Initiating Transdisciplinary Research in China:
A Case Study
Timothy Sim1*, John Young2, Jocelyn Lau1 and Ke Cui3
1Department of Applied Social Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong
2World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Community Health Services, School of Nursing, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong
Submission: September 23, 2019; Published: October 21, 2019
*Corresponding author: Timothy Sim, Department of Applied Social Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hung Hom, Kowloon, Hong Kong
How to cite this article: Timothy Sim, John Young, Jocelyn Lau, Ke Cui. Initiating Transdisciplinary Research in China: A Case Study. Int J Environ Sci Nat Res. 2019; 22(1): 556080.DOI: 10.19080/IJESNR.2019.22.556080
Transdisciplinary (TD) research is increasingly being applied to resolve various problems associated with real-world situations and complex socio-ecological problems. However, TD research remains challenging, particularly when practitioners and researchers collaborate in cross-border and cross-cultural settings. In this study, we examine the factors that facilitated and hindered the formation of a TD research project in China by synthesizing the experiences of a team of international and local researchers, practitioners and stakeholders working together to promote earthquake resilience through the “Earthquakes without Frontiers” research project. Our findings suggest that the development of a TD research project in China requires guanxi, or relationships, in the local context. The factors that are most important in sustaining commitment and achieving the project objectives are the potential for new insights and unique learning experiences and the opportunity to take part in salient activities and events that engage stakeholders. However, political considerations and cultural differences can hinder the development of a TD research project. Although there are areas that could be improved in operating the Earthquakes without Frontiers project in China, it has laid a solid foundation for the development of other TD research projects in China.
Keywords: Transdisciplinary (TD) research China, Facilitators Hindrances Earthquake resilience
Contemporary challenges such as climate change, disaster risk reduction and urban planning are characterized by complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty, which Rittel & Webber  described as “wicked problems” that have no immediate or ultimate solution. Transdisciplinary (TD) research has become a popular tool for identifying possible solutions to the challenges of wicked problems [2,3].
TD research is a broad and vibrant yet also highly contested field
; consensus has not even been reached on its definition. The
implementation of a TD research project requires various strategies to combine research, development and implementation . A distinct feature of this approach to solving complex real-world problems is its context-specific negotiation .
The situation-specific circumstances of TD research are important determinants of its success or failure. The examination of practical factors in performing transdisciplinary research within a specific socio-political context is essential to its iterative process. For example, understanding the motivations and processes of different stakeholder groups working together in a specific country allows foreign collaborators from different institutional and socio-cultural settings to be better prepared. Thoughtful consideration of the obstacles and challenges encountered in empirical studies could also facilitate researchers and practitioners in better understanding the ways in which a TD project can be shaped for a particular field and adapted in a specific social-ecological-cultural context [3,7].
Despite contingency being essential in TD research, it remains
common for practitioners to expand their knowledge of TD
practices by generalizing experience to provide insights, models
and approaches relevant to other contextual settings after careful
validation and adaptation . These generalized experiences
are closely tied to issues that cut across the TD process, such as
research framing, methodology, management, organization and
coordination and trust building [9-13].
However, generalizing TD practices is not always helpful because
the knowledge derived can never be independent of the
cases that structure the field . Contingent details (including
surprises) and practical actions and solutions need to be appropriate
for the particular circumstances and parameters, fit with
stakeholder interests and conform to political conditions so that
practitioners can operate saliently in respect to different contexts
using TD strategies . However, little attention is paid to the examination
of circumstantial problems and solutions, particularly
in the context of China.
A previous TD study in China suggested that specific methods
were required to respond to the country’s specific cultural, social
and political conditions . It is imperative to clarify, however,
that TD research is not common in China. We suggest that identifying
the facilitators and hindrances in the initial stage of developing
a TD research project in a particular context can provide critical
insights for researchers on when and how to proceed with the
TD research process. This could minimize the risk of “re-inventing
the wheel” when applying TD projects in the country. In this
paper, we synthesize the TD experience of an international and
local team of researchers, practitioners and stakeholders working
in China on the “Earthquakes without Frontiers” (EwF) project,
which aims to increase the earthquake resilience of the region. To
begin, we present the conceptual framework underlying our empirical
study and then describe the materials and methods. Next,
we focus on the factors that facilitate and hinder the development
of a TD research project in the context of China and discuss the impact
of the project. We believe that this study’s findings could have
wider scholarly and practice implications for the development of
TD research in China and beyond, particularly in developing countries
that are emerging and facing a host of “tricky” issues.
