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Exploring and expanding transdisciplinary research for sustainable and just natural resource management

Margaret G. Wolff, et al.

Ecology and Society

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  • Environmental ethics,
  • transdisciplinarity
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Transdisciplinarity is gaining acceptance in sustainability science research as an approach to work across types of knowledge and practices in order to tackle complex social-ecological problems.


Transdisciplinary (TD) research has found traction in sustainability science (Jahn et al. 2012, Swilling and Annecke 2012, Dedeurwaerdere 2013). Lang et al. (2012:26) define transdisciplinarity as “a reflexive, integrative, method-driven scientific principle aiming at the solution or transition of societal problems and concurrently, of related scientific problems by differentiating and integrating knowledge from various scientific and societal bodies of knowledge.” The definition forms the basis for a set of four design principles for TD research practice that offers a sequential pathway: building a team; producing cocreated, solution-oriented, transferrable knowledge; effecting integrated implementation; and activities of adaptive evaluation, mitigating conflict, and enhancing participation that cut across the previous three principles (Lang et al. 2012). We use this definition and its associated sequential pathway as a comparative framing to interrogate research toward sustainable and just natural resource management in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.

A powerful driver for TD research comes from the widespread intractability of complex problems evident in the interactions between society and the biophysical world (Rockström et al. 2009). There is a well-developed conceptual and theoretical context for TD research as a necessary approach to transformative engagement with wicked social-ecological problems. General complexity theory (Cilliers 2000, 2001, 2006, Audouin et al. 2013, Cilliers at al. 2013, Preiser et al. 2013), with its articulation of the characteristics and implications of complex systems, provides a foundation (Palmer and Munnik 2018). Complex social-ecological systems (CSES; Folke 2006) have been strongly theorized in terms of resilience and the adaptive responses that emerge in complex systems (Biggs et al. 2012), while social and expansive learning (Engstrom 1987, 2001, Wals et al. 2009, Ison 2010, Sannino and Engeström 2017) demonstrate learning as a core adaptive process for engagement with social-ecological problems. Conceptual, theoretical, and design contributions are generally more evident in the TD, CSES, and learning literature, but feedback from practice is scarce.

Recent contributions from South Africa, in which researchers reflect on putting TD research into practice are surfacing (Van Breda and Swilling 2019). Cockburn et al. (2016) contribute to addressing challenges of building TD teams by focusing on the science-action gap. They demonstrate the care required to build trust relationships among multiple partners and sustain these in complex political contexts. Cundill et al. (2015) emphasize the influence of power relationships as TD communities of practice merge. Palmer et al. (2015) reflect on TD practice principles, and Palmer and Munnik (2018) emphasize that, of these, “managing discontinuities” is critical, where discontinuities are the inevitable, unexpected changes in the social-ecological research context. Cockburn and Cundill (2018) alert TD researchers to the under-recognized importance of research ethics in TD practice, and Odume and De Wet (2016) explore the possibility of a relational system of values becoming evident in a TD research context.

We use values as in the VSTEEP (values, and social, technical, ecological, economic, and political context) process of Rogers and Luton (2011), where values provide a reference point as adaptive processes unfold. We understand ethics as reified values. There are various aspects of ethics that relate to TD research: research ethics (Williamson and Prosser 2002), place-based-ethics (Till 2012, Cundill et al. 2017), and human-earth ethics (Chapin et al. 2011). We are interested in the ethics of relationality between people and planet, where social justice, for example, indicated by a reduced Gini index (Catalano et al. 2009), enables a societal consideration of ecological justice, and where people modify their behavior toward long-term ecological sustainability. We will reflect on ethics and values in the case study research presented, probing for TD research practice that could accelerate the realization of sustainable and just natural resource management (NRM).

As they are globally, land and water are justice issues in South Africa. Here, waves of colonization excluded native peoples from their land, culminating in apartheid laws where only white people could legitimately own land. Under these laws, access to water was linked to land ownership, and land owners had exclusive rights to the use of surface and ground water through the riparian principle. Following democracy in 1994, the landmark 1998 National Water Act was promulgated. It was founded on the principles of equity, sustainability, and efficiency, and entrenched a legal right to water for aquatic ecosystems, a global first (Palmer 1999). However, law enables, but does not secure, justice. Achieving fair and just water access in South African landscapes has been fraught with difficulties (Schreiner 2013, Clifford-Holmes et al. 2016, 2018), land reform even more so (Jankielsohn and Duvenhage 2017). The result is a complex political-ecological history that sets path-dependencies for any TD sustainability science research.

