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The Hammer and the Nail : Interdisciplinarity and Problem Solving in Sustainability Science

  • Henrik Thorén
Publishing year: 2015
Language: English
Document type: Dissertation

Abstract english

This is a thesis about interdisciplinarity, scientific integration, and problem solving in sustainability science. Sustainability science is an emerging and highly interdisciplinary field that seeks to integrate vastly differentiated bodies of knowledge in addressing the challenge of transitioning contemporary societies towards sustainability. Interdisciplinarity is paramount.

Interdisciplinarity in general, and in the context of sustainability science in particular, has often been associated with solving particular problems and problem solving is one important theme in this thesis. A central idea that is developed is that of problem-feeding. Sometimes problems arise within one discipline that can only be solved with the help of another. This concept, that has predecessors in e.g. the work of Lindley Darden and Nancy Maull, is explored considerably. It is argued that in interdisciplinary contexts—such as sustainability science—where collaboration is sought it is important to maintain cross-boundary problem stability. That is to say, as the problem is transferred from one discipline to another transformations will often be necessary. These transformations then, need to be acceptable to all involved parties to maintain an active interdisciplinary connection.

Another topic that is discussed both in the introductory essay and some of the papers included is that of scientific imperialism. Scientific imperialism—the infringement of one discipline upon the domain of another—is here suggested to be primarily a threat to in-terdisciplinary collaborations. A distinction is introduced between imperialist failures of expansionism and failures of replacement. These are labelled type-I and type-II imperialism respectively. Particular attention is devoted to the latter form. Type-II imperialism concerns cases where imperialist infringements fail as the imperial- izing framework replaces viable, or compatible alternatives. Such an error of replacement does, importantly, not imply that the framework or theory should be disregarded completely. This type of imperialist error can both be quite subtle, and damaging. For one, if one directs the attention to specific contexts knowledge is actually lost in the process. This is particularly serious in fields such as sustainability science that are, to such an large extent, aimed at influencing concrete policy.

Finally, interdisciplinarity is difficult to achieve and in many cases represents a grand challenge in itself. There are however many different ways in which interdisciplinarity may be accomplished and different forms are suitable in different contexts. In a field such as sustainability science where complexity is such a prevalent feature, an inclusive, pluralist, approach is likely to be appropriate.


Sal Ostrom, LUCSUS, hus Josephson, Biskopsgatan 5, Lund
  • Matti Sintonen (Professor)


  • Philosophy
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • problem solving
  • scientific integration
  • pluralism
  • unification
  • sustainability science


  • Johannes Persson
  • ISBN: 978-91-87833-20-5
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