By Prof Petra Bester
Research Director for AUTHeR

The Africa Unit for Transdisciplinary Health Research (AUTHeR) is situated within the Faculty of Health Sciences, North-West University. As the director of AUTHeR, I am often in deep reflection over the challenges of what a transdisciplinary research entity truly entails. You see, in all honesty, we cannot always conduct transdisciplinary research. Transdisciplinary research is comprehensive, time-consuming and multi-dimensional research with multiple stakeholders and not always feasible in the time limits for postgraduate students. We cannot always confirm that all our approaches and conversations are transdisciplinary. And many times, we debate what transdisciplinarity entails within a higher education institution.

By now, I am occupying the directorship chair for six years and giving me today a plethora of examples of what AUTHeR as a transdisciplinary research entity does. In essence, AUTHeR takes many stakeholders, students, academia and civil society within them onto a journey to grow our situational awareness of the complexities, the wickedness of the challenges in South Africa and how to change as people through a process of reflection and transcendence. We meet students, professionals, government agents, and significant stakeholders from various disciplines and departments and remind them early on of the chaos and sometimes ‘unsolvable-solvable challenges surrounding us. Or, as Mezirow explains in his Transformational Learning Theory’s first phase, we introduce people to a disorienting dilemma.

The AUTHeR journey towards enhanced situational awareness of the truths about ourselves, our country, our health systems and our people happens through research, community engagement, teaching and learning, innovation and meaningfully transdisciplinary interaction.

Through research in AUTHeR, our longitudinal epidemiological studies on cardiovascular diseases and other non-communication diseases and the South African disease burden, health promotion, dysfunctional health systems, and public mental health describes the complexities of our health challenges. Research doesn’t always bring the solutions. In a transdisciplinary research entity, rigorous research is necessary to understand the problem, enter the messy situations, and engage with the situational chaos. But research is not enough.

We have postgraduate students who enrol for various masters and doctoral programmes through teaching and learning. Through these programmes, students are introduced to the journey of transdisciplinarity, increased situational awareness, and obtaining the required knowledge, skills, and competence to focus, frame, explore, and describe complex and messy challenges. But in many instances, a postgraduate study remains insufficient to escort a student through a transdisciplinary journey from situational awareness towards transcendence.

Through community engagement and community-integrated research, we join with all spheres of society to help us increase our situational awareness and understand and humbly appreciate our South African health complexities. But despite well-established community-integrated initiatives and state of the art technologies to monitor and evaluate our community engagement initiatives, we cannot always present these as a transdisciplinary journey.

Even when implementing best practices through technology, mapping stakeholders and translating events into quantifiable indicators, these issues remain complex. Even by implementing mobile applications and following the steps of the Social Greenhouse, a social innovation tool to bridge technology implementation gaps in communities, we can only see glimpses of the health challenges and complexities that so many South Africans live with daily.

These complexities bring me to transdisciplinary interactions. We can have deliberate conversational spaces to link with different people from different disciplines and multiple levels of knowledge and try to improve our situational awareness of the health challenges in our country – we still can’t change it.

So what is the role of a transdisciplinary research entity if we cannot address complex health challenges in South Africa?

Our role is threefold:

  • To conduct quality research to describe the complexity of problems.
  • To enable interaction and interconnectivity between people.
  • To become aware of our deeper situational awareness.

Change can occur when people deeply and truly reflect, are honest, transcend their current perspectives and understand the complexities of the challenges they face.