Although South Africa has a wealth of natural resources, the country faces multiple interconnected sustainability challenges, and the economy is unsustainably resource intensive (Department of Environmental Affairs 2012, Government of South Africa 2012). At the national level there is growing recognition of the challenges of managing the food-water-energy nexus (Von Bormann and Gulati 2014) and the urgency of addressing growing inequality and poverty while working toward environmental sustainability and resilience to future shocks (Government of South Africa 2012).

In this paper, we present four TD research case studies undertaken independently in the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa (Fig. 1). Clifford-Holmes (2015) provides an historical analysis of land and water issues in the Eastern Cape (1814–2011) that informs all the case studies presented. The Eastern Cape, demarcated in 1994, is currently one of the poorest provinces in South Africa (Hebinck et al. 2011). It covers an area of close to 169,000 km² (13.9% of SA’s land area) and is the second largest province in South Africa (Statistics South Africa 2012). The province is predominantly rural and encompasses two former homelands (Bantustans), the Transkei and the Ciskei (Hebinck et al. 2011). IsiXhosa is the most widely spoken mother tongue in the province, followed by Afrikaans and English (Statistics South Africa 2012). Most of the income in its rural areas is made up of welfare transfers, and employment rates can be as low as 15% (Westaway 2012). Many parts of the province lack basic services such as education facilities, health, water, and sanitation. In contrast to its socioeconomic state, the Eastern Cape is rich in biodiversity; it includes all the country’s biomes (Hamann and Tuinder 2012), and two global biodiversity hotspots. However, this landscape is confronted with major environmental threats, such as land degradation and water scarcity (Shackleton et al. 2001, Rasch et al. 2017). There are expansive communally owned areas, and many governance-challenged municipalities (Clifford-Holmes et al. 2018). Our focus here is on sustainability challenges in small towns and rural landscapes of the Eastern Cape where natural resources such as land, water, and biodiversity play an important role in local economies and human well-being. In this context, sustainable NRM needs to contribute to the development of inclusive and integrated rural livelihoods and economies that strive toward sustainable and just use of resources from an economic, environmental, and social perspective, for current and future generations (Government of South Africa 2012).

Sustainable and just natural resource management is natural resource management conducted in a manner that recognizes the interconnectedness of social and ecological systems. It therefore works toward interlinked outcomes that benefits the social-ecological system as a whole. Such outcomes can be achieved through sustainable management and protection of natural systems, in ways that ensure equitable access to the benefits of natural resources. Furthermore, facilitation of processes and spaces for knowledge production and exchange, and management and governance of natural resources, should be guided by principles of justice, fairness, and democracy (drawing on Agyeman et al. 2003, Ribot 2006 and George and Reed 2017).

Across the Eastern Cape landscapes, we have used a TD approach to engage independently with social-ecological challenges in four case studies: Case Study 1: how to draw stakeholders into fair, effective, participatory water governance; Case Study 2: how to build collaboration among different resource users so as to move toward sustainable landscape management; Case Study 3: how to address inequality in water access in a small municipality; and Case Study 4: how to move toward ecological sustainability in communally owned landscapes (Fig. 1).


The study employs a multicase study design. Case study research is well suited to research that seeks a situated understanding of real-life contexts and that asks “why?” or “how?” questions (Yin 2009). We used the four cases in an integrated, comparative manner to reflect on the practice of TD research. Although all the cases drew broadly on transdisciplinarity, some were intentionally designed as TD research from the start (Case Studies 2 and 3), and in others, TD practice was more emergent (Case Studies 1 and 4). To conduct a systematic, consistent analysis across the diversity of cases, we retrospectively investigated the application of the Lang et al. (2012) principles across the four case studies (Table 1). Furthermore, case study authors reflected on their cases to explicate their interpretation of sustainable and just NRM, asking how TD research contributed to sustainable and just NRM in their case, and highlighting evidence of ethics and values in the cases.

The methodology for the study was underpinned by our commitment to reflexivity, which informed the research design and analysis. We drew on Popa et al.’s (2015) definition of reflexivity as “a collaborative process of acknowledgment, critical deliberation and mutual learning on values, assumptions and understandings” that enables the generation of “new meanings, new heuristics, and new stakeholder identities” (Popa et al. 2015:47 drawing on Lenoble and Maesschalck 2010).

