Methodological Agility for Transformative Transdisciplinary Research

Inter- and intra- methodological agility

Broadly speaking, methodological agility refers to the ability to switch both between and within the following four research methodologies: mono-, multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinarity. In other words, there are two sides to the coin: inter- and intra-methodological agility - i.e. two performative actions of switching both between (inter-) the four methodologies as well as within (intra-) a particular methodology. Taken together, inter- and intra-methodological agility serve as a double-antidote to any attempts of trying to posit any one of these four methodologies as panaceas for tackling each and every problem situation we are facing in the world today. Doing so, would imply some or other hierarchical structure / order between them in which some of the methodologies are enjoying supremacy over the others. A better way of approaching things would be in terms of their equivalence - i.e. acknowledging the four methodologies as very different, but equally valid domain- or context-relevant approaches. This means that any methodological decision-making as to when and how to move between and within the four methodologies are completely context dependent. For a more systematic explanation of what this means at the theoretical and conceptual levels, please see the (in press) paper by Van Breda et. al available on the Articles page on this site.

Agility in nature

Means both forward and lateral movement at the same time and at different speeds - as embodied by the chasing and being chased cheetahs (below) as well as by the square fish's maneuvering in / out of it's shelter with some gentle tail & fin movements.

Notice the cheetah's tail ~ its not wagging it's body, but certainly plays a key role in determining the directionality of the cheetah via some subtle lateral and forward movements.

Similarly, methodology does not play a dominant - tail-wagging - role in research, but rather helps to steering / nudging the research process in different directions and at different speeds - depending on the changes in the real-life formative contexts in which research is normally embedded.

Cheetah: chasing

Cheetah: being chased

Square fish: maneuvering forward & laterally in / out of shelter with some subtle tail & fin movements

Square fish: maneuvering forward & laterally in / out of shelter with some subtle tail & fin movements

Methodological agility for what, and for whom?

The immediate broader / deeper question to be asked is this: methodological agility for what? In other words, what is driving the need for be/coming more methodologically agile, and for whom? There are many ways to answer this critical question, but the need for contributing to social change (Verändern) is certainly part and parcel of any response in this regard. This means going beyond (the 'trans' in trans-disciplinarity) merely being satisfied with the understanding (Verstehen) and explaining (Erklärung) of the social contexts in which research is embedded. This, in essence, is what is meant by transformative trans-disciplinary research (TTDR): working both across and beyond disciplinary boundaries in order to bring about context-relevant social change - whilst in the process of doing so also contributing to methodological renewal and innovation.

What exactly is meant by 'social change' - what kind of social change, and for whom - are of course equally important follow-up questions to ask. For more on these, please see the Action theory of change page on this site for a more detailed discussion on this.

Figuring out the next step(s)

In order to ensure that the research focus remains focused on the need for social change, it is critically important never to loose sight of or, even worse, stop asking the so-called next step question. The fundamental purpose of this important question is to keep on engaging with the vexing challenge of what can and should be done to bring about transformative social change in / under the conditions of the current situation. By never letting go and keep on asking the next step(s) question is a means of ensuring staying connected to and venturing into the actual challenge of figuring out what is both plausible and desirable in the present. Although there may never be clear-cut answers for these questions is by no means sufficient reason for abandoning the on-going inquiry into social change in TTDR processes. On the contrary, the purpose of being methodologically agile is to actively participate in this figuring out how knowledge co-production can contribute to social change - in short, co-producing transformative knowledge.

Static Newtonian space

Context matters

The equivalence notion of four different yet equally valid domain- or context-relevant methodologies is a short way of acknowledging the critical role of context in embedded research. In the latter, it is important to approach context not as some or other 'empty' backdrop or stage upon which the actors are merely performing their roles without the stage ever inter-acting with the actors, or the actors with the stage. In broad terms, this represents the static Newtonian view of time and space - resembling something like an arena or stage within which the drama of the universe plays itself out. Although the stage (space) is real in that it exists independently of our observations and actions it is also passive, eternal and unchanging - very much like a place-holder for things happen, but where the action cannot affect the stage and stage cannot affect the action.