The TD approach has become a basis of contemporary reflections
on the forms of scientific research and organization, and on
the nature of contemporary problems . Transdisciplinarity
was first termed by the Austrian astrophysicist Erich Jantsch as
“the ultimate degree of co-ordination” and depends, inter alia, “on
the mutual enhancement of epistemologies in certain areas” .
It emphasizes the articulation between disciplines rather than
their relations to make it possible for researchers “to perform a
transition to separate one types of knowledge from another whilerecognizing that part of this knowledge depends on models from
other disciplines” . The notion of articulation encourages researchers
to interpret what they observe against the background
of their own disciplines. Clarification of diverging definitions of
values and measurements between disciplines becomes possible.
For example, social scientists may misinterpret the term “uncertainty”
in natural science debates as an indicator of scientific disagreement,
not as an unavoidable data problem .
While transdisciplinarity integrates different bodies of knowledge,
there is limited synthesis within the academic circle. Multiple
sources of knowledge and ways of knowing are valued in TD
research . The notion of “transectorality”  underpins this
problem-oriented approach. In a nutshell, the research process is
both “horizontal and vertical” . It is horizontal in the cooperation
of disciplines at the same level during multi- and inter-disciplinary
research, the involvement of different stakeholders in a
local planning process and the cooperation of administrative bodies.
It is vertical in the cooperation of disciplines at different levels,
such as when scientific research is combined with best practices
in the region and when NGOs and government agencies cooperate,
and local communities interact . It is understood that no interdisciplinary
or TD researcher can be an expert in all fields . In
other words, the idea of an “expert” should be deemphasized as it
impedes the integration and synthesis of the knowledge produced
from different dimensions.
Multidisciplinarity (several disciplines working in parallel on
a shared research interest but without interaction) and interdisciplinarity
(different disciplines working together with the intention
of integrating their results) may help us to obtain better and
fuller answers to orthodox questions. Transdisciplinarity enables
us to ask different questions  because it emphasizes transectorality,
which distinguishes it from multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary
thinking and practices [12,15,22-25]. However, it is
imperative to note that multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinarity are
complementary rather than mutually exclusive: without specialized
disciplinary studies, there would be no in-depth knowledge
and data  to serve as the foundation for transdisciplinarity.
Despite being broad and vibrant, TD research has been challenged
. There seems to be no complete history of the concept
. To date, there is still no consensus on the definition of transdisciplinarity,
and the concept has shifted and expanded as it has
developed. Jahn et al.  define transdisciplinarity as “a critical
and self-reflexive research approach” (p.8) that emphasizes the
importance of integration at epistemic, social-organizational and
communicative levels with the aim of contributing to both societal
and scientific progress.
This paper adopts Pohl & Hadorn’s  conceptual definition
of transdisciplinarity as a research approach that aims at identifying,
structuring, analyzing and handling issues to
a) grasp the relevant complexity of a problem;
b) take into account the diversity of life-worlds and scientific
perceptions of problems;
c) link abstract and case-specific knowledge; and
d) develop knowledge and practices that promote what is
perceived to be the “common good.” It can be regarded as a
comprehensive, multi-perspective, problem- and solution-oriented
approach that transgresses the boundaries between
disciplines and between science and practice .
This conceptualization is adopted because we believe that
transdisciplinarity is an iterative process between abstract and
case-specific knowledge. It is not an end in itself but a means
for researchers and practitioners to explain a phenomenon and
to address the complexity of a problem through the inclusion of
descriptive, normative and practice-oriented knowledge . It
enables us to realize “le tout est quelque chose de plus la somme
des parties” (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) .