Although all of us practiced reflexivity within the case research, the development of this comparative study and the paper writing was an opportunity for us to practice reflexivity collectively across the cases. This reflexivity helped us to learn together in a community of practice about the challenges of TD research (Cundill et al. 2015), to reflect critically on underlying values and assumptions, and to grapple with some of the ethical and socio-political challenges of engaged research (Cockburn and Cundill 2018). Writing the paper together became a complex and messy TD process itself, in which we learned the importance of careful listening, experienced surprises and a-ha moments, had to manage discontinuities and power dynamics, and at times experienced tensions and discomfort, echoing TD principles developed by Palmer et al. (2007, 2015). We have been working as a collective, with some variation and discontinuities in participants, reflecting on TD practice for approximately seven years. Through this we have developed a shared understanding of TD as not only a way of being in the world and of interacting with one another, but also as a commitment to specific ways of conducting research across disciplinary boundaries and with stakeholders beyond academia (Rhodes University Transdisciplinary Research Group 2016). We appreciate the importance of reflecting on our positionality, and also on the nature of our interactions with stakeholders in the complex social-political context of South Africa (Box 1).

Box 1: Reflections on researcher positionality and meaningful stakeholder participation.

As part of our reflections on putting TD into practice, we acknowledge that our position in the research matters (Cheng and Randall-Parker 2017), as do power dynamics among participants (Cundill et al. 2015). We recognize that in all our cases, researchers were driving and facilitating the process, and other stakeholders were participants. Although we explicitly sought to address the power dynamic that arises from this situation, we nonetheless acknowledge that researcher-participant relationships cannot be equal. Furthermore, we are cognizant of the importance of diversity in TD teams. This is particularly important in a country like South Africa in which social-cultural diversity and social cohesion, particularly between different race groups, are a societal challenge (Seekings 2008). As an emergent property of being based at a university in the Eastern Cape in South Africa, our TD teams were composed of a diversity of participants, representing various mixes of ages, research experience (both early-career and experienced TD researchers), foundational disciplines, genders, races, and nationalities.

In our engagements with stakeholders we were aware of potential language differences. We worked with experienced translators where necessary and attempted as much as possible to converse directly in local languages, depending on language capabilities in the team (many of us speak isiXhosa and/or Afrikaans as a first, second, or third languages). Our teams were funded by a variety of sources and allowances were made for the flexible, TD nature of research interactions with stakeholders.

The level of participation of stakeholders in the TD processes varied across cases. Although we acknowledge that in many of our cases (particularly those that included time-constrained postgraduate research) full and equitable participation and knowledge cocreation was not possible, we endeavored to facilitate open and participatory processes, and participants were treated with dignity and respect. We believe that our embodying TD principles in these processes created potential for more equitable and meaningful interactions than we have observed in more conventional research processes that focus on extracting information from participants for the sole benefit of researchers (Pain and Francis 2003). We did not conduct a formal evaluation of participants’ perceptions of the value of the experiences to them. Nonetheless, through ongoing and open relationships with many of the participants in our cases, and through codeveloping research that addresses societally relevant problems, it appears that the TD research processes have mostly been perceived as beneficial by participants. We are open about the fact that this paper is necessarily a one-sided and personal, researcher-based perspective of the research processes we report on: it is not intended as anything other than that.


Each case is described briefly for specific context, and to highlight specific historical and political path-dependencies. We apply specific interpretations of the Lang et al. (2012) principles to these four case studies (Table 1).

Case Study 1: Upper Kowie and Tsitsa River Catchments

This case study explores participatory water governance processes within public forums in two catchments (Upper Kowie River and Tsitsa River) in the Eastern Cape. This case highlights the potential role of learning in TD research.

The Makana Local Municipality, including the urban center Grahamstown/Makhanda, is located in the drought-prone Upper Kowie River catchment. The complex array of interdependent water challenges includes high unemployment and socioeconomic inequity; increasing population (Statistics South Africa 2012); aged and poorly maintained water-related infrastructure; polluted rivers (particularly related to poorly functioning waste water treatment works); local dams inadequate for water supply; domestic water supply augmented by an interbasin transfer but inadequate water treatment capacity; little appreciation of the link between the catchment and water supply; and municipal governance dysfunction (Weaver et. al. 2017, Palmer and Munnik 2018). In the Makana Local Municipality context with its array of water challenges, a local water forum emerged.

