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MOST Publication: Sustainability and the Social Sciences
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MOST Project: Sustainability as a Concept of the Social Sciences

A cross-disciplinary approach to integrating  
environmental considerations into theoretical reorientation  

edited by  

ISBN 1 85649 709 7 
Contact information

This multi-authored volume explores the complex terrain of the interface between the social sciences and environmental research. The contributors come from a range of disciplines: Economics, Sociology, Geography, Political Science and Psychology. They share two broad assumptions: on the one hand, the intellectual reality that continuing attempts at theoretical development remain the lifeblood of the social sciences, and on the other, the planetary reality that environmental questions will increasingly dominate humanity in the course of the coming century. This reality holds out the opportunity, and indeed the practical necessity, of stimulating both important new lines of theoretical development within the social sciences and new forms of intellectual cooperation across them.

Taking sustainability as the potential common term of reference, the authors see it not as some talisman opening the road to a unifying paradigm, but instead as a generator of problems to which responses must be found. Taking this approach, they follow through on a number of purposes:

  • To clarify the meaning and analytical implications of sustainability from a social sciences perspective in order to establish starting points for new research;
  • To explore the potential contributions of different social science disciplines to the sustainability debate;
  • And more ambitiously, to suggest ways in which the conceptual implications of sustainability can promote a reorientation of the social sciences themselves. This will come from their willingness to look at the complex interactions of society and nature, and the connections between symbolic and material dimensions of social practices.
Following this path, this volume introduces the discussion on sustainability within various social science disciplines. It demonstrates how this intellectual reorientation of the social sciences opens up fresh perspectives for environmental research and the development of forward looking and actor-oriented sustainability strategies.


Tables and Figures
Foreword by Federico Mayor, Director-General, Unesco

1. Exploring Uncommon Ground: Sustainability and the Social Sciences

  • Social sciences and the debate on sustainable development
  • Analytical, normative and political implications of sustainability
  • Towards a working definition of sustainability
  • A social trajectories view for discourse-oriented policies
  • Reorienting the social sciences
  • Making the research process more inclusive
PART I - Sustainability: Its Cognitive Power for Emerging Fields of Knowledge

2. Social Sustainability and Whole Development:
Exploring the Dimensions of Sustainable Development

  • From economic growth to 'whole' development
  • The controversy over growth
  • Partial sustainabilities and whole sustainability
3. Sustainability and Territory: Meaningful Practices and Material Transformations
  • Environment and territory in the social sciences
  • Sustainability and socio-political contexts: actors and projects in the hegemonic struggle
  • Sustainability as an object of symbolical struggle
  • Final considerations
4. Sustainability and Sociology: Northern Preoccupations
  • Sustainable development
  • The limitations of social constructionism
  • Beyond the bounds of social construction
  • Sustainability indicators
  • Ecological modernization
  • Conclusions: modernity and sustainability
5. Towards Sustainable Subjectivity: A View from Feminist Philosophy
  • Towards an inclusive definition
  • Background: the WED debate
  • Postmodernity
  • Philosophical critiques of humanism
  • The social imaginary
  • Sustainable subjectivity
  • Memory
  • The imagination
  • Conclusion
6. From Experience to Theory: Traditions of Social-ecological Research in Modern India
  • The environment debate in contemporary India
  • Styles and trends in research
  • From experience to theory
  • The unfinished business of social ecology
7. The Socio-ecological Embeddedness of Economic Activity:
The Emergence of a Transdisciplinary Field
  • Some ecological distribution conflicts
  • International externalities
  • Ecologically unequal exchange
  • Physical indicators and historical time
  • Environmental indicators
  • Some theories and methods in ecological economics: a tentative classification
  • 'Orchestration of the sciences'
PART II - Towards Defining, Measuring and Achieving Sustainability: Analytical Approaches of the Social Sciences