Dynamic contexts matter hugely

Einstein, on the other hand, came up with a radically new and much more dynamic understanding and definition of (curved) spacetime - which allows for two-way, mutually constitutive, inter-actions to occur between the stage (curved spacetime) and the actors (celestial bodies) - continuously shaping and being shaped by their physical inter-actions. In this sense, gravity is no longer understood as some or other physical force residing somewhere 'inside' the celestial bodies themselves, but rather as the relational force emerging from all the mutually constitutive physical inter-actions at work between the bodies.

Dynamic Einsteinian curved spacetime

Re/assembling the 'social'

Given the incommensurabilities between the social and the physical any attempts to suggest that they operate according to exactly the same forces and laws, would be tantamount to committing category errors of the first order. Still, the above short detour into two very different conceptions of the physics of space and time would be considered a worthwhile exercise if, along the way, we managed to pick up some useful insights to shed some light on our understanding of context - what it means in terms of its composition, functioning and effects etc. In this regard, the fundamental einsteinian insights into the dynamic nature of gravity as spacetime is of particular importance for our purposes of understanding and approaching the dynamics involved in the continuous re/assembling of the 'social'. In the words of Bruno Latour: "The presence of the 'social' has to be demonstrated each time anew; it can never be simply postulated".

Socio-institutional formative contexts

It is not impossible to posit some formal similarities between the notions of formative contexts and gravity in the sense that both can be seen and understood in relational terms as the emergent outcome of the latter. However, any attempts to taking this further by inferring some real - ontological - correlations between the social and physical must be stopped dead in its tracks in order to avoid falling into the said trap of committing some serious category errors.

A double antidote for conflating the social and the physical comes in the form of introducing / applying two critically important notions of: formative contexts (Unger) and force fields (Lewin). The fundamental constructionist nature of the social can be found at the core of both these two concepts with formative contexts focusing on the re/making of the social via socio-institutional relations and arrangements, and force fields via decision-making. Although, through multiple repetitions over time, these social constructionist processes can become ‘reified’ societal structures, their objective character of functioning independently of the social actors, who created them in the first place, can never be compared to that of the physical forces of gravity / spacetime.

Consequences for embedded research

More importantly, though, is responding to the far-reaching methodological implications of adopting this dynamic, relational understanding and definition of formative contexts - especially for how we approach conducting context-embedded research. First and foremost, this means that the latter is never immune to, but always fundamentally entangled with said mutually constitutive socio-institutional relations in formative contexts. And, consequently, this means that the center of gravity / main focus of research will shift in many different directions during embedded research processes - shaping and being shaped by the emerging issues as well as the social actors' / stakeholders' needs and interests involved in this - and, very importantly, their sense of agency / ability to influence or change things . Phase.III of the narrative-based approach discusses this in more detail on the Narratives page.

Quantum entanglement

The suggestion that embedded research processes are always entangled with the socio-institutional relations in formative contexts warrant some further explication: although such entanglements certainly do happen in practice, their actual connectedness is never absolute in the sense that they have become so inter-woven that they no longer have their own internal logics and dynamics. On the contrary, the flip-side of entanglement is also true: research and social processes are independent from each other. Another short detour into the world of physics - this time quantum physics - can shed some more light on our understanding of the nature of socio-institutional entanglement. The latter should certainly not be confused with the physical forces at work in the mesmerizing notion of quantum entanglement between sub-atomic electrons - where, e.g., changing the spin of an electron in a clockwise direction will always result in the instantaneous counter-clockwise spin of another electron - irrespective of the distances (space) between them.

Socio-institutional entanglement

These seemingly 'contact-less' interactions - or 'spooky' physics at a distance as referred to by Einstein - is simply not possible in the social world of formative contexts where entanglements between social, institutional and research processes do not happen at a distance or in the absence of any inter-actions, but rather because of their socio-institutional inter-actions. However, the latter does not imply providing the same, let alone more, certainty and predictability than what can be observed between seemingly contact-less sub-atomic particle interactions at the quantum level. On the contrary, the interactivity of socio-institutional entanglement produces uncertainties and unpredictabilities, simply because of the inherent plasticity of the 'social'. The continuous re/assembling of the latter is, as mentioned above, always on the cards - rather than merely assuming its permanence / preexistence.

