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Social Work Transdisciplinary Science
by
Sarah Gehlert

Introduction

This bibliography identifies resources relevant to the adaptation of social work to participating on transdisciplinary teams whose members span a range of other academic disciplines, in a variety of research and practice settings. Transdisciplinarity refers to an approach to research and practice in which persons from a range of disciplines attempt to work on shared projects from outside their own separate disciplinary spaces. The approach is inherently holistic and is thus congruent with social work values. It is distinguished from interdisciplinarity, in which persons from one discipline step outside their own discipline to acquire knowledge, but return to their home discipline to apply that knowledge. It likewise is distinguished from multidisciplinarity, in which scholars from a variety of disciplines work together at some point, but approach issues through separate disciplinary lenses. References fall into two groups. The vast majority have to do with health research and practice. A smaller body of work, however, comes from education and the humanities. Areas of potential relevance to social work include child welfare, aging and elderly affairs, death and dying, criminal and juvenile justice, and community development. While most references focus exclusively on transdisciplinarity, some references on interdisciplinarity are included if, though limited in scope, they provide information pertinent to transdisciplinarity. While a few references relate to social work, relevant references that originate in other disciplines predominate, because the field of social work has yet to produce a significant body of information on the topic.

History

A few references address the place and history of transdisciplinarity in research and practice and provide overviews of its potential uses. Rosenfield 1992, an early proponent of transdisciplinarity, argues convincingly that transdisciplinary approaches are essential to understanding and ameliorating increasingly complex health and social problems in the United States. Rosenfield provides a history of the first decades of its development. Kahn and Prager 1994 makes a strong case for the many ways interdisciplinary collaborations strengthen science. The two references named above would be useful in course work for introductory undergraduate and graduate research courses and also useful for professional societies wishing to introduce and promote the topic to their members. Abrams 2006 defines the scope of transdisciplinarity in time and space. Hiatt and Breen 2008 paints a particularly useful and clear picture of how transdisciplinarity might integrate or unify a field—in this case cancer research, practice, and policy.

  • Abrams, D. B. 2006. Applying transdisciplinary research strategies to understanding and eliminating health disparities. Health Education & Behavior 33.4: 515–531.

    DOI: 10.1177/1090198106287732Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Abrams, then the director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at the National Institutes of Health, argues for a scope of transdisciplinary science that includes the basic behavioral, and social sciences and encompasses a range from discovery to dissemination to policy change.

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  • Hiatt, R. A., and N. Breen. 2008. The social determinants of cancer: A challenge for transdisciplinary science. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 35.2 Suppl.: S141–S150.

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    Concentrates on the social determinants of cancer and offers a broad perspective on how transdisciplinarity can be helpful to multiple aspects of cancer practice and research, including levels of analysis, points along the continuum of cancer care, and types of intervention.

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  • Kahn, R. L., and D. J. Prager. 1994. Interdisciplinary collaborations are a scientific and social imperative. Scientist 17:11–12.

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    This often-cited reference provides a terse and cogent argument for the necessity of interdisciplinary collaborations to advance science.

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  • Rosenfield, P. L. 1992. The potential of transdisciplinary research for sustaining and extending linkages between health and the social sciences. Social Science & Medicine 35.11:1343–1357.

    DOI: 10.1016/0277-95369290038-RSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Offers a strong argument for the necessity of cross-disciplinary research approaches to health problems, and specifically for the importance of transdisciplinary approaches. The reference is a useful and cogent commentary by a long-term advocate for transdisciplinarity.

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Textbooks

Three references provide useful overviews of cross-disciplinary functioning and the challenges that it produces at multiple levels. These include the level of individual- disciplinary scholars to the levels of professional organizations, university and agency administrators, and funding agencies. An older reference, Klein 1990 offers a thoughtful discussion of the development of interdisciplinarity, using notions such as the borrowing of ideas between disciplines. Interdisciplinarity is considered in the contexts of problem-focused research, care, and education. The textbook is useful as a history of interdisciplinary functioning, which can be extended to transdisciplinary functioning. It is useful in helping to situate social work practice and research in a disciplinary world. The reference also would be useful in graduate courses involving social problem solving. Nicolescu 2002 lays out the philosophy that undergirds transdisciplinarity and provides a useful list of the benefits of a transdisciplinary approach to research and practice. It is also a useful textbook for anyone who wants to gain an in-depth understanding of transdisciplinarity. It has applications in graduate social work and other research or practice courses that prepare graduate students to work on teams. It would be particularly useful for researchers and clinicians currently working on cross-disciplinary teams as well as those who wish to develop teams that function transdisciplinarily. A second textbook written by a special panel of scholars and administrators convened by the National Academy of Sciences, et al. 2005 addresses the challenges of interdisciplinary research. It is better than other references at outlining the forces that impede interdisciplinary functioning at various levels. It suggests solutions to the impediments that it outlines. This textbook would be useful for managers, administrators, and others who are trying to lay the groundwork for successful cross-disciplinary functioning.

