Three types of knowledge tool

What is the three types of knowledge tool?


The three types of knowledge tool serves reformulating research questions in order to check what (societal) knowledge demands the questions meet. Three versions of a research question are generated, each stressing a different type of knowledge:

  • Knowledge about what is (systems knowledge)
  • Knowledge about what should be (target knowledge)
  • Knowledge about how we come from were we are to were we should be (transformation knowledge)

On the basis of the different versions, the most relevant one with respect to (societal) knowledge demands can jointly be identified.

Why should it be applied?

When formulating research questions, researchers generally follow the standards of their thought style. Whether this answers relevant (societal) knowledge demands is unclear. The three types of knowledge tool reveals some of the implicitly applied standards and allows for jointly deliberating and deciding on the relevant question(s) to pose.

When should it be applied?

The three types of knowledge tool supports problem framing. It is typically used when discussing and fine-tuning research questions, but can be applied at any stage as an instrument of reflection.

How does it work?

Take as an example a joint project between a humanities and a medical researcher, in medical humanities. The agreed topic of the project is: “Visualizing brain activities to improve health of epilepsy patients”. In the three types of knowledge this topic can be reformulated as follows:

  • How do visualised brain activities relate to health of epilepsy patients? (Systems knowledge)
  • How will visualisation of brain activities improve the health of epilepsy patients? (Transformation knowledge)
  • What is an improved health of epilepsy patients? (Target knowledge)

How are thought-styles bridged?

The outcome is an explicit deliberation and decision on the main research question(s), on how the questions relate to each other, and more clarity about what societal knowledge demand is met.

Who participates in what role?

A facilitator should lead through the reformulation process. Participants should feel comfortable with formulating research questions. They may encompass academic and non-academic actors with various backgrounds.

What do I need to prepare?

The reformulation requires flipcharts and marker pens. Before using the method for the first time, the facilitator should practice reformulation with a few examples.


Learn more

There is no publication on the type of knowledge tool as a method.

The three types of knowledge were first described in:
ProClim 1997. Research on Sustainability and Global Change - Visions in Science Policy by Swiss Researchers. CASS/SANW: Berne.

The different research questions the three types of knowledge relate to are briefly discussed in:

Pohl C, Hirsch Hadorn G 2008. Methodological challenges of transdisciplinary research. Natures Sciences Sociétés, V16, N2, pp 111-121.

Pohl C, Hirsch Hadorn G 2007. Principles for Designing Transdisciplinary Research - proposed by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. München: oekom verlag, pp 36-39.

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Christian Pohl