The “extra,” or that which constitutes the whole, is made up of all
of the articulations and interactions between the levels of reality
established by disciplinary knowledge.
While TD research has been thriving and gaining institutional
momentum internationally, a large body of empirical literature
has been generated on how TD research projects are designed,
organized and adapted to address a particular research topic. In
general, the conceptual model for evaluating or tracking the progress
of a TD project is based on the TD research process, which
consists of three phases:
a) Phase A: collaboratively framing the problem and building
a collaborative research team;
b) Phase B: co-producing solution-oriented and transferable
knowledge through collaborative research; and
c) Phase C: (re-) integrating and applying the produced
knowledge in both scientific and societal practice [3,29].
The shared examples of TD case studies around the world 
involve a thick description of TD research projects concerning
three key areas:
a) the way the genesis of a real-world problem is addressed;
b) the method of identifying and involving heterogeneous
c) the way deliberate change is made to strategic planning
based on contingencies. All of these areas contribute to
grounding concepts, methods, tools and standards for
TD research , which facilitates problem recognition
and problem-solving efforts. Moreover, practice-oriented
knowledge has significant implications for how to meet the
knowledge requirements for problem solving in the lifeworld
 and allows researchers to think more systematicallyabout the insights gained, which could be useful for evaluation
. These findings help to develop recommendations for
further research relevant to the specific field, such as disaster
Earthquakes, like many other natural disasters, do not respect
national borders or privilege particular social groups. Over the last
century, advances in the scientific understanding of earthquakes
have been translated into impressive resilience in a few places
where their occurrence is frequent and well understood. Developed
countries have the resources to invest in building resilience
(e.g., the United States, Japan and Chile). Comparable advances
have not, however, taken place in most parts of continental interiors.
One reason is that many nations at risk have a low frequency
of earthquakes. These countries are often also poorer, and their
distinctive scientific and societal responses to earthquake hazards
are insufficient to translate into effective resilience. In addition,
the risks become more significant when a population migrates to
vulnerable and hazardous locations, as earthquakes can occur in
regions where faults are often poorly identified.
The current problem is thus complex and multi-dimensional.
While populations are growing and urbanization is occurring
at a rapid pace, it is common to find people living in non-earthquake-
resistant structures, and hazardous infrastructures are
still being developed even though they are located in high-hazard
impact areas. The human and economic impacts of earthquakes
are therefore significant, particularly in developing countries such
as China. To alleviate the negative impact, governments urgently
need to implement an efficient disaster management plan in tandem
with enhancing the scientific understanding of earthquake
Building earthquake resilience can be considered a “wicked
problem” , as socio-economic-political contexts are rapidly
changing and poorly understood and, in particular, because it is
not yet possible to predict earthquakes. These contexts make the
problem more difficult to define and delineate from other, bigger
problems (e.g., climate change and sustainable development). In
addition, it comprises several sub-problems that fall into the domains
of different disciplines (e.g., physical and social sciences)
and sectors (e.g., governmental and non-governmental organizations).
The immediate consequence of these obscuring contexts is that
the design and application of earthquake-resilient strategies becomes
acutely ill-formulated. The information is confusing, as it
involves many stakeholders and decision makers with conflicting
values, and the way the complex anti-seismic system works can
be daunting. Often, practitioners and researchers do not seem to
have the analytical tools or the measurement techniques to explain
and address the complex and multi-dimensional problem.
In the case of China, not only is TD research uncommon, but
the environment that enables TD research collaborations between
and within the government and society is challenging, and the
existing socio-political structure is not conducive. For example,
the contemporary governance structure between the central government
and decentralized local government does not facilitate
cross-agency collaborations . Under the rhetorical tiao-kuai
relationship, individual offices within these bureaucracies are no
longer beholden to superiors within local governments (kuai);
rather, they are directly controlled by their functional administrative
superiors (tiao) and have only a consultative relationship
with their former local government bosses, which brings as many
problems to collaborations between different public agencies
(Mertha, 2005) .
