WASS course: Integrating Interdisciplinary Approaches in Health and Sustainable Development

Published on
October 24, 2018

The Wageningen School of Social Sciences (WASS) Graduate programme offers motivated MSc students the opportunity to follow a special track starting in the second half of the first year of their MSc. The programme prepares students for a PhD position by providing them with additional support for writing and defending their own PhD research proposal.
This course is an Interdisciplinary Window course (2 ECTS) and can be followed in the 3rd period of the academic year.

Human, animal and environmental health are inextricably linked. Understanding causes and impacts of global challenges such as, for example, the spread of infectious diseases, antibiotic resistance, obesity or malnutrition, requires synergetic and multiple scientific approaches. Moreover, identifying sustainable solutions requires an active involvement of societal actors, including citizens. Interdisciplinary approaches have been widely discussed, yet are rarely implemented in practice as this requires scientists not only to collaborate, but also to integrate information (theories, concepts, techniques, tools, data, and perspectives) or to address challenges that are beyond the scope of a single discipline. Even more scarce are trans-disciplinary approaches in which researchers do not only contribute to their unique expertise but move beyond their own discipline to capture complexity and create new intellectual spaces leading to new holistic solutions. Due to time and resource constraints PhD research projects usually cannot follow such a broad approach. Still, learning to reflect on a PhD research project from an integral perspective is crucial for becoming able to identify and exploit synergies between complementary disciplines, their theories, methods and working styles. Furthermore, it facilitates a convincing communication about research concepts, approaches and results with colleagues and other target audiences outside one’s core discipline(s). Ultimately, an integral approach to research stimulates interdisciplinary collaboration in and outside academia, which is essential for developing long-term strategies and solutions related to human, animal and environmental health and sustainable development. Integral theory offers a framework that allows positioning our (disciplinary) scientific concepts, methods and results into a broader framework of integral science (e.g. Brown, 2005; Lundi, 2010; EsbjörnHargens and Zimmerman, 2009). In particular, it offers a meta theory that draws from as many fields of knowledge and sources of knowledge as possible as a point of departure for developing integral approaches in health, sustainable development, resource- and conflict management. Using this framework, the aims of this interdisciplinary window are
(i) to create awareness on complementary perspectives, approaches and working styles in research projects addressing issues of health, sustainable development, resource- and conflict management
(ii) to identify and apply tools that facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration between PhDs, external stakeholders and citizens within these domains.

Learning outcomes
After successful completion participants are expected to be able to:

  • To understand and reflect on key concepts of multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary research, the worldview (paradigm), and integral theory;
  • To team up and reflexively apply integral theory to selected contemporary societal cases related to health and sustainable development;
  • To learn about and practise interdisciplinary communication in a mixed audience to facilitate discussion and critical reflection on the potential and the challenges of interdisciplinary research;
  • To create an interdisciplinary overview matrix of the own PhD research from an integral viewpoint in order to identify and synthesize perspectives, methods and stakeholder groups that are relevant but complementary to the current (disciplinary) focus of the own PhD project.


Meeting 1

In total there will be four meetings of 4 hours. PhD candidates will be asked to do (interdisciplinary) group work to prepare for the next meeting.

- Introduction to interdisciplinary approaches and integral theory;
- Short presentations of participants’ PhD projects
- Reflection and discussion on the applicability of the integral approach to the PhD projects. Working methods:
- Lecture, class and group discussions.

Homework: Selection of 3-5 studies (scientific papers, reports, policy documents, databases) related to the own research topic but approaching the topic from a different scientific perspective. Prepare list of observations and questions regarding, for example, the aims, methods

Meeting 2

- 1-2 selected case studies presented by course lecturers, representing well-known events/problems related to health and sustainable development which typically involve several scientific disciplines and stakeholder groups, but where it is also obvious that decision-making has NOT been based on an integral approach. Examples are the EHEC crisis, or the process of decision-making on Glyphosate. If 19 possible, 1-2 stakeholders representing a specific perspective (e.g. risk assessment, health treatment, economics, policy making, public communication, conflict management) will be invited.
- Practical exercise on competences required in interdisciplinary research.

Working methods:
- Presentation
- Interactive discussion rounds

Meeting 3

- Discussion of home work and of observations and questions that course participants consider most relevant for working in an interdisciplinary manner on their own PhD research and in science in general;
- Development of a general matrix of perspectives, approaches and working styles that course participants consider most relevant in an interdisciplinary scientific environment.

Working methods:
- Interactive group discussions using the Structured Interview Matrix (SIM) facilitation technique approach, which has been widely used to accommodate the voices of all participants and to generate common grounds for interdisciplinary work on the own research projects (O’Sullivan et al., 2014).

Homework: Preparation of a draft matrix on all possible research perspectives related to the own PhD topic, using the knowledge, reflection insights and competences acquired in meetings 1-3. Participants will provide peer feedback to each other within groups.

Meeting 4

- Development of a matrix unravelling interdisciplinary perspectives related to the own PhD topic, including the involved stakeholder groups, working techniques, and key competences required.
- Synthesis discussion on interdisciplinary perspectives in PhD research and the positioning of the own research project within the developed matrix.

Working methods:
- Peer feedback
- Interactive discussions
- Visualization techniques