  • Klein, J. T. 1990. Interdisciplinarity: History, theory and practice. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press.

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    Klein offers a number of definitions of interdisciplinarity and a thoughtful history of its development. She provides separate discussions of interdisciplinary practice and interdisciplinary research. Her treatment of practice is detailed. For example, she takes the reader through steps to the interdisciplinary study of a problem.

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  • Nicolescu, B. 2002. Manifesto of transdisciplinarity. SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

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    This text provides an extremely carefully articulated description of transdisciplinary functioning and makes a strong argument for its need in a world that has become increasingly complex. It provides more theoretical and philosophical material than it does practical information.

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  • National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2005. Facilitating interdisciplinary research. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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    Chapters are devoted to challenges for individual disciplinary scholars, academic institutions at the bachelors and graduate levels, professional organizations, and funding agencies. A portion of the text offers recommendations for facilitating interdisciplinary functioning at each of the above levels. Useful guidelines and specification for preparing interdisciplinary curricula are provided.

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Handbooks

Three recent edited volumes provide chapters on issues pertinent to cross-disciplinary functioning by a variety of disciplinary scholars. Nicolescu 2008 is useful because it presents a range of perspectives on transdisciplinarity from international scholars working in education and the humanities. A chapter by Raju, for example, views transdisciplinarity from the perspective of levels of being and reality in ancient India. This handbook would be most useful to advanced scholars seeking a deeper understanding of transdisciplinarity and its bases. A second handbook by a group of Swiss scholars, Hirsch Hadorn, et al. 2008, offers a useful history of transdisciplinarity and chapters that outline a transdisciplinary approach to identifying, structuring, analyzing, and addressing social problems, such as sustainable river management in Kenya. This work would be useful for researchers and practitioners in social work, other social sciences, and public health who are interested in using transdisciplinary approaches to address pressing social problems. It also would be useful for graduate courses in social development and international social work. A third reference, Kessel, et al. 2008, provides a number of case studies in five areas that represent interdisciplinary work between social and biological scientists. This reference is useful as a guide for scholars wishing to implement collaborations and for administrators who are seeking an understanding of what these collaborations might entail.

  • Hirsch Hadorn, G., H. Hoffman-Riem, S. Biber-Klemm, W. Grossenbacher-Mansuy, D. Joye, C. Pohl, U. Wiesman, and E. Zemp, eds. 2008. Handbook of transdisciplinary research. New York: Springer.

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    Provides examples of how trandisciplinarity has been used to address existing social problems, with many concrete international examples.

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  • Kessel, F., P. L. Rosenfield, and N. B. Anderson, eds. 2008. Interdisciplinary research: Case studies from health and social science. 2d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Outlines a series of case studies written by well-known scholars who describe collaborations between social scientists and clinicians. The case studies fall into in five substantive areas (HIV/AIDS, resilience, cognitive neuroscience, health and longevity, and cardiovascular health).

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  • Nicolescu, B. 2008. Transdisciplinarity: Theory and practice. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

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    This edited textbook includes chapters by authors from a number of countries, addressing topics of transdisciplinary from the arts to biotechnology. In his own chapter, Nicolescu makes a case for transdisciplinarity as a new approach to inquiry and a way of knowing that has the potential to unite science and humanity.

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Journals

A few journals have published articles relevant to transdisciplinary practice and research. The American Journal of Public Health, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and the Journal of Research Practice have published more than other journals. Among social work journals, Social Work in Public Health has published articles specific to the topic to date, but includes authors from a variety of disciplines. A number of journals outside social work address topics of great interest to health social work researchers, practitioners, and policy makers, and publish articles by health social workers. Two journals have produced special issues on transdisciplinarity. A special issue of the AmericanJournal of Preventive Medicine (Stokols, et al. 2008) was devoted to transdisciplinary science in public health. The Journal of Research Practice produced a more generic special issue on various aspects of research through interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary lenses.

