Avenues of archetype analysis: roots, achievements, and next steps in sustainability research

Related GLP Member: Christoph Oberlack, Diana Sietz, Klaus Eisenack

Overview of paper

Recent years have seen a proliferation of studies that use archetype analysis to better understand and to foster transitions toward sustainability. This growing literature reveals a common methodological ground, as well as a variety of perspectives and practices. In this final paper, the authors provide an historical overview of the roots of archetype analysis from ancient philosophy to recent sustainability science. They thereby derive core features of the archetype approach, which they frame by eight propositions. They then introduce the Special Feature, “Archetype Analysis in Sustainability Research,” which offers a consolidated understanding of the approach, a portfolio of methods, and quality criteria, as well as cutting-edge applications. By reflecting on the Special Feature’s empirical and methodological contributions, they hope that the showcased advances, exemplary applications, and conceptual clarifications will help to design future research that contributes to collaborative learning on archetypical patterns leading toward sustainability. The paper concludes with an outlook highlighting central directions for the next wave of archetype analyses.

Overview of Special Feature

The Special Feature, guest edited by GLP Archetype Analysis Working Group Coordinators Dr. Christoph Oberlack, Dr. Diana Sietz and Prof. Klaus Eisenack, presents a state-of-the-art source of archetype analysis in sustainability research. Archetype analysis is a powerful approach to reveal patterns of factors and processes that commonly shape the (un)sustainability of social-ecological systems in the face of global change. The Special Feature demonstrates promising ways to address three major research challenges:

  • Building consensus on the multiple and precise meanings of archetypes in social-ecological systems and sustainability research, 
  • Providing guidance on established methods used in archetype analysis including their strengths and weaknesses and 
  • Elaborating good practice examples for high quality archetype analysis.

The Special Feature consolidates the first phase of archetype analysis in sustainability research presenting cutting-edge applications of archetypes methodologies to address key sustainability challenges. It is based on two intensive research workshops held at University of Bern in 2017 and Humboldt University Berlin in 2018 that brought together leading and emerging scientists in archetype analysis.

The Special Feature supports the sustainability research community to effectively advance comparison and generalisation at an intermediate level in between the particularities of single cases and panacea perspectives. It paves the way toward a second generation of archetype analysis sparking methodological innovations and fostering scaling and transfer of knowledge and sustainability solutions across regions.