The Normative Dimension of Transdisciplinary Cooperation

By Johanna Vogel, Francisco Porras, Michael P. Schlaile, Veronica Hector, Christina Plesner Volkdal, Zhiqi XuNew Rhythms of Development blog series

In times of rising inequalities, geopolitical shifts, and complex crises, transdisciplinary cooperation is needed more than ever to support the path of just transformations. 

Although most people would agree that any deep structural transformation should take place in a just and equitable manner, the idea of “justice“ in transformations is deeply normative and involves conflicting worldviews, contested pathways, and different interests. Transformation for its part means changing structures, changing cultures, and changing practices. A culture of transformation is, among others, also constituted by values, which are supposed to give meaning to action.

Making values transparent supports mutual understanding and enhances the motivation to act. Values are key components of a transformation culture, provide frames, and build collective identities. From Meadows´ “Leverage points: Places to intervene in a system“, it becomes clear that “values, goals, and worldviews of actors that shape the emergent direction to which a system is oriented“ are an important point for intervention. Only if we understand these underlying moral dimensions, transdisciplinary cooperation can improve and contribute towards deliberating sustainability transitions.

Values are the first—and sometimes the only—rules of the game that determine what is allowed and what is unacceptable. Sometimes values are just assumed to be implicit in formal law and rules, which is why we suggest a more detailed analysis than what has been done until now. In the panel „A Value Discussion as Starting Point for Trans-and Interdisciplinary Cooperation“ at the last EADI Lisbon conference, we aimed to further explore these complex processes and their implications in wider social analysis.  

Values are understood differently but always relate to contexts 

In our panel, the concrete implications of the context sensitivity of values emerged as an important insight. Therefore, before aiming to integrate values, their plurality has to be taken into account. In two case studies, Zhiqi Xu has observed a clash of value frameworks in her research in China. First, in the context of elderly care in China, where prevailing welfare services are designed based on urban value frames but provided in a rural context. The urban concept of retirement and hired help has turned out to clash with the rural reality, where elderly farmers work until physically unable, and care provided by children is not only economical but also integral to the family’s honour according to the cultural norm of filial piety. These services then are not well accepted. Second, in a community-driven microfinance project in rural China, she revealed how local values clashed with external aid. Aid, perceived as an external imposition, triggered community solidarity that paradoxically decreased debt return rates. This phenomenon stemmed from misinterpreting microcredit as an unconditional transfer, rather than recognizing its developmental purpose, a misunderstanding rooted in their custom of maintaining debt relationships solely within the community.

Christina Plesner Volkdal’s research provides another empirical example of diverging value frameworks impeding local and global actions in the context of the Humanitarian Development Peace Nexus (HDPN), which integrates humanitarian (H), development (D), and peace (P) efforts, aiming to address complex crises more effectively. Its effectiveness hinges on adapting to local contexts, involving stakeholders, and overcoming operational and structural challenges. The core values and principles in the Triple Nexus approach relate to human rights and humanitarian principles, but there is a broad lack of consensus on what this approach exactly entails and how it should be implemented. Principles vary significantly across organisations due to differences in core values, operational approaches, and focus within the disaster management cycle. The UN initiated reforms to promote cross-agency coordination, albeit with limited success so far. The Triple Nexus approach emphasizes the need for adaptable principles across this cycle, highlighting the importance of cohesive policies, ethical action, and inter-organizational collaboration

This shows that values, and in a broader sense the normative dimension, is a crucial factor for the success of policy measures and influence governance. Services or policy measures are often defined by national or even global institutions, but implemented on the local ground, which may result in value clashes that lead to ineffectiveness. In order to achieve the much-needed social, ecological, and economic transformations in a way that does not perpetuate but rather resolves existing injustices, more forms of inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation that take the normative dimension seriously are needed, e.g. in governance

Taking values into account can help manage tensions and conflicts in unequal power relations

