Challenges in Sustainability | 2017 | Volume 5 | Issue 1 | Pages 2–6
DOI: 10.12924/cis2017.05010002
ISSN: 2297–6477
Challenges in
Pluralism in Search of Sustainability: Ethics, Knowledge and
Methdology in Sustainability Science
Ellinor Isgren
, Anne Jerneck
* and David O’Byrne
Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS), Lund, Sweden
Lund University Centre of Excellence for Integration of Social and Natural Dimensions of Sustainability, Lund, Sweden
* Corresponding author: E-Mail:; Tel.: +46 462220512
Published: 13 February 2017
Sustainability Science is an emerging, transdisciplinary aca-
demic field that aims to help build a sustainable global soci-
ety by drawing on and integrating research from the human-
ities and the social, natural, medical and engineering sci-
ences. Academic knowledge is combined with that from rel-
evant actors from outside academia, such as policy-makers,
businesses, social organizations and citizens. The field is
focused on examining the interactions between human, en-
vironmental, and engineered systems to understand and
contribute to solutions for complex challenges that threaten
the future of humanity and the integrity of the life support
systems of the planet, such as climate change, biodiversity
loss, pollution, and land and water degradation. Since its
inception in around the year 2000, and as expressed by a
range of proponents in the field, sustainability science has
become an established international platform for interdisci-
plinary research on complex social problems [
]. This has
been done by exploring ways to promote ‘greater integra-
tion and cooperation in fulfilling the sustainability science
mandate’ [
]. Sustainability science has thereby become an
extremely diverse academic field, yet one with an explicit
normative mission. After nearly two decades of sustainability
research, it is important to reflect on a major question: what
critical knowledge can we gain from sustainability science
research on persistent socio-ecological problems and new
sustainability challenges?
As a step in that direction, we solicited submissions
to a special issue on Sustainability Science in the open
access journal Challenges in Sustainability (CiS). Whilst
the question above will not be sufficiently answered in
this special issue, what is provided are some examples
of what sustainability science can offer and how parallels
can be drawn with other study areas dealing with issues of
sustainability. As direction for the issue and as inspiration
for authors, we asked them to reflect on the field’s mis-
sion, achievements and conflicts. To complement more
systematic assessments such as literature reviews, we
hope that this type of exercise can be a recurrent one, as
a way to continually spur active reflection among scholars
in the field.
1. Reflecting on the Evolving Characteristics of
Sustainability Science
Sustainability science seeks knowledge integration
across disciplines, domains and scales including the
natural and social sciences, nature-society, science-
society and knowledge-to-action. The quest to produce
knowledge and expertise on global sustainability chal-
lenges while working actively to reduce the distances
between disciplines, theory and practice is what most
distinguishes it from other fields [
]. These ambitions
have led to specific criteria being proposed, for example
that sustainability science should be salient in focus and
findings, credible in data and methods, and legitimate
in outreach and solution options, as stated early on by
Cash et al. [
]. In a further step to describe the mission
of the field, proponents have emphasized that sustain-
2017 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (
ability science is defined more by the problems it studies
and the type of solutions it seeksrather than by its
disciplinary content [
]. In that respect the field is often
defined by its research purpose, its applicability, and
our roles as reflexive researchers [
]. This explains why
proponents stress the constructive, normative and trans-
formational attributes of the field along with the core
values of integrity, justice, and viability [
]. Further-
more there is agreement that to match the ambition of
being problem-based and solution-oriented, the process
of knowledge production within sustainability science
is to be characterized by collaborative approaches in
the form of interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary
research [
]. To that end, it builds on several founda-
tional disciplines and employs methodological pluralism.
Variety in perspectives is crucial for understanding how
multiple persistent social problems interact with new
sustainability challenges [
]. Concepts like socio-
ecological system and transition management are used
as theoretical frames and foundations to bridge and bet-
ter understand different but interrelated problem areas
]. Sustainability science also goes beyond these
frames to engage with critical theory and other perspec-
tives necessary for bridging the boundaries between
disciplines, social and natural systems, science and so-
ciety, and knowledge and action [4,11].
All of these characteristics contribute to clarify the mis-
sion and mandate of sustainability science, but also in-
crease the demands on the field thus making it difficult to
grasp in its entirety [
]. By continuously integrating pre-
viously separate research problems and methodologies,
the landscape of sustainability science is rapidly changing
and expanding [
]. Reflecting on this process, some
scholars are partly critical of the extent to which the field’s
aspired characteristics have materialized; Wiek et al. [
for example, claim that sustainability science fails to make
sufficient and significant contributions to potential options
for transformational change, and [
] point to a discrepancy
between promises to provide solutions and the actual deliv-
ery. These must be taken seriously. Others argue that both
interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in sustainability sci-
ence are making progress, albeit the latter at a slower pace
]. Why is this type of reflexive debate important? Some
argue that sustainability science emerged as a revolutionary
concept in the Kuhnian sense [
], referring to how the
field responded to the scientific crisis in the normal sciences
which could neither deal appropriately with the complexity
of the new sustainability challenges nor bridge the science-
society divide. Although this may be contested, it is widely
acknowledged that sustainability science aspires to a new
mode of knowledge production [
]. Given this am-
bitious agenda, including core questions, announced at
the field’s inception and followed by a rapid expansion that
has also added new dimensions to this agenda, scholars
need to engage in continuous assessment of sustainabil-
ity science as a field—both challenges that remain, and
achievements that point to promising ways forward.