The Tsitsa River catchment includes three small towns, many villages, and mainly communally owned land. Municipal and traditional authority governance is concurrent. As in many rural municipalities, water service delivery is poor (Elundini Municipality 2016). Rural populations are declining (Statistics South Africa 2012), and subsistence agriculture is still a core livelihood activity. Livestock production is linked to landscape degradation (Bennett and Barrett 2007, Sandhage-Hofmann et al. 2015, Reed et al. 2015), and historical rain-fed agriculture has been abandoned (deagrarianization) in many places in the landscape, in part as a result of decreasing annual rainfall patterns. However, the area has the capacity to support household rainfall harvesting and vegetable production (Sisitka et al. 2016). The catchment is the site for a large government landscape restoration program with embedded CSES research that includes the development of local participatory governance capacity (Powell et al. 2018).

Case Study 2: The Langkloof: Krom and Kouga River Catchments

In this case study, a transdisciplinary participatory space was created by the researcher (a doctoral candidate) partnering with a nongovernment organization Living Lands (Living Lands 2017), in a knowledge coproduction process to gain a better understanding of environmental stewardship and multistakeholder collaboration in the Langkloof (Cockburn 2018). The Langkloof falls within the Kouga and Krom River catchments, which together provide almost 70% of the water for the city of Port Elizabeth. The area has high biodiversity value, which is under threat from invasive alien plants and unsustainable farming practices (Mander et al. 2010, McClure 2012). In addition, the area faces significant social challenges, including high levels of inequality, conflicts around access to land and water, and a lack of social cohesion (de Laat 2017). The landscape is valued for agriculture, conservation, tourism, water production, and as a home for many people. Thus, multistakeholder collaboration is necessary for the sustainable and just management of the landscape.

Case Study 3: The Sundays River Valley

Twenty years into a new political dispensation, many South Africans still experience insecurity of water supply in their homes (Molony 2014, Hamer et al. 2018). This is often the result of secondary scarcity, where there is sufficient water locally, but there are governance and/or infrastructural barriers constraining water supply. In this case study, we used an explicitly transdisciplinary approach to explore domestic water supply in the Lower Sundays River Valley Municipality (Clifford-Holmes 2015).

The key contextual factors relate to postapartheid policy, legislation, governance, and institutional arrangements. In South Africa, integrated water resource management (IWRM) and water supply are governed by different laws and implemented through a variety of institutions. The National Water Act governs integrated water resource management and specifies statutory institutions such as Catchment Management Agencies, which are responsible for integrated water resource management, and Water User Associations which, historically, supplied irrigation water, and after democracy, took on the additional responsibility of supplying local municipalities. Catchment Management Forums are identified as nonstatutory institutions for civil society participation. Local municipalities are governed by several pieces of legislation, including the Water Services Act, and may act as a water service authority (with oversight), and/or the water service provider (with supply obligations). There is no primary water scarcity in the Lower Sundays River Valley Municipality area: water is supplied by interbasin water transfer, with infrastructure built to secure irrigation water for the local export citrus industry.

Case Study 4: Tsitsa, Upper Keiskamma, and Tsomo River Catchments

This case study is set in three catchments in the Eastern Cape: in a different part of the Tsitsa River, Upper Keiskamma, and Tsomo River catchments. The three catchments have high rates of unemployment, poverty and the majority of the people are dependent on social grants (Statistics South Africa 2012).

Tsitsa River catchment

Within this catchment, rural communities rely heavily on natural resources and practice subsistence farming, which includes both livestock and crop production (van Tol et al. 2016). The hillslope seep wetlands supply biomass for grazing, particularly in late winter, serving as important ecological infrastructure. Overgrazing is an issue, with 70% of the catchment area under communal land tenure characterized by poor land management practices (ERS 2011).

Upper Keiskamma River catchment

The study sites selected in the Upper Keiskamma River catchment are located in a semiarid region that is characterized by coastal grassland and savanna in the coastal areas, valley thicket in the river valley, and indigenous forest up the mountains (Mucina and Rutherford 2006). Communal lands in this catchment are used for livestock grazing and minimal dry land cultivation (van Tol et al. 2016). Because of the collapse of livestock and rangeland management structures that were employed through the betterment planning system of the apartheid government, the quality of the communal lands in this catchment has deteriorated and there is a prevalence of overgrazed and eroded lands (Palmer and Bennett 2013).

Tsomo River catchment

The communal lands in this catchment have been utilized by livestock for many years. The rangelands utilized by livestock are perceived to be unproductive and degraded because of extensive agriculture and livestock farming in the past (Perret et al. 2000, Palmer and Ainslie 2006).