8. The Political Logic of Sustainability

  • Introduction
  • New thinking on sustainability
  • Political logic of sustainability
9. Economic Concepts of Sustainability:
Relocating Economic Activity within Society and Environment
  • Economic concepts of sustainability
  • Economics in context: hierarchies in human and natural systems
  • Hierarchies and the value of the environment: the example of biodiversity
  • Putting theory into practice: a framework for valuation
10. Sustainability from a Feminist Sociological Perspective:
A Framework for Disciplinary Reorientation
  • Existing definitions of sustainability
  • Three commonly held views
  • What contribution - if any - can sociology make to sustainability?
  • Equity and gender
  • What contribution -if any - can feminism make to sustainability?
  • Is there a definition of sustainability that is useful for sociology?
  • What organizational changes would be necessary to redirect Sociology?
  • The potential conflict between a unifying framework and the conceptual and theoretical foundations of the social sciences
  • Prospects for the future
11. Territory, Scale and Sustainable Development
  • One term, many ambiguities
  • The analytical dimension
  • The normative dimension
  • From concepts to action: the political dimension
  • Scientific disciplines and transdisciplinary concepts
  • The society-nature relationship: a fresh perspective on sustainable development?
  • Society, environment and sustainability
  • Problems of territorial and temporal scales in the conceptualization of sustainable development
  • From a concept to an agreement
12. Psychological Perspectives on Sustainability
  • Relevant topics in environmental psychology
  • Psychological research on sustainability
  • Holistic programmes
  • Community activism and empowerment
  • Spanning disciplinary boundaries
  • What can psychology learn?
  • Conclusion
13. Towards Defining, Measuring and Achieving Sustainability:
Tools and Strategies for Environmental Valuation
  • Defining sustainability
  • Measuring sustainability
  • Achieving sustainability
PART III - Perspectives: Creating Networks for Sustainability

14. Dance with Wolves? Sustainability and the Social Sciences

  • Epistemologies and cultures
  • Sustainability and the refashioning of environmental problems
  • Incorporating 'users' into sustainability research
  • Conclusion
15. Innovations in Uses of Cyberspace
  • Cybersystems and cyberspace
  • Global system for sustainable development (GSSD)
  • Social sciences and cyberspace
16. Fostering Transdisciplinary Research into Sustainability in an Age of Globalization:
A Short Political Epilogue



This publication strives to provide an integrated theoretical and methodological framework for the concept of sustainability from a social sciences perspective. It is the result of an international MOST research project which benefited from generous funding by Germany's Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF). UNESCO's scientific partner in this venture was the German Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) at Frankfurt/Main, and fifteen international scholars representing all social science disciplines contributed to this effort, publishing a first synthesis in 1997 as MOST Policy Paper no. 6.

Coping with the problems and broadening the opportunities arising from current social transformations require interdisciplinary approaches. Social sciences provide policy-makers with concepts, methods and tools enabling them to adapt the institutional set-up to new situations, to target specific social, economic and technological needs, to guide innovation in society, to transform science and technology into beneficial elements for societal development and individual well-being. Together with the natural and biological sciences, they must increasingly develop joint research and policy agendas for problem-solving on sustainability issues.

Ever since its creation, UNESCO has been strongly committed to the development of the social sciences. In establishing the Intergovernmental Research and Policy Programme MOST (Management of Social Transformations) in 1994, alongside UNESCO's four older international scientific programmes in the fields of natural sciences, UNESCO wanted to enhance social science co-operation worldwide. The MOST Programme is designed to bring together the decision-making process with policy-relevant social science knowledge. It promotes internationally defined, comparative social science research and its use in policy formulation.

The present exploration of the scope of the sustainability concept outlines the range of potential contributions social sciences can make to its understanding. Following joint efforts by members of the scientific community, decision-makers and NGOs, new and stimulating approaches for an understanding of the multiple dimensions of sustainability are already emerging at the margins of scientific disciplines. However, it is not enough to make a marginal impact.

