Developing integrative research for sustainability science through a complexity principles-based approach

Abstract

The importance of taking an integrative approach to research has long been integral to sustainability science, and has recently been highlighted as fundamental to the co-design of research and co-production of knowledge. Just what this means, however, and how to implement such a broad notion has escaped effective methodological development. In order to become more than a generic descriptor, integrative research needs to be conceptualized and presented in ways that offer guidance to researchers designing and conducting integrative research projects, whilst remaining broad enough to be relevant to the breadth and depth of sustainability-related problems. Drawing on complexity theory and fundamental aspects of integrative research, I present a methodological framing that seeks to achieve this balance. Using a definition of integrative research as “research in the context of complexity, with an action imperative”, I draw from complexity theory that proposes minimal specifications, generative relationships, focusing on enablers and seeking diversity as core features of a complexity-based approach. On that basis I propose four principles that can be used by researchers to guide the design and implementation of their projects: embrace uncertainty; engage stakeholders; be transdisciplinary; and have a learning orientation. Each of these principles is explained, and their relationships to research design, methodological framing, choice of methods and project development are presented. Two integrative research project frameworks are presented as examples of how this principles-based approach can be implemented in research design. Using this approach offers a simple but powerful structure to guide integrative research for sustainability science at the project scale.

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Correspondence to Lorrae van Kerkhoff.

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Handled by Nobuo Mimura, Ibaraki University, Japan.

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van Kerkhoff, L. Developing integrative research for sustainability science through a complexity principles-based approach. Sustain Sci 9, 143–155 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-013-0203-y

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Keywords

  • Integration
  • Complex systems
  • Sustainability science methodology
  • Research design
  • Transdisciplinarity
  • Systems thinking