Why care about theories? Innovative ways of theorizing in sustainability science

Related GLP Member: Maja Schlüter, Nicholas Magliocca, Patrick Meyfroidt


The complex nature of sustainability problems and the aim of sustainability science to support emergent processes of transformation require rethinking how we build and make use of theories. We highlight the diversity of ways in which theories, as assemblages of different elements that can serve a variety of purposes, can emerge within inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary processes. Such emerging theories are (i) contextualized, constantly changing, and build on a plurality of knowledge from science and practice, (ii) embedded in change-making processes arising when diverse actors try to collectively solve a complex problem. We propose four ideal-typical modes of theorizing, and the notion of ‘ecologies of theories’, to explicate and further advance theorizing to meet the challenges and needs of sustainability science.