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Social fields and natural systems: integrating knowledge about society and nature

Lennart Olsson, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, LUCSUS
Anne Jerneck, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, LUCSUS


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Sustainability science is a wide and integrative scientific field. It embraces both complementary and contradictory approaches and perspectives for dealing with newer sustainability challenges in the context of old and persistent social problems. In this article we suggest a combined approach called social fields and natural systems. It builds on field theory and systems thinking and can assist sustainability scientists and others in integrating the best available knowledge from the natural sciences with that from the social sciences. The approach is preferable, we argue, to the various scientific efforts to integrate theories and frameworks that are rooted in incompatible ontologies and epistemologies. In that respect, this article is a critique of approaches that take the integration of the social and natural sciences for granted. At the same time it is an attempt to build a promising alternative. The theoretical and methodological pluralism that we suggest here, holistic pluralism, is one way to overcome incommensurability between the natural and the social sciences while avoiding functionalism, technological and environmental determinism, and over-reliance on rational choice theory. In addition, it is a basis for generating better understandings and problem solving capacity for sustainability challenges.

We make three contributions. First, we identify important reasons for the incommensurability between the social and natural sciences, and propose remedies for overcoming some of the difficulties in integrative research. Second, we show how sustainability science will benefit from drawing more deeply on—and thus more adequately incorporate—social science understandings of society and the social, including field theory. Third, we illustrate the suggested approach of social fields and natural systems in two examples that are highly relevant for both sustainability science and sustainability itself, one on climate change adaptation and one on geoengineering.

Key words

knowledge integration; methodology; social theory; sustainability

Copyright © 2018 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087