Furthermore, the nature of the political structure has bred a
“love–hate relationship” between the party-state and the proliferation
of NGOs in China for decades . Although the state–NGO
partnership is developing, there has been a lack of meaningful collaboration
between the state and NGOs in China in the past .
This is reflected in the Chinese government’s official NGO policy
as “nourishment, development, supervision, and regulation” (peiyu,
fazhan, jiandu, guanli), where there is greater emphasis on regulation
and supervision than on nourishment and support .
All of these issues may also account for the fact that there is no
widely recognized translation for transdisciplinarity in Chinese.
Developing TD research projects against this background in China
could be difficult given that the situation-specific circumstances of
TD research are important determinants of success or failure .
Against these challenges, we aimed to examine the facilitators
and hindrances in forming a TD research project in China by
synthesizing the experiences of a team of international and local
researchers, practitioners and stakeholders working together to
promote earthquake resilience through the EwF research project.
As TD research encourages researchers to progressively share
their meanings, diagnoses, values, interests and views, should be
considered from different perspectives and cultures , exposing
the facilitators and hindrances of TD practices in a given context
where TD research is uncommon may enable researchers to track
the progress of the project and may thus yield practical insights
into the application of TD research processes.
The EwF project is funded by the United Kingdom’s Natural
Environment Research Council (and Economic and Social Research
Council). It is a five-year research project (2012-2017)
that brings together natural and social scientists from Cambridge,
Durham, Hull, Leeds, Northumbria and Oxford Universities andfrom the Overseas Development Institute and British Geological
Survey in addition to collaborators in China, Kazakhstan and Nepal.
The project aims to increase resilience to earthquake hazards
worldwide with three overarching objectives:
a) to provide transformational increases in the knowledge
of the distributions of primary and secondary earthquake
hazards in the continental interiors;
b) to identify pathways to increased resilience in the populations
exposed to these hazards; and
c) to secure these gains over the long term by establishing
a well-networked, trans-disciplinary partnership for increasing
resilience to earthquakes.
Specific objectives for each of the focused countries were developed
and identified over the course of the project in its first
year. The objectives emerged from interactions between the disciplines
represented in the “country team” and through engagement
with stakeholders in the focus countries and with local partners.
EwF was initiated by several natural scientists who had previously
collaborated on other projects. After deciding to use a TD
approach to meet the project aims, they started by reaching out
to social scientists via personal connections within the UK. With
both natural and social scientists on board, they then invited a
policy specialist to the project not only to maximize the uptake
and impact of research but also to guide the TD research process.
Although the project focuses on China, Kazakhstan and Nepal, its
partnership generated a trans-national network that links with
other countries at risk of earthquakes in the Alpine-Himalayan
belt (e.g., Kyrgyzstan, India, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran etc.).
In recognizing the potential challenges in achieving effective
TD research, the following principles underscored the TD processes:
a) understand and respect each other’s disciplinary values
and perspectives on the research issues and develop a shared
conceptual framework of the problems, how they can be addressed
and, consequently, what actions and activities are required;
b) refine the project’s research agenda with local stakeholders
in each target country through processes that enable
participants to step beyond their own epistemic backgrounds;
c) reflect on the development of effective transdisciplinarity
as a routine element of the team’s meetings and reports to
drive the learning process over the course of the project.
c) to secure these gains over the long term by establishing
a well-networked, trans-disciplinary partnership for increasing
resilience to earthquakes.
To maximize the uptake and impact of the project, a systematic
and iterative approach was adopted in each country to:
a) map the social and political landscape, including identifying
key stakeholders and their modes of influences;
b) identify how the status quo needs to change to enable
the desired outcome;
c) develop and implement strategies to achieve those
d) monitor progress and update the understanding of key
factors and adjust strategies accordingly.