Applications

The implementation of transdisciplinary functioning is not intuitive, yet currently there are no readily available guides to the topic. A number of references either describe the ways in which a transdisciplinary approach has been implemented in research and practice situations or make a case for specific ways in which it might be implemented.

Social Work Practice

A number of references written by social workers describe transdisciplinary approaches to advancing social work practice in a wide variety of substantive areas. These range from Shanok, et al. 1989, which describes a transdisciplinary approach to group therapy with children, to Andharia 2007, which applies a transdisciplinary approach to community organization in India. Kreuger 1995 and Cousins, et al. 2004 focus on children and youth. Blazek 1982 discusses the need for a transdisciplinary approach to provide services to rural residents. All will help social work researchers, practitioners at various levels, administrators, and students apply the transdisciplinary approach to social work problems. The references would be useful for classroom teaching and to develop training at professional meetings and conferences.

  • Andharia, A. 2007. Reconceptualizing community organization in India: A transdisciplinary perspective. Journal of Community Practice 15.1: 91–119.

    DOI: 10.1300/J125v15n01_05Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This reference by a professor at India’s Tata University argues for a broad perspective on community organization that goes beyond the usual boundaries of social work to establish collaboration with a variety of community stakeholders, including those influencing policy, and disciplines.

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  • Blazek, M. J. 1982. Transdisciplinary team approach: A rural alternative. Social Work in the Rural Environment 7.1: 27–31.

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    Based on the approach of the United Cerebral Palsy Association, this reference argues for the need for professionals from a number of disciplines working collaboratively as teachers and learners to provide scarce services to rural residents.

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  • Cousins, L. H., L. Todman, Y. Hyter, N. R. Fails-Nelson, A. Bee, R. Cooper, C. Peterson. 2004. Social and academic relationships in the lives of black children: Transdisciplinary research and practice. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 9.3: 57–82.

    DOI: 10.1300/J137v09n03_04Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This reference by a group of social work and other disciplinary scholars describes a funded project based at Western Michigan University aimed at improving the readiness for early education of black children.

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  • Kreuger, M. 1995. Generic teamwork: An alternative approach to residential treatment. Residential Treatment for Children & Youth 12.3: 57–69.

    DOI: 10.1300/J137v09n03_04Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Report of ten years of evaluation of a new approach to treatment called generic teamwork. The approach involves training workers to handle a variety of positions rather than to specialize in one.

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  • Shanok, R. S., S. J. Welton, C. Lapidus. 1989. Group therapy for preschool children: A transdisciplinary school-based program. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal 6.1: 72–95.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00755712Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Outlines a therapeutic group nursery program for preschool children experiencing problems that encompasses a number of theoretical and intervention models.

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Health Disparities

Artinian, et al. 2007; Gehlert, et al. 2010; Holmes, et al. 2008; and Warnecke, et al. 2008 describe the authors’ transdisciplinary experiences as part of the Centers for Population Health and Health Disparities (CPHHD) initiative at the National Institutes of Health. Warnecke, et al. 2008 gives a basic description of the structure of the CPHHD and its philosophy. Gehlert, et al. 2010 discusses the necessity of including social, behavioral, and biological researchers to develop multilevel approaches to address health disparities. Artinian, et al. 2007 focuses on ways in which a transdisciplinary approach can lead to health policy change. Fleming, et al. 2008 describes similar work by the Research Centers in Minority Institutions Translational Research Network, as does King, et al. 2010 at the Center for Research on Minority Health. These references are invaluable for those contemplating a transdisciplinarity approach or those who wish to develop and teach curricula on the topic.

  • Artinian, N. T., R. B. Warnecke, K. M. Kelly, J. Weiner, N. Lurie, J. M. Flack, J. Mattei, K. Eschbach, J. A. Long, A. Furumoto-Dawson, J. R. Hankin, and C. DeGraffinreid. 2007. Advancing the science of health disparities research. Ethnicity & Disease 17.3: 427–433.

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    Describes the Centers for Population Health and Health Disparities initiative and its implications for changing health policy to ameliorate disparities.

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  • Fleming, E. S., J. Perkins, D. Easa, J. G. Conde, R. S. Baker, W. M. Southerland, R. Dottin, J. E. Benabe, E. O. Ofili, V. C. Bond, S. A. McClure, M. H. Sayre, M. J. Beanen, and K. C. Norris. 2008. Addressing health disparities through multi-institutional, multidisciplinary collaborations. Ethnicity & Disease 18.2 Suppl. 2: 161–167.

