Transdisciplinary research: problem framing

Purpose: To describe what is involved in the problem framing stage of transdisciplinary research, where the project is envisaged and goals, problems and research are determined.

Description: Problem framing is the first of three distinct phases in transdisciplinary research. It involves identifying relevant understandings of the problem situation, to:

  • clarify who to involve in the project
  • define achievable project goals.

The three phases are shown in the figure below for transdisciplinary research on sustainability issues. Framing the problem is followed by jointly conducting the research and then exploring the impact.

pohl_three-phases_of_transdisciplinary-research_on_sustainability-issuesTransdisciplinary research projects typically start with a topic, rather than a research question. Topics are acknowledged to be complex and there are many ways to address them. For example, a topic such as starvation could be addressed by:

  • a company with a business idea
  • a government agency with a food program
  • an investigation focused on the just distribution of resources
  • an investigation focused on economic drivers.

A transdisciplinary project then needs to bring together the expertise needed for comprehensive understanding and management of an issue. In order to make a difference regarding the problem this needs to include those affected by the problem in a negative or positive way, as well as those who have the power to make a change. Expertise, power and interest should all be considered in deciding who to involve. Stakeholder analysis is a useful tool. Further, different understandings should be made explicit and known to all participants.

Many participants will be involved by being physically present in the project, but this may not be possible for all participants, for example those involved in illegal activities. Nevertheless, all relevant perspectives should be taken into account.

Additional issues to be addressed at the problem framing stage are to clarify:

  • how the scientific knowledge generated about the problem will be linked to the societal issues
  • each participant’s perspective on the project goals. The outcome spaces tool can be useful here differentiating between effects on the situation on the ground, knowledge about the problem or learning processes among the participants and beyond.

The aim of problem framing is to:

  • specify a shared problem that is socially relevant and scientifically interesting
  • identify a team of researchers from different disciplines, as well as stakeholders from different sectors of society, willing to work on it
  • clarify the different ways group members frame the problem
  • agree on a set of achievable project goals.

Video: This is based on a lecture by Christian Pohl in week 3 of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “Partnering for Change – Link Research to Societal Challenges”. (Online): and

The video (5:30 minutes) is available on the Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) YouTube channel at or see the end of this page for the embedded video.


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Posted: June 2021
Last modified: June 2021