Within these three catchments, ecosystem health has become a concern for livestock owners and subsistence farmers, especially in areas where there are no governance structures to facilitate effective collective management of communal natural resources. These include rangelands that provide goods and services, such as grazing for livestock (Shackleton et al. 2007, Reid et al. 2008). This case study, therefore, sought to understand social and ecological interactions in order to find effective and sustainable solutions for the improvement of NRM in communal grazing/livestock systems.


The diverse and contextualized interpretations and experiences of applying TD research design principles (Lang et al. 2012) in our four case studies is described in detail in Table 2. Our case-specific interpretation of sustainable and just NRM, and evidence of our experiences of working with ethics and values in our case studies are presented in Table 3. We urge readers to initially engage with the information presented in the tables. In the following text we then provide a brief synthesis of key insights.

Retrospective analysis of the case studies allowed us to acknowledge the challenges of building research teams (Principle 1: Phase A). In most cases teams were built in response to university-led research. Regardless of team-building processes and stakeholders represented, all four case studies demonstrated the importance of reflexivity and trust for integrated implementation of diverse perspectives and enhancing participation. As the Upper Keiskamma, Tsomo, and Tsitsa River catchments case study shows, researchers and teams need to select engagement methods that could accommodate epistemic equality, legitimize different knowledge holders, and acknowledge different power relationships. These selected engagement methods require more than simply opening space for participation. Rather, they call for actively facilitating spaces for enhanced participation and explicit reflection, striving to take outcomes of such enhanced participation further into decision-making processes influencing NRM.

Although research questions may have changed as the research teams built relationships with stakeholders, generally, societal problems were assumed and questions were designed and conceptualized initially by the research project. This preconceived notion of societal problems is a potential drawback of university-led TD research processes. The exception to this was the Langkloof case study, where the researcher’s broad questions changed as relationships between the researcher and local partners became more established, facilitating the emergence of a collective understanding of societal problems.

A variety of methods including workshops, focus groups, adaptive planning, interviews, and participatory mapping were used across the case studies to elicit knowledge and deepen understanding of held knowledge and shared understanding between researchers and participants (Principle 2: Phase B and Principle 4: Cross-cutting). Technical matters (Upper Kowie and Tsitsa River and Sundays River Valley case studies) were presented through translated presentations, maps, and graphics. Careful, respectful listening and speaking encouraged common and shared understanding of each other’s points of view, and the problems being discussed. Humility and respect on the part of researchers were important to acknowledge indigenous and local knowledge and incorporate this knowledge into the research process. In each of the case studies, the researchers used participatory spaces to feedback and reflect on shared understanding and information.

The case studies highlight the challenge of implementing integrated knowledge (Principle 3: Phase C) and solutions, even in longer term projects. We noted the time required to form a coherent team is important, but can be pressurizing if you are a student researcher funded for a specified time frame that does not match the research project goals, the societal problem, or the time required to engage. The pressure on the researcher could mean that true engagement and deep understanding may not happen. This challenge emphasizes the need for values of honesty and integrity and the position of both researcher and participants to be clarified upfront and explicitly. All of the case studies did this.

For the reasons given, integrated implementation (Principle 3) was not always possible. By using the Lang et al. (2012) principles to retrospectively analyze the case studies, we discovered similarities in the way in which we were engaging, often driven by our own personal ethics and values, and in some cases by eliciting values from participants to build trust and common ground. By reflecting among ourselves, we came to appreciate the guidance of our own everyday ethics (Cockburn and Cundill 2018), and the general guiding principles of research ethics provided by the university ethics committee (Cockburn and Cundill 2018) as important when engaging with people and their close relationship with the environment.

Lang et al. (2012) Principle 4 encourages mitigating conflict, facilitating evaluation and enhancing participation. Each case study demonstrates aspects of reflection (within the teams) and with participants (feedback workshops). The reflection alerted researchers to explicitly take account of the social-political-historical context in each case and raised awareness as to how these social-political-historical factors influence sustainable and just NRM. By working with diverse stakeholders who had shared their values and knowledge during the engagement processes, coproduced knowledge made the research more robust and meant that the research findings were more likely to find purchase with stakeholders and influence management and governance of the social-ecological system.

The intricate links to pathways of sustainability between values and ethics, and inequity and diversity in the Eastern Cape context required interrogation across case studies. The case studies themselves may not have looked explicitly for values and ethics during their research, but the everyday ethics employed by research teams allowed the emergence of shared values and ways of working together constructively. A TD principles orientation (Palmer et al. 2015) encouraged us to work ethically in a values-based way with participants.