The goal to ‘integrate the physical, economic and social sciences to better understand the impacts of economic and social behaviour on the environment’, as proposed in Agenda 21, requires a paradigm shift towards a new knowledge base. Concern with sustainability and the environment should not remain restricted to specialised, environmentally oriented subdisciplines. Rather it has to be moved to the centre of disciplines in order to support a process of re-examination of the fundamentals of these disciplines, including their conceptual and methodological presuppositions and limitations. This is what the researchers involved in the present project have been aiming for.

In order to bring the concept of sustainability fully into the mainstream of human activity, we must dare to renew our vision of our relationship with others and with nature. This publication marks an important step forward in indicating the full potential of the social sciences’ contribution to this process.

Federico Mayor
Director-General, UNESCO


HENRI ACSELRAD is Professor at the Institute for Urban and Regional Planning and Research (IPPUR) of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). He is director of the research project 'Environment, Economics and Politics: New Institutionalities in Regulating Socio-Environmental Conflicts', National Council for Scientific Research, and served as a co-ordinator of the 'Environment and Democracy Program' of the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE). He is editor of Environment and Democracy, IBASE, Rio de Janeiro, 1992, and co-author of Ecologia: Direito do Cidadao, Rio de Janeiro, 1993.

EGON BECKER is Professor for the Theory of Science and the Sociology of Higher Education at the Department of Educational Sciences of the University of Frankfurt, and co-founder of the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt. Currently, his fields of research include conceptual and methodological aspects of transdisciplinary social-ecological research, and ecology and development. He is a member of the scientific advisory council for the German Foundation for International Development (DSE). He is author of 'Global Ecology and Global Society', in E. Deutscher et al. (eds) Development Models and World Views, Frankfurt am Main, 1996, and co-author of Sustainability. A Cross-Disciplinary Concept for Social Transformations, UNESCO-MOST Policy Paper No. 6, Paris, 1997.

ROSI BRAIDOTTI is Professor and Director of the Netherlands Research School of Women's Studies at the University of Utrecht. Her research interests include feminist philosophy and feminist approaches to sustainable development. She served as a consultant on policy-making in the field of women's studies with UNESCO and the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW). Rosi Braidotti is co-author of Women, the Environment and Sustainable Development, London, 1994.

NAZLI CHOUCRI is Professor of Political Science and Associate Director of the Technology and Development Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her professional background is as an analyst of international political and economic change, focusing on potentials for conflict at national, regional and global levels. Current research interests focus on glocal sustainability issues, with an emphasis on development, population, resources and environment. She directed the MIT study on Global Accord: Environmental Challenges and international Responses, MIT Press, 1993. She chairs the MIT Global Forum on Sustainable Development and is editor of the MIT Press Series on Global Environmental Accords: Strategies for Sustainability.

MARGRIT EICHLER is Professor of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE/UT) and Director, Institute for Women's Studies and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. She specializes in feminist approaches to various issues and tries to integrate a sustainability perspective into her work. She has published extensively in the areas of family policy, non-sexist methods and women's issues. Her two most recent books are M. Eichler (ed.) Change of Plans: Towards a Non-Sexist Sustainable City, Toronto, 1995, and M. Eichler Family Shifts: Families, Policies and Gender Equality, Toronto, 1997.

JOHN GOWDY is Professor and Chairman of the Economics Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY. His current research interests include ecological economics, economic valuation of biodiversity, input-output analysis of energy and resource use, vertically integrated productivity measures and evolutionary models of economic change. His books include Coevolutionary Economics: Economy, Society and Environment, Boston, 1994. He is co-author of Economic Theory Environmentalists, St Lucie Press, 1995, editor of Limited Means, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter-Gatherer Economics and the Environment, Washington, DC, 1998, and co-author of Paradise for Sale, University of California Press, forthcoming.