The coordination, integration and promotion of transdisciplinarity
within each country are overseen by a triumvirate comprising
representatives from the social sciences, natural sciences and
transdisciplinary streams. The triumvirate was established to ensure
clear roles, responsibilities and management arrangements
to develop and oversee the iterative approach outlined above
within the project in each country. This ensured that fieldwork
was organized wherever possible to enable mutual learning and
The UK-based triumvirate that oversaw the project in China
comprised eminent researchers and practitioners from different
countries with varied cultural backgrounds. The leader of the natural
science strand is a Professor of Geology in the Department of
Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford. He works on several
aspects of tectonics and has been involved in research in Greece,
New Zealand, Italy, Turkey and Iran. The leader of the social science
strand was born and raised in Canada and is a Professor in
the Department of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University
and Head of the Disaster Intervention Committee of the International
Association of Schools of Social Work. The policy specialist
who leads the work on maximizing the uptake of the research
findings into policy and practice has lived and worked in Africa
and Asia for most of his life. His experience working on a range
of projects related to the application of knowledge to solve complex
problems led to the development of the Research and Policy
in Development program at the Overseas Development Institute,
which aims to improve the integration of evidence and knowledge
by policy-makers and practitioners. They are supported by
five scholars from the UK with varied professional backgrounds.
In addition, a social work academic at the Hong Kong Polytechnic
University with vast experience working in the disaster
management field in China has been engaged since the beginning
to act as a conduit between the UK and Chinese scholars.
When the project started, the first collaborator that EwF (China)
identified in mainland China was the Director of the China EarthquakeAdministration Institute of Geology, who has on-going
working relationships with the UK seismologists. A launch event
and several field trips in Xi’an and Beijing were organized in early
2013 for the project to identify and engage local collaborators.
Each meeting and field trip were attended by about 10 Chinese
scholars from the China Earthquake Administration and Beijing
Normal University, a sizeable group of officials from government
organizations (e.g., Ministry of Civil Affairs), practitioners from
non-government organizations (NGOs) and universities. In addition,
the team actively engaged the other stakeholders such
as residents from towns and villages in the study site of Shaanxi
Province in China.
To document the TD experiences of the EwF team in China,
this study adopted a descriptive qualitative approach using a
semi-structured questionnaire to yield useful insights and an indepth
a) the facilitators and hindrances in doing trans-disciplinary
research in China; and
b) the impact of these practices and challenges on the TD
team in achieving the common research objectives at the initial
stage of TD research.
Data collection occurred from mid-December 2015 to early
February 2016. The computer assisted qualitative analysis package
NVivo was used to aid the content analysis of the survey data.
Specifically, the coding process involved reading each collected
questionnaire and assigning codes to sentences, paragraphs and
sections of the responses by the research team. All of the codes
were organized into themes related to specific questionnaire
items according to the objectives of the initial phase of the project:
to identify the facilitators of and hindrances to developing a
TD research project in China.
The study and access to the sample were approved by the Human
Subjects Research Ethics Committee of the Hong Kong Polytechnic
University (No. HSEARS20150503001). Informed consent
was obtained from the participants, and the confidentiality of
their data was assured; in particular, the survey contents and data
were not discussed with any of the members, and participants had
the right to withdraw from the study without any negative consequences.
In this section, we present the empirical observations from
the EwF China team members. We sent out a total of 19 questionnaires
to members of EwF (China). Eventually, 14 participants
took part in the study, and all 14 questionnaires were usable for
analysis. The response rate was about 74%. Table 1 presents the
profile of the respondents who completed the semi-structured
Next, we outline the facilitators of conducting TD research in
China, followed by the obstacles and challenges to developing the
TD research project in this case study. Wherever possible, all observations
are supported by quotes from the questionnaire.
TD collaboration is not common in China. When collaborations
are engaged, “they are only formed under the pressure of
the government” (Participant 7). There is usually little autonomy,
and the collaboration is inorganic. “Few researchers in China are
aware of the importance of the TD method” (Participant 12) and
its potential to “generate outputs with real impact” (Participant
9). Given this background, what factors facilitated the formation
of the EwF (China) team ?
