Alternative Knowledge Production in Transformative Research

A Workshop on Systemic Constellation in Political-Environmental Contexts

If not in transformative research, where else can we experiment with alternative ways of knowledge production? The idea behind this question motivated me to share my experiences on two interactive sessions at the symposium on Real-World Laboratories in Karlsruhe.

In their performance on transdisciplinary research by the Scientific Theatre Freiburg, a group of students aimed at building a stable human pyramid –representing a transdisciplinary project according to my interpretation. My favorite scene during this process was about communication. One after the other, around eight actors went on stage, each of them saying something in a different language. They might have tried to develop ideas and agree on how to build the pyramid. Unfortunately, I was not able to understand every language and neither were they.

The other interactive session was a systemic constellation on Real-world Laboratories. This method has its origins in family therapy and was further developed for organizational contexts. Dr. Marcus Andreas and Dr. Nikolaus von Stillfried, developed it even further for environmental-political contexts and facilitated this session of Systemic Constellation during the Symposium on Real-world Laboratories in Karlsruhe. With the help of the constellation workshop, we approached the concept of Real-world Laboratories from a more intuitional perspective. In order to understand better what this method was about, I will quickly describe the sequence of the procedure.

It started with around 80 participants forming a large circle. The free space in the middle of the circle served as the stage for the positioning process. All people standing outside in the circle represented the audience and could observe and witness what was happening. In a first, step the moderators suggested the two initial words: TRANSFORMATION and SICENCE.

Illustration of the Constellation Workshop

Two participants volunteered and stepped into the circle to represent these words. They took their respective word card, held it in front of their body visible to everyone and tried to find a place in the free space, where they felt comfortable. So far, so good. In a next step, the moderators asked for further impulse from the symposium and some of us suggested additional words that we considered important for Real-world Laboratories. A word could be a concept e.g., ecology; potentially involved actors e.g., citizens; or emotions e.g., skepticism. Right after we agreed on including a word, another volunteer from the group stepped into the circle, took the word card and positioned him- or herself until he or she felt comfortable. And so on. Of course, the more people got involved, the more difficult it was for them to find a comfortable position. At a first sight, the positioning was mainly influenced by the distance to other people who were already in the circle, and the own position in the overall constellation. We would like to mention again here, that the intuition of each participant was meant to determine their movements, not reasonable thinking or cognitive thoughts. People were explicitly asked to follow their body impulses.


I myself did not actively participate in positioning but was intently watching the process. Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical at the beginning and I did definitely not expect this wide range of interesting insights coming up during the process. In the following, I would like to share some of my observations and insights and want to leave it open to a certain extent for everyone’s own interpretation.

  • SCIENCE did not want to get closer to TRANSFORMATION, because the latter was surrounded by PARTICIPATION and RELATIONS, both concepts SCIENCE did not feel very comfortable with. The solution to this uncomfortable sensation was to bring in a new word – CLARITIY. The EXPERIMENT tried to connect TRANSFORMATION with SCIENCE, but was struggling a lot. He had to widely stretch his arms in order to reach SCIENCE and TRANSFORMATION and effectively bring them together.
  • It was difficult to integrate the CONCERNED CITIZEN. Most of the time, he was unhappy in various positions and at the end approached POLITICS (or was it POLITICS approaching the CONCERNED CITIZEN?). Anyway, for POLITICS it was also difficult to find the right place. Finally, neither of them wanted to form part of the core constellation but stand aside and observe the rest at a safe distance.
  • The integration of FUN was very important for the UNCONCERNED CITIZEN in order to feel comfortable. It turned out that FUN was the missing incentive for her to engage with REAL-WORLD LABORATORIES.
  • It was interesting how participants ignored ECOLOGY for a very long time. ECOLOGY continuously tried to raise attention to the rest of the group, expressed his wish that one of the others should take care of him. He had to do this several times until the group reacted and helped him to integrate in the big picture. One observant participant stated at the end that the scene was kind of characteristic for sustainability scientists: ECOLOGY, the reason why we are doing all this and the basis of our life, was completely forgotten for a while, because everyone is too busy with revolving around him- or herself finding a comfortable position. Should we be proud, that ECOLOGY’s integration finally happened or should we be ashamed, how long it took us to listen to him?

During the process, we also thought about the gender ratio of participants in the middle of the circle. We found it interesting to see, that women mostly represented words related to social or emotional concepts, e.g. RELATION, FUN, PARTICIPATION, UNCONCERNED CITIZEN, while men hold word cards with rather cognitive/ hard-fact/ rational terms e.g., SCIENCE, SCEPTICSICM, EXPERIMENT, CLARITY, POLITICS, CONCERNED CITIZEN, ECOLOGY. I was and still am impressed about the insights this method could generate. That is why we as a POST research group “Processes of Sustainability Transformation” (POST) are now planning to do a similar workshop in our upcoming retreat together with Marcus and Nikolaus, who will join us and facilitate the session.

I am already looking forward to this session and to experiment with this rather unconventional method. To use Matthias Bergmann’s words, I think we already started to make our research group a project of our generation!

Hanna Weber

Hanna studied her Master in Sustainability Science (M.Sc.) at Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany, and PUCP in Lima, Peru. During her working experiences at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome, Italy, she developed a great interest in sustainable agricultural and food systems. In the POST project she focuses on the nexus between local food systems and international food supply using a transdisciplinary approach, e.g. conducting real-world-experiments in Lüneburg, Germany and Tempe, USA. Learn more about Hanna's PhD project!

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