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Conceptualizing the transfer of knowledge across cases in transdisciplinary research

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Original article (peer-reviewed)
Author Adler Carolina, Hirsch Hadorn Gertrude, Breu Thomas, Wiesmann Urs, Pohl Christian,
Project What counts for transferability of knowledge across cases in transdisciplinary research?
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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal Sustainability Science
Volume (Issue) 13(1)
Page(s) 179 - 190
Title of proceedings Sustainability Science
DOI 10.1007/s11625-017-0444-2

Open Access

Type of Open Access Publisher (Gold Open Access)


Transdisciplinary (TD) research is increasingly suggested as a means of tackling wicked problems by providing knowledge on solutions that serve as pathways towards sustainable development. In contrast to research striving for generalizable findings, TD research produces insights for a particular case and context. TD researchers, who build on other TD projects’ results, need to know under what conditions knowledge gained from their case can be transferred to and applied in another case and context. Knowledge transfer between researchers and stakeholders is extensively discussed in the literature. However, a more profound understanding and management of the challenges related to knowledge transfer across cases, as it applies to TD research, are missing. We specify the challenges of knowledge transfer in TD research by distinguishing TD research for policy from conventional evidence-based policy, which relies on generalizing findings, such as randomized controlled trials. We also compare the functions that cases fulfil in other types of research that include basic, applied and ideographic research. We propose to conceptualize transferability of knowledge across cases as arguments by analogy. Methodologically, this would imply explicit consideration on whether the cases in question are sufficiently similar in relevant aspects while not dissimilar in other additional relevant aspects. On the one hand, this approach calls for explicit material considerations that are needed to learn about which aspects of cases are relevant. On the other hand, formal considerations on how to weigh perceived relevant similarities and dissimilarities of the cases at hand for transferability of knowledge, are needed. Empirical research on how projects in TD research deal with this problem is called for.