Conflicting roles of researchers in sustainability transitions: balancing action and reflection

Ellen Bulten, Laurens K. Hessels*, Michaela Hordijk, Andrew J. Segrave

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Process-oriented transdisciplinary research is generally seen as a promising approach to facilitate sustainability transitions. This type of research requires new participatory roles for researchers. These new roles may conflict with traditional, more academic roles that researchers often maintain next to their new roles. Using the Dutch transdisciplinary Knowledge-Action Programme on Water (KAP Water) as a case study, we highlight tensions that researchers adopting these new roles experience. We have observed both practical and more fundamental tensions between roles of researchers in process-oriented sustainability research. In particular, it proved difficult to combine more engaged roles, where researchers are involved in dialogues for change, with knowledge-oriented roles, where researchers focus on knowledge provision and are further removed from ‘real-world action’. Tensions arise from three sources: (1) researchers’ self-perception and expectations; (2) expectations from transdisciplinary partners, funders and researchers’ home institutions; and (3) societal convictions about what scientific knowledge is and how it should be developed. This paper contributes to the literature by enhancing the understanding of the interactions and tensions between the roles of researchers in transdisciplinary research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1269-1283
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number4
Early online date18 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Process-oriented
  • Roles of researchers
  • Sustainability transitions
  • Tensions
  • Transdisciplinary research


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