Sustainability science is characterised by collaboration between and merging of different disciplines. That comes with challenges. A group of former and current PhD-students propose a framework that to help others to successfully navigate what can sometimes be both a rewarding and an “uncomfortable” space in education and research. Photo: R. Kautsky/Azote

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sustainability science

From conceptual la-la-land to rigorous sustainability science

Former and current PhD students from SRC propose a new framework to help early-career sustainability scholars to become “undisciplinary”

Story highlights

  • A group of former and current PhD students from SRC propose a framework to help early-career sustainability scholars follow an “undisciplinary” journey
  • This means being interdisciplinary individuals rather than researchers from different disciplines working together in interdisciplinary teams
  • The “undisciplinary journey” and “undisciplinary compass” proposed can help achieve rigorous sustainability science, and may also be helpful for other interdisciplinary fields

Spare a thought for confused PhD students. The field of sustainability science is a problem-driven and solutions-oriented line of research often at odds with traditional academic thinking where collaboration across disciplines is unsual, if not even frowned upon. If you do sustainability science you belong to no single discipline. Rather, you work across them.

That is not always easy.

Based on their experiences, a group of former and current PhD-students at the Stockholm Resilience Centre propose a framework that could help others to successfully navigate what can sometimes be both a rewarding and an “uncomfortable” space in education and research.

"As a group of young scholars at a sustainability science institution, we feel well situated to reflect on the formal and informal dimensions of this process. We hope that the lessons we have learned will be of use to other early-career scholars faced with similar opportunities and challenges," they write.

The framework, which is published in the journal Sustainability Science, draws upon the students’ insights from a number of discussions, reflections, and learning over several years. The proposed framework is, however, also based on a survey of educational backgrounds of different generations of sustainability scholars, a participatory forum theatre (sic!), and a panel discussion at the Resilience 2014 conference in Montpellier, France. The latter is a major international sustainability science conference that is held every three years.

A world dominated by established disciplines

As early-career sustainability scholars, the authors of the paper describe a tension that arises from their motivation to both address complex and broad human–environment problems while at the same time ensuring that they develop a sufficiently specialized skill-set to contribute meaningfully toward knowledge generation and solutions.

How can we, as graduate students and future researchers, perform high-quality research and build identity in the field of sustainability science, when starting as interdisciplinary individuals without profound roots in a discipline, and working within a world dominated by established disciplines?

Increasingly, they argue, PhD-students in sustainability science are no longer ecologists, economists, or sociologists working together in an interdisciplinary team, but rather they are interdisciplinary individuals engaging with various disciplines or others with a similar interdisciplinary background. This way of operating is what the authors refer to as “undisciplinary science”.

A compass for undisciplinarity

The eleven authors are Jamila Haider, Jonas Hentati-Sundberg, Matteo Giusti, Julie Goodness, Maike Hamann, Vanessa Masterson, Megan Meacham, Andrew Merrie, Daniel Ospina, Caroline Schill and Hanna Sinare.

They conclude that a growing number of sustainability science researchers can be described as ‘undisciplinary’ scholars. They also suggest how to navigate and embrace this way of doing research through a framework including an “undisciplinary journey” and an “undisciplinary compass” to help early-career researchers not to get lost in their efforts to contribute to more sustainable futures.

The compass illustrates the well-known ‘breadth’ vs. ‘depth’ struggle in science and indicates that both “methodological groundedness” (deep knowledge of methods within one or a few disciplines) and “epistemological agility” (ability to work across several disciplines) are needed for rigorous sustainability science. In simple terms, epistemology is the study of how we acquire knowledge.

As such the compass can help scholars to avoid ending up in what the authors call “conceptual la–la-land”, where jargon and concepts can hijack early-career scholars’ attention. Other places to navigate away from include: “disciplinary immersion” (where methodological skills are high but reflection on the epistemological underpinning of the methods is poor) or the “uncomfortable space” in the lower right corner (high degree of epistemological awareness but limited skills in specific methods).

“The undisciplinary journey and compass we describe may also be helpful for other interdisciplinary fields, or for scholars who may have abandoned their ‘background’ discipline and find themselves in new and uncomfortable spaces,” they conclude.

Undisciplinary compass. The relationship between two guiding competencies: epistemological agility and methodological groundedness. Click on illustration to access study.


The framework proposed is based on a three step inquiry: (1) a survey within the broader resilience science community; (2) participatory forum theater, first in an exploratory workshop within the PhD student cohort at SRC and then at an open conference session, and (3) an expert panel discussion. The latter two steps took place at the Resilience 2014 conference in a special session called ‘Students’ perspectives on sustainability science research—are we moving towards undisciplinarity?’

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