How interdisciplinary is sustainability research? Analyzing the structure of an emerging scientific field

Abstract

Sustainability research is expected to incorporate concepts, methods, and data from a diverse array of academic disciplines. We investigate the extent to which sustainability research lives up to this ideal of an interdisciplinary field. Using bibliometric data, we orient our study around the “tripartite model” of sustainability, which suggests that sustainability research should draw from the three “pillars” of the environmental, economic, and social sciences. We ask three questions: (i) is sustainability research truly more interdisciplinary than research generally, (ii) to what extent does research grounded in one pillar draw on research from the other two, and (iii) if certain disciplines or pillars are more interdisciplinary than others, then what explains this variation? Our results indicate that sustainability science, while more interdisciplinary than other scientific fields, falls short of the expectations inherent in the tripartite model. The pillar with the fewest articles published on sustainability—economics—is also the most integrative, while the pillar with the most articles—environmental sciences—draws the least from outside disciplines. But interdisciplinarity comes at a cost: sustainability research in economics and the social sciences is centered around a relatively small number of interdisciplinary journals, which may be becoming less valued over time. These findings suggest that, if sustainability research is to live up to its interdisciplinary ideals, researchers must be provided with greater incentives to draw from fields other than their own.

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Acknowledgments

We gratefully acknowledge the financial support from the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, which provided facilities for group meetings and partial funding for each author. We would also like to thank our colleagues, Graham Fellows, Graham Institute External Advisory Board Members, and the anonymous reviewers that offered input on the development of this work.

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Correspondence to Andrew R. Bell.

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Handled by Arnim Wiek, Arizona State University, USA.

E. D. Schoolman, J. S. Guest, K. F. Bush, and A. R. Bell contributed equally to this work.

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Schoolman, E.D., Guest, J.S., Bush, K.F. et al. How interdisciplinary is sustainability research? Analyzing the structure of an emerging scientific field. Sustain Sci 7, 67–80 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-011-0139-z

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Keywords

  • Sustainability science
  • Sustainable
  • Bibliometric
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Academia
  • Citation analysis