What is Sustainable Theory? A Luhmannian Perspective on the Science of Conceptual Systems

Abstract

Sustainability is an important topic for understanding and developing our society (including business, government, and NGOs). For scholars who want their academic contributions to have an impact, sustainability is important for our conceptual systems (including theories, models, and policies). Because our conceptual systems share similarities with our social systems, we may investigate their characteristics to gain insight into how both may be achieved or at least understood. Theories of the humanities as well as the social/behavioral sciences are changing very rapidly. They are fragile and few seem to have any longevity. At the same time, the theoretical base does not seem to be “advancing.” They are not supporting highly effective results in the real world, so we continue to have seemingly insolvable problems such as crime, war, and poverty. This may be because academia has become inward-focused or, in Luhmann’s terminology, autonomous from the outside world. In seeking to understand how to develop more sustainable theories we found that the concept of sustainability is contested. And, in the process of comparing the sustainability of social systems to the sustainability of theories, we came to realize that neither perspective is viable. Drawing on Luhmann’s insights on the interdependence of theories and society, we came to realize that the two exist in a coevolutionary relationship. Importantly, we present an approach for measuring that evolution and suggest directions for accelerating the coevolutionary advance of society and science.

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Correspondence to Steven E. Wallis.

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This paper began with a project supported by the Fulbright Specialist Program and IAMO. We deeply appreciate the efforts of the four reviewers whose comments and questions have supported the emergence of a stronger paper. The second author gratefully acknowledges the support from the Volkswagen Foundation.

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Wallis, S.E., Valentinov, V. What is Sustainable Theory? A Luhmannian Perspective on the Science of Conceptual Systems. Found Sci 22, 733–747 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10699-016-9496-5

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Keywords

  • Sustainability
  • Luhmann
  • Evolution
  • Theory
  • Conceptual system
  • Systems theory