Can social research paradigms justify the diversity of approaches to social life cycle assessment?

  • Nathalie Iofrida
  • Anna Irene De Luca
  • Alfio Strano
  • Giovanni Gulisano



The present paper aims to offer an explanation for the diversity of methodological approaches proposed up to the present for social life cycle assessment (sLCA), tracking down its roots in the cultural and scientific heritage of social sciences and especially management sciences. A second aim is to shift the current debate on methodologies to an epistemological level, presenting the first results of an ongoing critical review about which underlying paradigms have been applied in sLCA literature.


This paper moves from the hypothesis that the diversity of positions in philosophy of science and the “multiparadigmatic” character of social sciences have had repercussions on sLCA literature since its beginnings, probably in an unconscious manner. Therefore, a discriminating reflection on the scientific and disciplinary inheritance that can represent the roots of sLCA has been conducted. The philosophy of science and the role of different research paradigms in social sciences have been deepened to provide an overview of the main elements of a paradigm (in terms of ontology, epistemology, and methodology). Finally, a brief but critical review of 133 selected scientific contributions on sLCA has been conducted to highlight which paradigms have been applied in sLCA studies.

Results and discussion

Recognizing that boundaries between paradigms are subtle and that researchers are rarely conscious of which paradigm underpins their works, a distinction between the interpretivist and post-positivist approaches used by the studies has been carried out on the basis of a text analysis conducted by identifying the main “literal” criteria. From an initial population of 209 studies, we excluded those concerning reviews of sLCA literature and those with selected criteria that were insufficient to catch the epistemological viewpoint of the authors. Among the remaining papers (133), 73 % has been ascribed to the group of interpretivism-oriented paradigms and only 24 % could be ascribed to the post-positivist one; the remaining 3 % is represented by studies with both characteristics. This data deserves some attention because, since the beginnings of sLCA methodologies, most sLCA publications explicitly suggest having the same underlying perspectives as environmental life cycle assessment (eLCA).


In light of the reflections carried out, we argue that it is important, before going into methodological questioning issues, to be aware of which paradigm is underlying. Indeed, in this phase of sLCA development, scholars should go beyond the simple methodological debate and recognize the “multilayered” nature of social phenomena and the multiparadigmatic characteristics of social and management sciences.


Epistemology Interpretivism Literature review Post-positivism Research paradigms sLCA Social sciences 



The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful and constructive comments that greatly contributed to improving the paper. They would also like to thank the Editors for their generous comments and support during the review process. This paper is cofounded by the European Commission, European Social Fund, and by the Region of Calabria. This paper is the sole responsibility of the authors; the European Commission and the Region of Calabria cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained herein. Moreover, the contents of this paper are coherent with the research activities of the national project “Multidisciplinary and innovative methodologies for sustainable management in agricultural systems” carried out by the AGRARIA (Agricultural Studies) Department of the Mediterranean University of Reggio Calabria and supported by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR), within the framework of FIRB Program 2012.

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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nathalie Iofrida
    • 1
  • Anna Irene De Luca
    • 1
  • Alfio Strano
    • 1
  • Giovanni Gulisano
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Agriculture (AGRARIA)Mediterranean University of Reggio CalabriaReggio CalabriaItaly

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