A majority (43%) of the respondents expressed that having
shared interests and goals for increasing earthquake resilience
among members helped to form the EwF (China) team. The composition
of the team (36%) with different backgrounds was also
a facilitating factor that led to the team formation. Other factors
included the attractiveness of EwF resources and the project goals
(29%) and the individual qualities of EwF members (21%). Moreover,
collaboration opportunities (14%) and spending time together
as a team (14%) were considered constructive elements that
brought the EwF (China) team together.
EwF comprises a consortium of eminent local and international
researchers and practitioners in their respective fields.
This represents a resource that is “complementary in that thereare different areas of professional knowledge and research skills”
(Participant 9). It also has a pool of attractive talents and qualities,
including coordination capabilities and energy and passion for increasing
earthquake resilience. Moreover, EwF brings opportunities
that are new in China. For instance, one of our participants revealed
that being involved in EwF as a young scholar was possible
because one of the project’s aims is to promote the development
of young scholars. For others, EwF offered the opportunity to enhance
their individual skills and career development. Some of the
participants indicated that one of the factors that facilitated the
TD team formation was the opportunity for collaboration across
sectors, i.e., between the government and tertiary institutions and
There were three ways that EwF (China) team members became
involved in the project. The most common was through
personal ties with EwF principal investigators and team members
(50%), followed by receiving an official invitation from the EwF
Facilitation through personal ties meant that these members
were engaged in the research project either due to direct association
or through referral by a collaborator in China. For instance,
one of the participants expressed that:
Through participating in the seminars organized by EwF in
2014, I met an EwF team member together with our Director. We
then learned more about EwF. Owing to my professional needs, I
then joined the EwF (China) team and was engaged in a wide range
of EwF activities. (Participant 10).
It is noteworthy that approaching a higher level of government
officials in China at the initial stage of the project facilitated
the building of networks and engaging different stakeholders as
the project developed. The personal connection with the director
of the China Earthquake Administration Institute of Geology
enabled EwF to develop smoothly in China, although the environment
is less open to international non-governmental organizations
and there are tight regulations on foreigners working in
China [41,42]. By working closely with a national governmentalbody, EwF gained more “legitimacy” to work with the local government
at provincial levels and with NGOs.
Eighty-two percent of respondents indicated that the field
trips helped them to get to know the others better. Field trips required
members from different sectors, fields and regions to come
together as a team to learn. It also provided a common reference
point for discussion and facilitated cross-disciplinary dialogue.
The field trips allowed formal and informal discussions to take
place between members. Traveling together “allowed the team to
spend a lot of time in each other’s company, so much was learned
from our interactions” (Participant 2).
Some respondents specifically mentioned the Writeshop
(36%), which was a three-day event at which government, NGOs
and tertiary institutes came together to produce a publication
focusing on the pathways to promote earthquake resilience .
Others also found annual meetings in different countries and
workshops (36%) helpful, such as one conducted on “How to apply
participatory action research.” Informal events, such as socializing
through visiting places of interest (18%), were also found to
help team members get to know one another
The heterogeneities of the team (27%), inadequate communication
(27%) and inadequate adherence to the TD principles of
working together (27%) were considered to be the three main obstacles
to building the team. Eighteen percent of respondents suggested
that personality clashes were an impediment to the project.
In addition, an external factor of political constraints (9%) in
China was pointed out by a participant as an impediment to the
formation of the EwF (China) team.
Cultural differences between team members in terms of language
and ethnicity were considered to “impede mutual understanding”
(Participant 1). At the same time, the involvement of different
disciplines and professional orientations (research versus
practice) were also described as hindrances for reaching mutual
A majority of participants indicated that there was inadequate
communication within the TD team. This meant that some of the
researchers were unaware of the latest developments in the project.
One of the participants stated that “the division of labor is
not clear, and there is little mutual understanding of each other’s
expectations, roles and responsibilities, as they were not clearly
defined when the team was formed” (Participant 7).
Moreover, as EwF (China) is a cross-border research project,
the different work styles and systems exacerbated the organizational
and coordination challenges. For example, one participant
reflected that there were different administrative and financial
procedures between partners that could be challenging to comply
The volatile dynamics of a diverse group cannot be taken for
granted, as our project shows that personality conflicts compound
the complexities. One expressed that:
There are bound to be challenges because of the different disciplines
and people making different assumptions and speaking different
languages, but this has been compounded by differences in
personality. (Participant 6).
