Transdisciplinary synthesis research in unruly environments: Reflecting on a case study of vulnerability and urban fishing in the American Gulf Coast


Transdisciplinary research (TR) is valuable for studying complex environmental health issues. Paying attention to how practices ‘on the ground’ can—and should—inform policy and planning requires disrupting the silos in which these entities frequently operate. Yet in practice, bridging disparate fields of inquiry towards a common goal is a difficult task, and few empirical examples exist to guide researchers interested in using TR to examine environmental health issues in real-world contexts. In this paper, we reflect on the design and execution of a collaborative, transdisciplinary project that examines localized effects of urban and environmental governance on urban subsistence fishing as a foodway with key health implications. We first review the socio-environmental literatures on urban fishing to outline the utility of TR. Next, we present our TR synthesis, which integrates secondary data from federal, state, and municipal agencies in two U.S. Gulf Coast metropolitan areas, including a subset of results to demonstrate TR in action. Finally, we critically reflect on our TR experience in relation to corresponding theory, allowing insight into the strengths and drawbacks of utilizing TR in practice. Benefits include a more holistic linkage of complex socio-environmental components, the illumination of power dynamics between stakeholders, and the co-creation of knowledge in a multidisciplinary research team. The challenges we faced highlight issues of translation across disciplinary methods when framing research questions and when integrating data sources collected for different sectoral purposes. In particular, we discuss the role of synthesis—the triangulation of diverse secondary sources—to the practice of TR. We share these lessons to inform further integrated research on the relationships between place-based health, urban development, and environmental equity.

Publication Type
Journal Article
Lauren Drakopulos, University of Washington
Dustin Robertson, Tulane University
Sarita Panchang, University of South Florida
Meghna N. Marjadi, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Zach Koehn, University of Washington
Lian Guo, University of Massachusetts, Amherst