, J. K. & Brent, Alan C. 2016. Undertaking individual transdisciplinary PhD research for sustainable development : case studies from South Africa. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 17(2):150-166, doi:10.1108/IJSHE-07-2014-0107.

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Article

Purpose: This paper aims at improving the understanding of individual transdisciplinary PhD research in a developing country context, focusing on three individual PhD case studies in South Africa. Design/methodology/approach: The multiple-case method was used, and three completed transdisciplinary PhD research efforts undertaken at Stellenbosch University were selected. They were coordinated through the TsamaHub1, an inter-faculty platform at the University which organises educational modules for transdisciplinary research. Using actual research experiences and reflections of the three individual PhDs, the paper evaluates their work in terms of ontological, epistemological, methodological and methodical/methods aspects. Findings: The central challenge to individual PhD researchers is engagement with non-academic actors to enable joint problem formulation, analysis and transformation. To overcome this, the paper suggests that developing individual epistemic relationships to build ‘transdisciplinary epistemic communities’ should be considered for inclusion as an intentional aspect of transdisciplinary research design. Research limitations/implications: ‘Transdisciplinary epistemic communities’ is still a concept in its infancy and needs more work before it may be theoretically and practically useful. Practical implications: Continuously guiding the individual transdisciplinary research process in a reflexive, recursive, transparent and equal manner is absolutely critical, because transdisciplinary research cannot be done successfully if dominated by overly methods-driven approaches. Originality/value: The discourse around transdisciplinary methodology has major implications for the design of individual PhD research. The paper provides recommendations to enhance the theory and practice of individual transdisciplinary PhD research.

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