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Stepping stone or stumbling block? : Mode 2 knowledge production in sustainability science

  • Henrik Thorén
  • Line Breian
Publishing year: 2015-12-10
Language: English
Publication/Series: Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: Elsevier

Abstract english

The concept of Mode 2 was developed in order to further our understanding of processes of knowledge production taking place between and beyond disciplinary structures (inter- and transdisciplinary processes) and “in a context of application”. The concept has often been seen as especially applicable to fields addressing grand challenges, such as cli- mate change, poverty eradication, and global health. Being a relatively new field—interdisciplinary in its approach, and focused on addressing such issues—sustainability science would appear to be a case in point. The aim of this paper is twofold: 1) to explore the perceived relation be- tween Mode 2 and sustainability science, and 2) to advance the discussion of Mode 2 from a philosophical perspective. To address these questions we focus on three characteristic features of Mode 2: the notion of a distinct, but evolving framework; boundary crossing; and a problem solving capacity “on the move”. In particular we discuss the descrip- tive and normative implications of Mode 2 and different understandings of the Mode 2 framework. We report the results of a survey carried out amongst leading sustainability scientists in which they answered questions on Mode 2 and sustainability science. The survey gives insight into both their perception of Mode 2 and their perception of their own field of sustainability science, as well as on the relation between the two. In our analysis, we emphasize the free text answers. These reveal a tension within the field of sustainability science; with developments both to- wards Mode 1 and Mode 2 science as well as towards a more unificationist interpretation. To further complicate the picture, there would also seem to be a tension in the interpretations of Mode 2, and we conclude that the implementation of inter- and transdisciplinarity is challenged by institutional and conceptual factors alike. Even though it is not impossible to achieve; inter- and transdisciplinarity seem to represent a great challenge in itself and the answer as to whether or not inter- and transdisciplinarity is the (sole) solution to the grand challenges of today is likely to be more complex than is generally acknowledged.


  • Philosophy
  • sustainability science
  • Mode 2 knowledge production
  • transdisciplinarity


  • ISSN: 1369-8486
Henrik Thorén
E-mail: henrik [dot] thoren [at] fil [dot] lu [dot] se

Visiting research fellow

LUCSUS (Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies)



Theoretical Philosophy


P.O. Box 170, SE-221 00 Lund, Sweden
Phone: +46(0)46- 222 80 81
info [at] lucsus [dot] lu [dot] se