Some participants suggested that there was room for improvement
in the frequency of interaction, process of implementation
and the approach to work in forming the team. They reflected that
more regular interaction (62%), greater solidarity within the team
(31%) and better implementation of the project (23%) may have
enabled better team building.
Despite the difficulties and challenges, EwF has achieved
much more than expected in the face of all of the contingency
challenges in the Chinese context. First of all, the project enabled
people in China to explore the potential of transdisciplinarity. The
experience of working in EwF facilitated a better understanding
of the possibilities and ways in which transdisciplinarity could be
contextualized in China. One of our collaborators in China defined
the concept as follows:
[Transdisciplinarity is an approach that] could account for the
strength of each member. It bridges the gap between research and
practice. At the same time, it integrates different methodologies and
analytical approaches. This rendered [the process and the output]
to be more comprehensive … and more convincing. (Participant 14).
Our participants also reflected that there were no apparent
restrictions on its application because the TD approach is still
new and not commonly adopted in China. Due to its rare adoption,
“Chinese people find it interesting and are willing to take part in
it” (Participant 9). Meanwhile, Chinese stakeholders can refer to
the established practical experiences and skills from the West
and, given time, the Chinese will be able to share their experiences
and practices once they have built a good number of cases.
Furthermore, our participants identified three areas where a
TD approach could plug the gaps of at least three issues related to
TD practices in China. First, the majority of participants expressed
that the TD approach is effective in integrating resources and
knowledge in China. As transdisciplinarity exemplifies heterogeneity
and multidimensionality, it has the ability to bring various
disciplines and stakeholders together, such as through workshops
and seminars, which is uncommon in China. TD can thus effectively
integrate information and knowledge by creating a platform for
the cross-fertilization of ideas across disciplines and sectors, particularly
among NGOs, government departments and academic institutions.
The enhanced knowledge gained from mutual learning
could, for instance, serve to improve the quality of social services
Second, the participants suggested that the practice of TD
allows knowledge gaps to be mitigated in China. On the policy
level, TD could “address the [implementation] gap between topdown
and bottom-up levels in China” (Participant 1). The gaps
between disciplines could also be narrowed through the initiation
of cross-disciplinary dialogue, which facilitates researchers to
explore and cultivate commonalities on a common topic. In turn,
researchers may “understand a problem from a different perspective
and seek solutions for a social problem based on a different
angle” (Participant 12).
Third, TD research facilitates the focus on practice at the local
level in China. This emphasis on locality allows local government
and the China Earthquake Administration to take on the ownership
of research rather than it being determined by the authority
or outside agencies. At the same time, the agenda and concerns
of local actors and stakeholders, in this case NGOs, local governments
and the China Earthquake Administration, could be attended
to and addressed in a straightforward manner. In addition, having
a clear focus on the local level enables researchers to “decide
whether the knowledge is effective in mitigating a local hazard”
The EwF (China) project has laid the foundation for the development
of at least one other TD project in China: Pan-participatory
Assessment and Governance of Earthquake Risks in
the Ordos Area (PAGER-O). This is a three-year (2016 to 2019)
project that is co-funded by both the Chinese and British governments
to bring together natural and social scientists with
policy makers, practitioners and local communities using a
pan-participatory approach to identify and fill knowledge gaps
and co-produce evidence-based approaches to reduce risk
and increase resilience to earthquake hazards. It will extend
the reach, depth and impact of EwF and expand the research
beyond the rural setting to the urban setting, involving more
stakeholders both locally and internationally. This new project
also provides us with the opportunity to apply the TD lessons
learned in EwF (China) when it ends in the third quarter of 2017.
