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Toward an alternative dialogue between the social and natural sciences

Johannes Persson, Department of Philosophy, Lund University
Alf Hornborg, Human Ecology, Department of Human Geography, Lund University
Lennart Olsson, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, Lund University
Henrik Thorén, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, Lund University; Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science, Helsinki University


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Interdisciplinary research within the field of sustainability studies often faces incompatible ontological assumptions deriving from natural and social sciences. The importance of this fact is often underrated and sometimes leads to the wrong strategies. We distinguish between two broad approaches in interdisciplinarity: unificationism and pluralism. Unificationism seeks unification and perceives disciplinary boundaries as conventional, representing no long-term obstacle to progress, whereas pluralism emphasizes more ephemeral and transient interdisciplinary connections and underscores the autonomy of the disciplines with respect to one another. Both approaches have their merits and pitfalls. Unification runs the risk of scientific imperialism, while pluralism can result in insurmountable barriers between disciplines. We made a comparison of eight distinct interdisciplinary attempts at integration of knowledge across social and natural sciences. The comparison was carried out as four pairwise comparisons: environmental economics versus ecological economics, environmental history versus historical ecology, resilience theory versus political ecology, and socio-biology versus actor-network theory. We conclude by showing that none of these prominent eight interdisciplinary fields in and of itself manages to provide, in a satisfactory way, such an integrated understanding of sustainability. We argue for pluralism and advocate complex ways of articulating divergent ontological assumptions. This is not equivalent to pursuing knowledge unification either through scientific imperialism or by catering to the requirements of narrow practical utility. It means prioritizing interdisciplinary integration by simultaneously acknowledging the role of societal and natural factors in accounting for sustainability issues.

Key words

interdisciplinarity; ontology; pluralism; scientific imperialism; sustainability; unificationism

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