In this regard, one of the fundamental roles of embedded TTDR is to come up with ways and means of visusalising the plasticity of the socio-insitutional fabric of real-life formative contexts - something which can be achieved by, for example, synergically using some of the methods discussed on the Narrative and NetMapping sub-pages.

Dynamic epistemic objects

Doing embedded research in continuously changing formative contexts is, therefore, one of the main challenges of be/coming more methodologically agile. In practice, this means that the actual performance of switching between methodologies should not be impeded by fixed / static problem statements and research questions which have become dis-connected from the challenges emerging within and from the ever-changing formative contexts. On the contrary, the challenge is to keep on engaging with the emerging issues and using this entanglement as a rich source for developing new problem statements and research questions - which not only help us in our efforts to better understanding (Verstehen) and explaining (Erklärung) the dynamics of our formative contexts, but which may also, in turn, contribute to shaping / changing (Verändern) the latter. In short, this means developing dynamic epistemic objects (Knorr-Cetina).

Allowing for emergence: as guiding principle

When dealing with embedded research in dynamic formative contexts, allowing for emergence is a key guiding principle for be/coming methodologically agile. Poetically speaking, this means learning to 'making the road by walking' (Machado).

For participating in embedded TTDR processes, working with clear-cut visions and scenarios of the future is not a fundamental prerequisite at all. On the contrary, these goal-oriented objects may very well become obstacles for bringing about the social change envisioned by them, because the more idealistic and normative such clear-cut visions and scenarios of the future become, the more unattainable and counter-productive they tend to become in terms of actually achieving the very scenarios and visions originating from the participatory processes producing these idealistic / normative end-states.

This is indeed one of the key challenges for methodological agility, namely figuring out what the next step(s) is / are - what is plausible and desirable - under the current circumstances and conditions - without having to rely on overly idealistic / normative ends for this. Approaching the present from deferred positions in the future can in and of itself create all sorts of problems, because of their disconnectedness from the complexities of the current situation - because: even a square tower appears round from a distance (Euclid).

Allowing for emergence is, therefore, a key guiding principle for being methodologically agile in embedded TTDR - enabling on-going engaging with the actual dynamics of formative contexts through a process of discovering the evolutionary potential in / of the present - rather than approaching the latter from some or other highly abstract and unattainable end-states.

Antonio Machado

(1875 - 1939)

Square / round tower

Allowing for emergence: as research practice

As research practice, allowing for emergence means learning to both generate and enact the dynamic epistemic objects that are shaping and being shaped by the emerging / changing formative contextual circumstances in which they are embedded.

Taken together, the principle and practice of allowing for emergence is important for at least two reasons: (a) methodological renewal and innovation, and (b) supporting real-time decision-making and action-taking with rich quant-qual data driven interventions.

Note: for a more detailed discussion and some illustrations on this, please see the Dynamic methods sub-page on this site.

Embracing vs. avoiding social change

Keeping research focused on the transformative question of social change is by no means guaranteed. Turning a blind eye to the need for social change has certainly charaterised the history of social science research, almost from its inception. There are multiple reasons for this, but where and when the quest for social change is pushed into the background it can easily be replaced by an approach of interpretivism - an attitude of being completely satisfied with merely explaining (Erklärung) and understanding (Verstehen) the causal dynamics and meaning of the situation in which the research is embedded - without ever positing the next step question and inquiring into what can or should be done to changing (Verändern) the current situation.

This is also known as extractive approach, which, in practice, means accepting that the 'job is done' as soon as the relevant interpretations, findings and explanations have been completed and delivered. In many, if not most, cases this means literally walking away from the problem situation at hand without facing the consequences of in/action. An antidote to the double malady of interpretivism + inertia is being and remaining methodologically agile in research by continuously asking and engaging with the critically important next step question.

