Constructing sustainability science: emerging perspectives and research trajectories

Abstract

Over the last decade, sustainability science has emerged as an interdisciplinary and innovative field attempting to conduct problem-driven research that links knowledge to action. As the institutional dimensions of sustainability science continue to gain momentum, this article provides an analysis of emerging research agendas in sustainability science and an opportunity for reflection on future pathways for the field. Based on in-depth interviews with leading researchers in the field and a content analysis of the relevant literature, this article examines how sustainability scientists bound the social, political and normative dimensions of sustainability as they construct research agendas and look to link knowledge to social action. Many scientists position sustainability science as serving universal values related to sustainability and providing knowledge that is crucial to societal decision-making. The implications of these findings are discussed with an eye towards creating a space for a more democratic and reflexive research agenda for sustainability.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See supplementary material for list of interview subjects.

  2. 2.

    Carl Folke, Interview, 30 September 2009.

  3. 3.

    Walzer borrows this term from Geertz’s (1973) “thick description.” Walzer’s (1994,p xi) aim, however, is not to present a thick description of moral argument but to refer to argument that is thick—“richly referential, culturally resonant, locked into locally established symbolic systems or network of meanings.”.

  4. 4.

    Thomas Parris, Interview, 8 July 2009.

  5. 5.

    Jan Rotmans, Interview, 24 November 2009.

  6. 6.

    Pam Matson, Interview, 26 September 2009.

  7. 7.

    Thomas Parris, Interview, 8 July 2009.

  8. 8.

    John Robinson, Interview, 5 October 2009.

  9. 9.

    How this process is shaped, by whom and who is included are important issues involving deliberative ideals and procedural justice that will influence how sustainability comes to be defined. These issues are, however, beyond the scope of this paper.

  10. 10.

    Jan Rotmans, Interview, 24 November 2009.

  11. 11.

    B.L. Turner III, Interview, 5 June 2009.

  12. 12.

    Thomas Parris, Interview, 8 July 2009.

  13. 13.

    Elinor Ostrom, Interview, 30 September 2009.

  14. 14.

    Coupled human-natural systems are also referred to as human–environment or social–ecological systems. Broadly, they can be defined as “integrated systems in which people interact with natural components” (Liu et al. 2007, p 1513).

  15. 15.

    Pam Matson, Interview, 26 September 2009.

  16. 16.

    Jill Jäger, Interview, 18 November 2009.

  17. 17.

    Paul Raskin, Interview, 17 December 2009.

  18. 18.

    Pam Matson, Interview, 26 September 2009.

  19. 19.

    Simon Levin, Interview, 16 December 2009.

  20. 20.

    Lennart Olsson, Interview, 30 October 2009.

  21. 21.

    Jill Jäger, Interview, 18 November 2009.

  22. 22.

    John Robinson, Interview, 5 October 2009.

  23. 23.

    David Kriebel, Interview, 16 November 2009.

  24. 24.

    Jill Jäger, Interview, 18 November 2009.

  25. 25.

    John Robinson, Interview, 5 October 2009.

  26. 26.

    The scientific consensus on climate change may seem to counter this claim. However, the consensus on the basic mechanisms behind climate change has not translated into concerted social action. STS research has shown that this consensus is fragile and hides significant and legitimate differences. The ability to achieve consensus is driven by social norms and processes, as well as institutional configurations (Jasanoff and Wynne 1998; Miller 2004). As recent events such as “Climate Gate have shown, such consensus is liable to be re-opened and challenged, providing a glimpse into the social, political and normative dimensions of scientific knowledge-making. This has as much if not more to do with social norms of scientific communities and institutions and political consensus as it does with the strength of scientific findings (Hulme 2010; Jasanoff 2010).

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Acknowledgments

The author owes a debt of gratitude to all of the interview subjects. Without their openness and generosity with their time, this article would not have been possible. It has benefitted from significant input from Ben A. Minteer, Daniel Sarewitz, Charles L. Redman and Arnim Wiek. Finally, the author would also like to thank Britt Crow and Tischa Muñoz-Erickson for valuable input. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0504248, IGERT in Urban Ecology at Arizona State University. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendation expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Thaddeus R. Miller.

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Handled by Karel F Mulder, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands.

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Miller, T.R. Constructing sustainability science: emerging perspectives and research trajectories. Sustain Sci 8, 279–293 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-012-0180-6

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Keywords

  • Sustainability science
  • Boundary work
  • Reflexive
  • Science and technology studies
  • Knowledge to action
  • Research agenda