Our study aimed at identifying the factors that facilitated and
hindered a TD research project in China. The results provide several
First, it is necessary to recognize the key cultural element that
underpins all practices in China. Guanxi is a unique form of social
capital common in Chinese societies. A guanxi network is defined
as a group of people connected by particularistic interpersonal
ties, which are cultivated and maintained through trust, obligation
and reciprocity . It is the key element that facilitated the formation
and maintenance of our TD research team. While guanxi
could help in identifying and bringing in potential collaborators,
it requires time and effort to develop and cultivate, formally and
informally, through different platforms.
The willingness of members and collaborators to spend time
together and be patient with each other during the preparation
phase were also crucial factors in determining the success of a TD
project in China. Other recommendations include providing the
team with dedicated time to spend on strategic planning; starting
an open dialogue between disciplines during the early stages to
help them understand each other’s approaches; and ensuring that
practitioners and researchers get to know one another. Dedicated
time during the preparatory stage enables team members to better
appreciate each other’s differences and hence make better use
of each other’s strengths.
Consistent and regular communication within the team
throughout the TD process is also an essential part of an effective
team. Various forms of interactions, both formal and informal,
were recommended by our participants, including research
training workshops, writing together, team meetings using social
media such as Skype and using email to establish a project communication
platform. In addition, in a TD setting, communication
must be intense and ongoing if it is meant to achieve integration
or exchange among different viewpoints, interests, convictions
and scientific paradigms . Within a team, formal and informal
discussions between members are important. In relation to TD
study, it is in line with Farrell’s  argument that while interactions
within groups are essential, the one-to-one relationships
between members may exert the most important effect upon creativity,
and this kind of exchange between dyads or sub-group of
members of a group provides an “instrumental intimacy” in which
“each begins to use the mind of the other as if it were the mind of
his own” . It is therefore suggested that organizing meetings
with each stakeholder at an early stage to attract their interest
and recognize the value of getting together with others is the first
step in making a TD project happen.
Effective management, iterative enhancement and cultivation
of TD capacity and skills are deemed useful. At any stage of the
project, there is a need for regular activities to facilitate mutual
learning, the definition of shared goals, the creation of rules and
boundaries for collaboration and integration, the management of
complexity and heterogeneity, strategic planning and a balance
between the personal attitudes and conflicts among researchers
[39,47-49]. Having a local facilitator who is able to mediate discussions
and cultural nuisances could serve to channel some of
the doubts and worries of collaborators. Rhetorical and hermeneutical
skills are needed to deal with the dynamics of communication
in teamwork . In a TD team, differences in epistemologies,
research methodologies and approaches to questions must
be bridged to achieve mutual understanding and to arrive at common
resolutions, particularly when the team members work in
different sectors (e.g., government versus non-government).
The beauty of transdisciplinarity lies in its heterogeneity and
complexity. It pulls together various attitudes of researchers from
different disciplines and sectors, who speak different languagesand with different cognitive systems, to address a common research
problem. There is a general consensus that diversity rather
than conformity is more likely to produce novelty and quality in
the form of outcomes . However, diversity could also be the
biggest cause of conflict and destabilization of a TD team, and it
has implications for the sustainability and applicability of transdisciplinarity
in a particular context (Table 2) [51-53].
This paper contributes to the literature on transdisciplinarity
by examining the factors that facilitate and hinder the adoption of
a TD approach in the context of China. With the aim of filling the
gap in TD research in China, we used the EwF project as a case
study to synthesize the TD experiences of a team of international
and local researchers, practitioners and stakeholders working collaboratively
to enhance earthquake resilience in China. We believe
that our findings will provide scholarly insights for the development
of TD research in other countries, particularly in the developing
world, where it is still in the earliest stages of development.
TD is understood simultaneously as an attitude and a form
of action . In this paper, we argue that the development of a
TD research project in China requires the presence of guanxi. The
ability to offer something new and unique and the organization of
activities and events that make it worthwhile for stakeholders to
engage are important factors in sustaining a TD project. However,
political constraints and cultural differences may compound the
complex management of such projects. Despite the challenges,
the EwF project has laid the foundation for the development
of other TD projects in China. The iterative learning process
produced recommendations for future projects, which will ensure
better preparation and the dedication of time and patience when
adopting TD in a country where the practice is uncommon.
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