RAMACHANDRA GUHA was Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, and is now working as a full-time author and columnist. His research focuses on environmental history (especially India and South Asia) and social ecology. He is editor for a monograph series on Social Ecology and Environmental History, Oxford University Press. His books include The Unquiet Woods: A History of the Chipko Movement, 1989 (second revised edition to be published by the University of California Press in 1999), and he is co-author of Ecology and Equity, London: Routledge, 1995.

THOMAS JAHN holds a PhD in sociology and is Executive Director of the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt. His research areas are urban ecology, and ecology, development and democracy. He is author of 'Urban Ecology: Perspectives of Social-Ecological Urban Research', Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 7(2), 1996, and co-author of 'Gesellschaftliche Naturverhältnisse: Konturen eines Theoretischen Konzepts', in Karl-Werner Brand (ed.) Soziologie und Natur, Opladen, 1998.

JUAN MARTINEZ-ALIER is Full Professor at the Department of Economics and Economic History at the Autonomous University, Barcelona. Research interests include ecological economics, ecological distribution conflicts, and economy, environment and environmental movements, focusing on Western and Southern Europe and Latin America. He is co-author of Ecological Economics: Energy, Environment and Society, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987 (paperback edition 1990), and Varieties of Environmentalism, London: Earthscan, 1997.

ROBERT PAEHLKE is Professor of Environmental Politics and Policy at Trent University. He served as a consultant on environmental issues for the Science Council of Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs, Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and Ontario Round Table on Environment and Economy. He is author of Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics, New Haven, 1989, and editor of Conservation and Environmentalism: An Encyclopedia, New York, 1995.

CARLOS E. REBORATTI is geographer and Director of the Master's Degree Programme in Environmental and Territorial Policies at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Recent publications include 'Estructura y Crisis del Mundo Campesino del Noroeste Argentino', in M. Yamada (ed.) Ciudad y Campo en América Latina, Japan Center for Area Studies, National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, 1997.

MICHAEL REDCLIFT is Professor of International Environmental Policy at Keele University, Staffordshire. His research interests include environmental management and sustainable resource use in developing countries, food policies and sustainable development in Europe, and global environmental change. He was Research Director of the ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme of the European Union. Publications include Sustainable Development: Exploring the Contradictions, London, 1987, and, as co-editor, The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology, Cheltenham, 1997.

IGNACY SACHS is Honorary Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and Director of the Research Center on Contemporary Brazil. Author of several books, his Transition Strategies towards the 21st Century was published in 1993 in English, French, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Japanese. He was special adviser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) and consultant to the United Nations World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995).

IMMANUEL STIESS holds a MA in philosophy. He is working with ISOE and is completing his PhD on participatory, actor-oriented sustainability strategies and their institutional and political implications. He is co-editor and translator of a selected German edition of Donna Haraway's Simians, Cyborgs and Women (Frankfurt, 1995).

CAROL M. WERNER is Professor of Psychology and Director of Environmental Studies at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, <carol.werner@m.cc.utah.edu>. She is writing a book about environmental activism that supports sustainability.

The Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE)

An independent, non-profit research institution, the ISOE was founded in 1989 at Frankfurt am Main. Natural and social scientists co-operate at the ISOE in a transdisciplinary, problem- and actor-oriented approach to sustainability research related to specific social-ecological problem areas, such as water supply, waste and water-management; consumption patterns; and urban mobility. The focus of research in these areas is particularly on developing appropriate, regionally specific strategies for action, designed for the needs of actors in the public, private and NGO sectors. The ISOE is also concerned with conceptual and methodological issues of transdisciplinary environmental research.

The Management of Social Transformations Programme (MOST)

The MOST programme was established by UNESCO in 1994 to promote international, comparative and policy-relevant research on social transformations and issues of global importance. It aims at contributing to a better knowledge of, and policy formulation in, these processes, as well as promoting closer links between research and decision-making. The areas on which the networks from many regions co-operating within the MOST framework focus are the management of change in multicultural societies; the study of cities as areas of accelerated social change; and coping with local-global interactions in economic, technological and environmental transformations.

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