2. Introducing the Contributions to This Special Issue
2.1. How Can Transformative Processes of Knowledge
Co-Production and Partnership Be Designed
How do we need to proceed as researchers if we think that
sustainability science should progress in ways that matter
to people? Many scholars advocate pluralism in pursuing
this task [18,19]. It implies that we should use approaches
in sustainability science that take various forms of knowl-
edge into consideration even if this can give rise to new
challenges. As an example, efforts to integrate western
science with indigenous knowledge may run into difficulties
if they clash either in worldviews or in forms of knowledge
production—or in both. To overcome this, and to support a
wider sustainability agenda that takes both time and scale
seriously, we may follow Meg Parsons et al. in their call for
environmental ethics that help recognize the influence that
colonialism and environmental determinism have in shaping
views on and for sustainability. In doing so we must con-
sider the underlying aims of research, how it is designed,
how the dynamics between past and present is studied, and
how communities that we do research with and for (rather
than on) are defined, framed and represented. To illustrate
this, Parsons et al. discuss insights from a case study on
a River in New Zealand where an indigenous commu-
nity successfully renegotiated and enacted new approaches
to tackle several socio-ecological crises. In that process,
knowledge sharing and mutual learning were appreciated,
practiced and found useful.
In another case study, Cordula Ott persuasively illus-
trates how North-South collaboration across the science-
society divide can promote and provide transformative
knowledge, and how the notion of sustainable development
in itself has integrative potential when used as a shared
frame of reference by the different actors involved. Over
a fifteen year period, this partnership program, based on
meaningful participation, interaction and agency, generated
context-based knowledge and innovations for sustainability
while also taking into account local needs. Ott emphasizes
that transdisciplinary practice in the context of North-South
research partnerships is a complex process that requires
long-term commitment, adaptiveness, and particular atten-
tion to Southern partners’ capacity and ownership.
2.2. How Can Film as a Medium Serve The Purpose of
Knowledge Integration and Distribution?
It is an oft-spoken ambition in sustainability science to com-
bine critical analysis with problem solving activities [
For that purpose researchers may take a critical theory ap-
proach to inform the substance and process of dialogue
with citizens and communities who have a stake in certain
socio-ecological matters. Multiple strategies, methods and
techniques can be used in such a dialogue, sometimes tak-
ing the form of a real co-production of knowledge, including
social learning. The film that Elina Andersson and Ann
Akerman produced in collaboration with small-scale farmers
in Uganda, is a perfect illustration of how academic and local
knowledge can be fused and also aligned with a suitable
outreach strategy. In the film we learn about causes and
consequences of land degradation and soil nutrient deple-
tion and how problems of low agricultural productivity can be
tackled and partially overcome in a setting of food insecurity.
Sustainability Science and Urban Planning—How Can
We Foster Mutual Learning?
Also in line with the ambition to foster interdisciplinarity and
knowledge integration, sustainability scientists can point to
opportunities for scholars and practitioners in neighbouring
fields to benefit from work done within sustainability science,
and vice versa. Concerned with both continuity and change
in the search of sustainability, Fran
ois Mancebo argues
that as part of its mission, sustainability science can help
change the way urban planners think about and engage
with urban problems. Given that effective standard planning
may not be either possible or relevant for sustainability, ur-
ban planners should be flexible and continuously consider
contextual and long-term consequences of decisions, poli-
cies and technology change. In order to understand how
change is received by and responded to, planners should
build effective action on the basis of collaborative planning
together with interests in society—both organizations and
civil society.
2.4. What Kinds of Methodology Are Appropriate for
Solutions-Oriented Research In a Complex World?
Henrik von Wehrden et al., like Mancebo, conceptualize
the problems that Sustainability Science seeks to treat as
wicked problems. They do so in order to tease out some of
the methodological and knowledge integration challenges
that complexity and solutions-orientation generate. Suit-
able methodologies, they show, ought to be at once flexible
and precise: they must consider a variety of different ap-
proaches while at the same time employing firm procedural
and ethical guidelines. The authors close with a call for
longer-term research projects and longitudinal designs to
track the development and shifting of sustainability prob-
lems over time.
2.5. Are There Ways to Address the Challenges of
Contradicting Norms and Value Based Dilemmas?