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    Describes in detail the functioning of the Research Centers in Minority Institutions Translational Research Network, which focuses on diseases disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minority populations. Techniques such as cyber workspaces have been used to facilitate the communication and functioning of the group.

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  • Gehlert, S., A. Murray, D. Sohmer, M. McClintock, S. Conzen, and O. Olopade. 2010. The importance of transdisciplinary collaborations for understanding and resolving health disparities. Social Work in Public Health 25.3: 408–422.

    DOI: 10.1080/19371910903241124Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Describes how social, behavioral, and biological researchers addressed a shared research question to reduce the African American and white disparity in breast cancer mortality.

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  • Holmes, J. H., A. Lehman, E. Hade, A. K. Ferketich, S. Gehlert, G. H. Rauscher, J. Abrams, and C. E. Bird. 2008. Challenges of multilevel health disparities research in a transdisciplinary environment. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 35.2 Suppl.: S182–S192.

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    Describes a number of methodological challenges experienced by a group of transdisciplinary scholars using multilevel methods to address health disparities.

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  • King, D., P. Miranda, B. Gor, R. Fuchs-Young, J. Chilton, R. Hajek, I. Torres-Vigil, M. A. Hernández-Valero, S. A. Snipes, and L. Jones. 2010. Addressing cancer health disparities using a global biopsychosocial approach. Cancer 116.2: 264–269.

    DOI: 10.1002/cncr.24765Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Describes an initiative by the Center for Research on Minority Health that takes a transdisciplinary, integrated community-based approach to practice, research, and education. A flexible training program on health disparities for students from the elementary postgraduate school is outlined.

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  • Warnecke, R. B., A. Oh, N. Breen, S. Gehlert, S. Gehlert, E. Paskett, K. L. Tucker, N. Lurie, T. Rebbeck, J. Goodwin, J. Flack, S. Srinivasan, J. Kerner, S. Heurtin-Roberts, R. Abeles, F. L. Tyson, G. Patmios, and R. A. Hiatt. 2008. Approaching health disparities from a population perspective: The National Institutes of Health Centers for Population Health and health Disparities. American Journal of Public Health 98.9: 1608–1615.

    DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2006.102525Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The principal investigators from eight NIH-funded health disparity centers and NIH program officers and administrators discuss their shared initiative and the challenges imposed by the variety of disciplinary approaches involved.

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Translation and Dissemination

A number of references allude to the potential for transdisciplinarity to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from the discovery phase to translation into practice and policy, yet only one addresses the issue in any depth. Emmons, et al. 2008 provides the best discussion for how transdisciplinarity can facilitate the translation of knowledge. This work can help guide social work and other researchers in imagining and developing longer-range agendas for their research.

  • Emmons, K. M., K. Viswanath, and G. Colditz. 2008. The role of transdisciplinary collaboration in translating and disseminating research: Lessons learned and exemplars of success. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 35.2 Suppl.: S204–S210.

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    Based on their own work at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the authors make a case for transdisciplinarity as way to facilitate the translation and dissemination of research results to disparity populations and the adoption of evidence-based practice by clinicians.

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Systems Capacity Building

Transdisciplinarity can be used at a broader level to increase capacity at the level of systems. Nicola 2005 describes the author’s experiences with the Turning Point’s National Excellence Collaboratives in public health. This reference is important for policy makers at the state and national levels who are trying to integrate systems to improve outcomes at the population level.

  • Nicola, R. M. 2005. Turning Points’ National Excellence Collaboratives: Assessing a new model for policy and system capacity development. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice 11.2: 101–108.

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    Describes the Turning Point Initiative, fund by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which created five successful National Excellence Collaboratives of state partnerships, public health associations, federal agencies, and other organizations to improve public health. The process and products of the Turning Point Collaboratives are presented.

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Leadership

Effective leadership is essential to the success of transdisciplinary teams. Nonetheless, very few references address in detail what it means to lead a transdisciplinary team. Gray 2008 is the best reference for information on what effective transdisciplinary leadership entails and how it can be achieved. Nash, et al. 2003 also addresses the leadership role in promoting synergy among disciplinary scholars. The two are useful for practitioners and researchers who wish to establish teams and in classroom teaching, to prepare the next generation of transdisciplinary leaders.

