Challenges of global sustainability

Great video about a conversation with Sarah Cornell on the challenges of doing global sustainability research. Insights into matching ontologies with epistemologies and methodologies.


Hierarchy and respect

Joern Fischer on hierarchy and associated challenges for Early Career Researchers in German Academia.

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Every now and then, I’m given reasons by the German university system to seriously doubt if I can handle it in the long term. Overly complicated administrative processes aside, my biggest issue with the German university system is the explicit and implicit reinforcement of unhelpful hierarchies, particularly with respect to early career researchers.

Early career researchers (ECRs) — especially postdocs, but often also PhD students — are the future of academia. They are the powerhouses of productivity, the social backbone of departments, and the people who rescue students who have been neglected by their professors. Depending on where you look, their treatment in the German system varies from unhelpful to disgraceful.

Here are some of my “favourite” things that are wrong in the German system:

  • Many funding agencies do not allow ECRs to independently apply for money. Rather the grant needs to be submitted by a professor. As a result, every year…

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Challenges of a change agent: Transformative methods or transformative process?

transformative methods or transformative process

Figure 1: Thought process of a reflective PhD Student-wannabe-change agent

Herewith a personal reflection: comments very much welcome!

I’ve recently been grappling with the question of methods in engaged, transdisciplinary research. I am about to embark on the field work for one of the in-depth case studies in my PhD and have been developing the research plan. In a nutshell, my research seeks to understand what kind of collaborative processes underpin shifts to stewardship (read: sustainable resource use) in agricultural landscapes. I’m taking a social-ecological systems approach in the research.

But let me go back few steps. Upon embarking on this PhD journey a year ago I made a commitment to myself (and the world at large…) that I wanted to do a ‘transdisciplinary PhD’ and that I wanted my PhD  to make a difference. Nice idea. Which I managed to write about quite nicely in my research proposal, and which I could find a lot of nice literature to back up.

Skip forward 6 months to the present: Reality check: I am about to head out into the field and need a plan. here it is:  I am planning to conduct a Social-Ecological Inventory and do lots and lots of qualitative interviews with diverse stakeholders in my study area to develop a detailed case study to answer my research questions. I will also be participating in workshops hosted by a local NGO where I will be doing participant observation and running post-workshop reflection sessions . All in all, a pretty standard set of field work methods.

So much for my engaged, transformative research methods which I committed to in my proposal.

What is a transformative method? What examples are there , out there, of transformative research methods? Anyone? (I’m starting to wonder where I got this idea in the first place…)

I’m not sure of the answer to those questions.

What I am sure of, for now, is that the methods which my supervisor and I have agreed on are scientifically sound, defensible, reliable ways of collecting the empirical data I need for my PhD in order to make a meaningful, novel contribution to science. Maybe now is not the time to flirt with ideas about transformative methods which we don’t really seem to know much about in social-ecological systems research (yet!).

Another thing I am sure of is that my overall research process is potentially more transformative than most conventional research approaches. I am engaging closely with a local NGO in developing the research questions and conducting the research, we’re endeavouring to co-generate the new knowledge through this process. I have also developed a small network of local practitioners in the field of sustainable resource use who have an interest in the research and with whom I am sharing the journey – whilst learning about the work they do in their projects.

So, I hope to have convinced myself by now, that I am okay and haven’t let myself down too much, because:

Even if my specific research methods are ‘standard’ or ‘conventional’, the fact that they are embedded in a interdisciplinary, engaged research process with tight linkages between theory in practice, means that my research does still have some potential to be transformative.

And, secondly, even if my specific research methods are ‘standard’ or ‘conventional’ they are scientifically robust and reliable, and will generate quality empirical data which I can analyse and write up to hopefully complete my PhD successfully. Which as my supervisor points out is my ‘licence to research’.

After that I can play with transformative methods and try to change the world…


Communities self-assessing resilience

Interested in resilience assessment? By and for communities? The Agricultural Biodiversity Community has been developing a tool to help communities self assess resilience (CSAR). Check out the new website which includes information on the suggested process, a list of available resilience assessment resources and a few case examples from around the world.

The CSAR is not a new tool!! It is simply a suggested process which brings together various assessment methodologies. Important and unique about the CSAR is that is starts with narrative, and then moves to assessment and maybe in some cases measurement, starting with self-defined indicators and in a co-productive way drawing on existing resources such as the Social-ecological production landscapes and seascapes indicators.

Please check out our website here, and get in touch if you’d like to know more or get involved with a case study trial.

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I’ve reflected (and struggled) a bit with my involvement in this initiative, as a young Northern scientist, here:

Mapping social–ecological systems: Identifying ‘green-loop’ and ‘red-loop’ dynamics based on characteristic bundles of ecosystem service use

PhD student Maike Hamann’s (Stockholm Resilience Centre and CSIR, South Africa) exciting new publication!

Find the full paper here:


We present an approach to identify and map social–ecological systems based on the direct use of ecosystem services by households. This approach builds on the premise that characteristic bundles of ecosystem service use represent integrated expressions of different underlying social–ecological systems.

We test the approach in South Africa using national census data on the direct use of six provisioning services (freshwater from a natural source, firewood for cooking, firewood for heating, natural building materials, animal production, and crop production) at two different scales.

Based on a cluster analysis, we identify three distinct ecosystem service bundles that represent social–ecological systems characterized by low, medium and high levels of direct ecosystem service use among households. We argue that these correspond to ‘green-loop’, ‘transition’ and ‘red-loop’ systems as defined by Cumming et al. (2014).

When mapped, these systems form coherent spatial units that differ from systems identified by additive combinations of separate social and biophysical datasets, the most common method of mapping social–ecological systems to date.

The distribution of the systems we identified is mainly determined by social factors, such as household income, gender of the household head, and land tenure, and only partly determined by the supply of natural resources.

An understanding of the location and characteristic resource use dynamics of different social–ecological systems allows for policies to be better targeted at the particular sustainability challenges faced in different areas.

Beyond Divides: Prospects for Synergy Between Resilience and Pathways Approaches to Sustainability

In the context of rapid social, ecological and technological change,there is rising global demand from private, public and civic interests for trans-disciplinary sustainability research. This demand is fuelled by an increasing recognition that transitions toward sustainability require new modes of knowledge production that incorporate social and natural sciences and the humanities.

The STEPS Centre’s ‘pathways approach’ and the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s (SRC) ‘resilience approach’ are two distinct trans-disciplinary frameworks for understanding and responding to sustainability challenges. However, the varieties of trans-disciplinarity pursued by the SRC and STEPS each have distinct origins and implications. Therefore, by selecting either the ‘resilience’ or ‘pathways’ approach, or indeed any distinct approach to sustainability, the researcher must contend with a range of foundational ontological and epistemological commitments that profoundly affect the definition of problems, generation of knowledge and prescriptions for action. What does an (un)sustainable world look like? How might we ‘know’ and research (un)sustainability? How should sustainability researchers position themselves in relation to civil society, policy, business and academic communities?

In this paper we explore how resilience and pathways address these questions, identifying points of overlap and friction with the aim of generating new research questions and illuminating areas of potential synergy.

Read the full article, written by a group of young SES scholars, here.