Date of Award

Spring 5-6-2022

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Ecology and Environmental Sciences


Teresa R. Johnson

Second Committee Member

Nancy Dixon

Third Committee Member

Mohamad Musavi

Additional Committee Members

Linda Silka

Erez Yoeli


Sustainability is a dynamic, multi-scale endeavor. Coherence can be lost between scales – from project teams, to organizations, to networks, and, most importantly, down to conversations. Sustainability researchers have embraced transdisciplinarity, as it is grounded in science, shared language, broad participation, and respect for difference. Yet, transdisciplinarity at these four scales is not well-defined. In this dissertation I extend transdisciplinarity out from the project to networks and organizations, and down into conversation, adding novel lenses and quantitative approaches. In Chapter 2, I propose transdisciplinarity incorporate academic disciplines which help cross scales: Organizational Learning, Knowledge Management, Applied Cooperation, and Data Science. In Chapter 3 I then use a mixed-method approach to study a transdisciplinary organization, the Maine Aquaculture Hub, as it develops strategy. Using social network analysis and conversation analytics, I evaluate how the Hub’s network-convening, strategic thinking and conversation practices turn organization-scale transdisciplinarity into strategic advantage. In Chapters 4 and 5, conversation is the nexus of transdisciplinarity. I study seven public aquaculture lease scoping meetings (informal town halls) and classify conversation activity by “discussion discipline,” i.e., rhetorical and social intent. I compute the relationship between discussion discipline proportions and three sustainability outcomes of intent-to-act, options-generation, and relationship-building. I consider exogenous factors, such as signaling, gender balance, timing and location. I show that where inquiry is high, so is innovation. Where acknowledgement is high, so is intent-to-act. Where respect is high, so is relationship-building. Indirectness and sarcasm dampen outcomes. I propose seven interventions to improve sustainability conversation capacity, such as nudging, networks, and using empirical models. Chapter 5 explores those empirical models: I use natural language-processing (NLP) to detect the discussion disciplines by training a model using the previously coded transcripts. Then I use that model to classify 591 open-source conversation transcripts, and regress the sustainability outcomes, per-transcript, on discussion discipline proportions. I show that all three conversation outcomes can be predicted by the discussion disciplines, and most statistically-significant being intent-to-act, which responds directly to acknowledgement and respect. Conversation AI is the next frontier of transdisciplinarity for sustainability solutions.