DOI: 10.12924/cis2017.05010035 |Publication Date: 20 March 2017

Methodological Challenges in Sustainability Science: A Call for Method Plurality, Procedural Rigor and Longitudinal Research

Henrik von Wehrden 1, 2, 3, 4, * , Christopher Luederitz 3, 5 , Julia Leventon 6 and Sally Russell 7
1 Centre of Methods, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany
2 FuturES Research Center, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany
3 Center for Global Sustainability and Cultural Transformation, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany
4 Institute of Ecology, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany
5 SPROUT Lab, Geography and Environmental Management, Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
6 Institute of Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany
7 Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
* Corresponding author
Abstract: Sustainability science encompasses a unique field that is defined through its purpose, the problem it addresses, and its solution-oriented agenda. However, this orientation creates significant methodological challenges. In this discussion paper, we conceptualize sustainability problems as wicked problems to tease out the key challenges that sustainability science is facing if scientists intend to deliver on its solution-oriented agenda. Building on the available literature, we discuss three aspects that demand increased attention for advancing sustainability science: 1) methods with higher diversity and complementarity are needed to increase the chance of deriving solutions to the unique aspects of wicked problems; for instance, mixed methods approaches are potentially better suited to allow for an approximation of solutions, since they cover wider arrays of knowledge; 2) methodologies capable of dealing with wicked problems demand strict procedural and ethical guidelines, in order to ensure their integration potential; for example, learning from solution implementation in different contexts requires increased comparability between research approaches while carefully addressing issues of legitimacy and credibility; and 3) approaches are needed that allow for longitudinal research, since wicked problems are continuous and solutions can only be diagnosed in retrospect; for example, complex dynamics of wicked problems play out across temporal patterns that are not necessarily aligned with the common timeframe of participatory sustainability research. Taken together, we call for plurality in methodologies, emphasizing procedural rigor and the necessity of continuous research to effectively addressing wicked problems as well as methodological challenges in sustainability science.

Keywords: mixed methods; solution-orientated; transdisciplinarity; wicked problems

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2012 - 2017 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published under a Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).