  • Gray, B. 2008. Enhancing transdisciplinary research through collaborative leadership. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 35.2 Suppl.: S124–S132.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2008.03.037Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Describes qualities of success experienced by transdisciplinary team leaders in local and dispersed teams. Leadership tasks are conceptualized as cognitive, structural, and processual.

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  • Nash, J. M., B. N. Collins, S. E. Loughlin, M. Solbrig, R. Harvey, S. Krishnan-Sarin, J. Unger, C. Miner, M. Rukstalis, E. Shenassa, C. Dubé and A. Spirito. 2003. Training the transdisciplinary scientist: A general framework applied to tobacco behavior. Nicotine and Tobacco Research 5 Suppl. 1: S41–S53.

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    Addresses team functioning and the role of the transdisciplinary leader in fostering engagement and integrating contributions.

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Community Engagement

Many descriptions of transdisciplinary functioning include community stakeholders at various levels as members of transdisciplinary teams, yet few provide any guidance for how community might be included or what their inclusion means for team functioning. These four references describe community inclusion in transdisciplinarity. Stokols 2006 is the most general, relating transdisciplinarity to Lewin’s work and suggesting three types of collaboration, based on context. This would be useful for practitioners and educators interested in how transdisciplinarity can be used in a hands-on manner in community settings. Sutton and Kemp 2006 describes a technique for generating community input in social design using charrettes. As such, it is valuable in the teaching of practice and research in social work and other disciplines. Lasker and Weiss 2003 is the best at addressing how to engage community on transdisciplinary teams. Lloyd, et al. 2006 describes in detail a collaborative community and academic partnership to address health literacy. It can serve as a template for setting up a collaboration and would be useful in classroom teaching of undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Lasker, R. D., and E. S. Weiss. 2003. Broadening participation in community problem solving: A multidisciplinary model to support collaborative practice and research. Journal of Urban Health 80.1: 14–47.

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    Provides a clear and persuasive argument for how cross-disciplinary models lead to improved community health outcomes. Includes practical guidance for researchers on how to go about engaging community stakeholders on practice and research teams.

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  • Lloyd, L. L., N. J. Ammary, L. G. Epstein, R. Johnson, and K. Rhee. 2006. A transdisciplinary approach to improve health literacy and reduce disparities. Health Promotion Practice 7.3: 331–335.

    DOI: 10.1177/1524839906289378Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Describes a successful collaboration of disciplinary researchers with Unity Health care, a community health center in the District of Columbia.

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  • Stokols, D. 2006. Toward a science of transdisciplinary action research. American Journal of Community Psychology 38.1: 63–77.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10464-006-9060-5Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses transdisciplinary research through the lens of Lewin’s concept of action research and outlines three types of collaboration (between disciplinary scholars, among academics and community practitioners, and among community organizations).

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  • Sutton, S. E., and S. P. Kemp. 2006. Integrating social science and design inquiry through interdisciplinary design charrettes: An approach to participatory community problem solving. American Journal of Community Psychology 38.1: 125–139.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10464-006-9065-0Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article by an architect and a social scientist describes three interdisciplinary design charrettes, or participatory workshops with community participants, designed to shape urban design.

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Evaluation

Because transdisciplinary functioning is relatively new in the United States, little has been written on how to evaluate its effectiveness. Harper, et al. 2008 outlines an evaluation process that is based on the authors’ work with Unity Health Care, a transdisciplinary diabetes collaborative in Chicago. A chapter of National Academy of Sciences, et al. 2005 is devoted to the evaluation of interdisciplinary research and teaching. It provides suggestions for ways in which to evaluate both students in transdisciplinary education and the transdisciplinary programs and centers themselves. National Cancer Institute 2006 details a two-day conference on transdisciplinary cancer research that included presentations on instruments for evaluating team science and evaluating large initiatives. PowerPoint slides are available from all conference sessions. The three references are quite useful for anyone wishing to evaluate the success of transdisciplinary efforts at various levels.

Teaching

Little has been written to guide the preparation of curricula for teaching transdisciplinary practice and research. One example is Moxley 1996, an older reference that describes a transdisciplinary approach to teaching an advanced practice course in case management in four areas of practice germane to social work education. Neuhauser, et al. 2007 aims at doctoral education in public health and describes the development of transdisciplinary and translational curricula at the University of California, Berkeley. It provides useful guidance on how to integrate disciplines in forming curricula and a well-reasoned description of the impetus for transdisciplinary training for educators and administrators wishing to develop curricula or programs on the topic.

LAST MODIFIED: 05/25/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195389678-0027

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