Michael Schlaile and Veronica Hector recommend taking a cultural evolutionary perspective on values nested within multi-level transitions more broadly, which may help to overcome polarisation as well as an overemphasis on “Western” values. They suggest actors in transdisciplinary cooperation settings collectively enable and shape a deliberation about both “just processes” and “just outcomes” of their respective cooperation endeavours. This facilitates achieving legitimacy about pathways to move forward, demonstrated e.g. in the transition management of cities. They point out that there are multiple tools and approaches, informed, among others, by evolutionary science, that may help to uncover perceived (in)justices and foster cooperation. Using the example of (in)justice, such “prosocial leadership approaches” can inform and guide value debates to unveil differences and commonalities related to expectations of just processes and outcomes, as well as recognition and epistemic (in)justice e.g. around the question whose knowledge is to be taken up in the transdisciplinary cooperation. They emphasise, however, that such deliberation processes and value debates should be facilitated with care by transition intermediaries or systems entrepreneurs as they run the risk of putting too much emphasis on either commonalities or differences in values, thus potentially creating priming effects and cognitive and emotional frames that might not have emerged without the intervention.

As for Christina Volkdal´s work on the HDPN measures, she recommends redefining the grounding principles of humanitarianism altogether. To support collaborative efforts across the Triple Nexus, she considers it as crucial to create a cohesive framework of principles and reaching a consensus on a specific set of values. A shared analysis of needs, risks, vulnerabilities, conflict root causes, and underlying principles might increase coherence. Ideally, this should be a co-creative collective endeavour. This approach requires a unified set of principles to bridge gaps between institutions with diverse values and mandates, guiding planning, implementation, and evaluation in disaster management. She emphasises that the development of principles is dynamic. It should be influenced by both theory and practice, with models like the Principles Pyramid and Principles Matrix Model offering frameworks to elucidate these principles, although they may vary in applicability in the Triple Nexus context. 

Zhiqi Xu recommends adopting an approach that respects and integrates local community values to foster mutual understanding and adaptive collaboration in development initiatives. In her case on microfinance she highlights the pivotal role of local elites in the value transformation and integration process. Contrary to the common view of elites as obstacles (cf. elite capture), they were instrumental in bridging between external values and local values. The elites developed bespoke education programs embedded in farmers’ daily finance and agricultural activities, leading to a positive change in community dynamics and the evolution of values.

Taking the normative dimension into account by aligning the goals of certain measures supports their effectiveness. Working with local change agents may support aligning external development strategies with community values for more effective outcomes.

Dr Johanna Vogel is a senior researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS) working in the Programme on inter- and transnational cooperation. She is contributing to network development as well as facilitating dialogue formats in the Managing Global Governance Programme. Her research focus is on conditions and values that enable cooperation in networks towards sustainable transformations.

Dr Francisco Porras is a full time research-fellow and professor at Instituto Mora (Mexico City). His teaching, supervising, and publications have explored contemporary theories and practices of governance.

Dr Michael P. Schlaile is a postdoctoral researcher on sustainability-oriented transformation and innovation processes in the bioeconomy at Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) and an external habilitation candidate at the University of Hohenheim. His research mainly revolves around the three interconnected themes of Complexity & Evolution, Innovation & Transformation, and Sustainability & Responsibility.

 Veronica Hector is a research associate and doctoral candidate at the Department of Societal Transition and Agriculture at the University of Hohenheim. She holds a M.A. in International Relations and Development Policy and a B.A. in Regional Studies of Latin America and Social Sciences. In her doctoral dissertation, she addresses the role of narratives and sensemaking processes in sustainability transitions.

Christina Plesner Volkdal is a Ph.D. Fellow at Copenhagen Business School, department for Management, Society and Communication. Her Research focuses on the Humanitarian Development Peace Nexus. Currently, Guest Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS). She also is a previous UN-staff member within humanitarian operation and has a Master of International Affairs.  

Zhiqi Xu is a Ph.D. researcher at International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam. She explores the policy-making processes, local engagement, and strategies in Community-Driven Development in the Global South, with a focus on rural China. Her interdisciplinary approach weaves culture and psychology into the study of these processes. 

Image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.