Sustainability problems are often described as deeply nor-
mative [
] both in the sense that sustainable develop-
ment itself is a normative goal and that competing norms in
society need to be understood and considered as part of
research in sustainability science [
]. In a paper on com-
peting norms and contradictory principles, Tim O’Higgins
takes environmental legislation in the EU as a case to illus-
trate how directives and legislation are embedded in both
past and present norms, and how a more proactive and
transformative approach is required to halt biodiversity loss.
O’Higgins examines how biodiversity norms are translated
into three types of environmental policies—Practical, Pop-
ular and Pure—which vary in the approach to biodiversity
and environmental protection. Importantly, they display a
particular tension between giving priority to the practical
provision of food versus ensuring pure protection of nature.
Here the use of the concept ecosystem services may help
resolve some of the tensions.
2.6. Education for Sustainability—What Are the Best
Criteria and Methods to Continually Assess Field
Based Courses?
There is a call for educational programs at all levels to fos-
ter the next generation of sustainability professionals both
within and outside of academia [
]. To make the most of
such programmes, course designers and teachers must
consider both content and instruction format, and establish
quality criteria and procedures to continually assess how
well education meets the requirements of sustainability and
the need for social change. In their study, Ricardo San
Carlos et al. focus on procedures to assess problem-driven
approaches in educational programmes in sustainability
science. They do so—specifically in field based courses
and by using the criteria of the ‘five key competencies’ [
serving to increase students’ awareness of their future roles
in science and society. Although this set of criteria may
function well as a basis, they recommend that we go be-
yond them in further assessments to include other aspects
that are pertinent to sustainability science education.
3. Applying Plurality in Perspectives, Procedures and
Values as a Way Forward
What are the principal achievements, persistent challenges
and pathways forward in sustainability science, as reflected
by the snapshot of the field presented in this special issue’s
articles? Some clear themes emerge; some we recognize
from the mission for sustainability science, which were set
out in the founding work of the field. Other themes represent
familiar challenges to those who do research in and teach
sustainability science; these have become more apparent
as the field has developed. The themes notably connect
to different kinds of plurality, and describe domains where
considerable progress has been made, sites of ongoing
struggles, and indications of promising avenues for future
research in this burgeoning field.
3.1. Knowledge Integration
There is agreement that sustainability science is supposed
to take an integrated, comprehensive and participatory ap-
proach [
]. As such, sustainability science seeks knowl-
edge integration across disciplines, domains and scales
]. A number of articles in this issue deal with different
aspects of this broad question of knowledge integration.
Mancebo discusses the mutual learning and benefits that
can occur between fields or disciplines concerned with
solving complex problems, while both Ott and Parsons
et al. deal with the incorporation of different forms of
knowledge, with the latter highlighting the ethical dilem-
mas involved. Andersson and
Akerman cross both the
science-society and the knowledge-to-action gap, using
film as medium for both dissemination and transformation.
Looking to the future, we are reminded to remain vigilant
about how we achieve integration between disparate forms
of knowledge. At the same time, we are challenged to
make more conscious efforts to engage systematically with
what may seem to be unexpected disciplines, and to use
creative methods like non-traditional media, which can not
only facilitate more useful dissemination but also contribute
to transformative processes.
3.2. Ongoing Methodological Challenges
The challenge of knowledge integration across many con-
ventional gaps’, though recognized early on, was per-
haps underestimated in terms of understanding what ap-
proaches and methodologies would be effective, both for
research and learning. In this issue, von Wehrden et
al., speaking of sustainability science research in gen-
eral, deal with the tension between the need for pluralism
and flexibility on the one hand and the requirement for
precision in methodological approaches on the other. In
relation to teaching and learning sustainability, San Car-
los et al. investigate the best methods and criteria for
evaluating non-traditional problem-based field courses,
proposing a continued and broadened focus on such eval-
uation in the future. That the methodological challenge
was initially underestimated should spur us forward, to
continue critical discussions but more importantly to dare
to innovate, to investigate the variety of forms that plu-
ralism can take, both in research and in the classroom,
and to discover what knowledge and understandings such
pluralism can produce.
3.3. Dealing with a Plurality of Values
Lafferty pointed out 20 years ago that sustainability transi-
tions are normative actions [
]. Social and political theory
has struggled for centuries with conceptualizing the causes
and effects of a plurality of values in society, as seen by,
Hobbes, Rousseau and many more, and so it is a subject
not likely to be settled anytime soon. Nevertheless, two of
the articles herein suggest how we might address this plu-
rality more directly when it comes to the specific challenges
of sustainability science. As mentioned earlier, Parsons
et al. employ an ethical approach as a means to medi-
ate between discrete forms of knowledge. O’Higgins, on
the other hand, in a piece on European biodiversity policy,
makes the norms entailed in policies the subject of theoreti-
cal investigation, with the intention of solving value-centred
dilemmas. While the question of normativity has been cen-
tral to sustainability science since its inception, the articles
here provide a glimpse of the wealth of approaches within
the social sciences and humanities, which has not yet been
fully exploited. This is an inspiring challenge for up and
coming interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary researchers.
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