Gaping holes

Failing to engage with the next step question not only deals with the ethical dimension of research - failing to face the consequences of in/action - but it also deals with another, very closely linked, matter: methodological renewal and innovation. Failing to engage with the consequences of in/action can certainly result in creating some gaping voids in / for our methodological inquiries into the causal dynamics of said ever-changing formative contexts. Very little, if anything, can be learnt from inertia, and, therefore, any action is better than no action.



The flip-side to inaction / inertia is the learning and gaining more in-depth insights and understandings of why problem situations are the way they are which certainly can come out of an approach of continuously grappling with the ethical dimension of figuring out what is/not desirable and plausible in and under the conditions of the current situation. In other words, epistemological outcomes - generating new insights, understandings and knowledge - may very well emanate from our ethical endeavours of figuring out what is plausible and desirable in and under the conditions of the problem situation at hand.

Black holes:
All-consuming, producing & emitting nothing
Perfectly balanced Yin Yang symbol
Jagged Yin Yan symbol with multiple emergent in-between locales

Suspended or unresolved tensions / contradictions

Aporetic role

When facing the many uncertainties and unpredictabilities of complex situations, systems knowledge (what 'is') and normative knowledge (what is desirable or 'ought to be') can never be completely separated from each other - but should rather, as far as possible, be seen and treated as inextricably linked with each other. However, connectedness does not, necessarily, imply perfectly integrated / balanced relations - signified by the traditional Yin Yang symbol above. Connectedness in messy situations can also mean being filled with tensions and unresolved differences - signified by the jagged Yin Yang symbol above - with its multiple black/white dots, depicting the in-between places and spaces from where to explore the ethical dimension of what is both plausible and desirable.

This introduces the 'aporetic' role of methodological agility: if looking for and discovering the 'truth' or 'final' answers is not necessarily the ultimate end-goal of research in a particular situation, then the challenge becomes one of demonstrating how moving within/between the 'is-ought' conundrum - aka the Humean guillotine - is not something to be avoided, but rather embraced - especially if figuring out how to do this is part and parcel of the epistemological challenge of co-creating systems, target and transformation knowledge.

Note: please see the Theory of change sub-page for further discussion on relationship between this aporetic role and action theory of change (ToC).

The art & craft of methodological agility vs. paradigm switching

Be/coming more methodologically agile is both an art and craft - an art in the sense of developing the intuition for knowing where and when to switch between the four methodologies - of mono-, multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinarity - and a craft in the sense of understanding how to use different quantitative, qualitative and transformative methods during and after the process of performing the switching between said four methodologies. Taken together the art and skill involved in both inter- and intra-methodological agility should not be confused with the Kuhnian notion of paradigm or Gestalt switching - which is simply too onerous an undertaking for the nimbleness required when facing the ever-changing conditions and circumstances of real-life formative contexts.

Synergic methods and using methods synergically

There are indeed a plethora of different methods available under the broad categories of quantitative, qualitative and transformative approaches. The said art and skill involved be/coming methodologically agile does not only involve knowing when - in / under what circumstances - to use specific methods from these three broad categories, but also understanding how to use them individually as synergic methods or using them synergically in combination with each other methods. Either way, by bringing transformative methods into play here, this implies a new 'mixed methods' approach - which goes beyond the traditional and more narrow quant-qual understanding and definition of mixed methods.

Note: for a more detailed description with some illustrations on this, please see the following two sub-pages: Agile methods and Dynamic methods.

Coherency vs. anythings goes

In methodological agility, achieving and sustaining a sense of coherency is key for two very different - but related - reasons, namely for ensuring that:

  • the effects of performing methodological switching does not amount to falling into the trap of relativism, namely that 'anything goes' and, closely associated with that, the hardened attitude of 'against method' per se - a la Feyerabend; but rather

  • to acknowledge the constructive performative role that methods can and do play in co-producing systems, target and transformation knowledge in TTDR processes - informed and guided by some relevant dynamic epistemic objects in pursuit of these different kinds of knowledge.

Note: A useful way of conceptualizing coherency in / for methodological agility is to do so in relational terms - namely as relational coherency. For some ideas on how to do and visualize this in terms of some a three-way or triadic set of relations, please go to the Dynamic methods sub-page on this site.