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Big Questions in the Environmental Social Sciences

The Environmental Social Sciences Network was established as a resource for researchers to connect, share ideas and research through blogs, podcasts and social media, and generally support advances in the theory and practice of the environmental social sciences.  Interestingly many of the early discussions and posts have centered on basic definitional questions about the nature of the environmental social sciences that distinguish it from other fields of inquiry, its unique contributions to theory and practice, and the questions that might define its future.  As part of this project we recruited environmental social scientists through Twitter to respond to a 1 question survey which asked:

What do you feel is the most important question that needs to be addressed by the next generation of Environmental Social Science (ESS) scholarship?

The answers have unsurprisingly varied widely among the 22 respondents to the survey which I have loosely grouped into 5 categories.  These include questions about how the environmental social sciences may establish itself within different disciplines and organizations, the tools and approaches that are used to organize and undertake research in the environmental social sciences, questions about how we frame our research and the implications this has for theory and practice, understanding the conditions and processes by which communities and society transform or change their relationship with their environment and lastly advancing our understanding of the political processes that underlie environmental governance.  These questions further elaborated by each respondent below may represent an important starting point for early career scholars they seek to develop and undertake research in the environmental social sciences.  Similarly I hope that members of the broader environmental social science community find these questions useful, but also that they help to better understand how their own work fits within the broader landscape of the environmental social sciences.  It is critically important that we as a community continue to advance and support research in each of these areas to advance knowledge and enhance prospects for environmental sustainability.  Lastly I encourage you to join this experiment, the environmental social sciences network and share your own perspectives about where we are and where we need to go in the environmental social sciences.

Recognition of the Field

“I think the most important question facing the next generation of Environmental Social Science scholarship is how can the environmental social sciences increase their power? Although there are notable exceptions, environmental social sciences are marginalized within many social science disciplines, where the environment is seen as a marginal and relatively unimportant subfield relative to those fields that address central disciplinary questions. They are marginalized within many environmental programs which emphasize ecology and other biophysical sciences as essential to understanding environmental problems while failing to teach how humans create and solve the biophysical problems. They are marginalized within many fields of employment related to the environment, where biophysical science skills are required for entry-level employment and advancement, and jobs that are fundamentally about dealing with people are instead occupied by people who were trained as biophysical scientists.”

Forrest Fleischman, University of Minnesota


“A key issue facing environmental social science is its legitimacy as a distinct field within the broader social sciences. Addressing this issue will require, in part, a clearer articulation of the scope of this emerging field – it’s underpinning mission and principles (is it a normative branch of science?), the research methods and approaches that constitute scholarship that can be categorised as ESS etc”

Georgina Gurney, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

Theory, Methods and Frameworks

“An important question comes back to the long-existing debate about specificity vs generalizability: (How) Can we make findings from ESS generalizable? How much context-specific information do we need to account for?”

Natalie Ban, University of Victoria


“Developing a concise theoretical framework that is capable of explaining both institutional diversity and fit, the evolution of polycentric governance institutions over space and time and identifies the core social processes driving the effective governance of social-ecological systems.”

Mark Lubell, UC Davis


“I believe online surveys will increasingly dominate social data collection – spurred on by current social distancing recommendations. Thus developing and maintaining rigorous standards for online surveys must be addressed by ESS scholars.”

Chloe Wardropper, University of Idaho


“Most research in the future will be influenced at one level or another by the Great Acceleration/the Anthropocene (and associated impacts of climate change, etc).  Understanding these complex SES will be the core of our work.  On a day-to-day level, I think that it is important for researchers to balance a rigorous scientific approach with a transdisciplinary and applied focus.”

Michael Schoon, School of Sustainability, Arizona State University

Problem Framing

“How might conservation meaningfully address colonialism, racism, ablism, and heteronormativity in its own movement and history, towards truly supporting conservation interests beyond their current scope?”

Adam Linnard, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative


“How do we achieve sustainable and equitable outcomes in human-nature relationships? Three main components:

  1. Enhancing our understanding about the compound risks posed by global environmental change, particularly how to develop regional social-ecological resilience against them.
  2. Sharing planning and management responsibility and accountability with stakeholders, through participatory processes that integrate learning into policy and decision making. This means leaving behind the current blame culture, and embracing a learning and formative one.
  3. To develop a fit between institutions (rules of the game) and nature that is flexible enough to incorporate learning and adapt to uncertainty and unpredictability.”

Pablo F. Mendez, INGENIO (CSIC-Universitat Politècnica de València)


“How can we better understand the problem of, and solutions to, nested sets of multi-level collective action problems? (e.g., climate change, pollution, deforestation).”

Stefan Partelow, ZMT, Bremen, Germany

Transitions, transformations and change

“From my perspective, the most important questions for the next generation of EES scholars is: what social, institutional, political and psychological processes enable transformational change towards more equitable and sustainable futures?”

Jessica Blythe, Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, Brock University


“How can we transition to a post-carbon future?”

Michael Cox, Dartmouth College


“What are the pathways and barriers to transformations to sustainability?”

Gustavo Garcia-Lopez, Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra


“How to we catalyze and maintain fundamental shifts in human behavior so we live in a just and green world?”

Kirsten L Oleson, University of Hawaii

“How can we effectively implement polycentric governance across multiple countries, regions and cities, and how can we improve collaborative governance processes in contexts with limited rule of law?”

Raul Pacheco-Vega Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE)


“Inequality, in incomes and opportunities.”

Bejoy Thomas IISER Pune, India


“Maybe the collective definition of a new relationship with the environment, i.e., one that is not anchored in idealized understandings of nature but that is the result of a socially conscious contract that recognizes different ways of dealing with it. ESS grew out of a concern about environmental degradation. Maybe it is time for ESS to emancipate from it.”

Sergio Villamayor-Tomas, Senior researcher at ICTA, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona




“Temporal scale mismatches and trade-offs in natural resources governance (socio-economic and political trade-off specifically)”

Jacopo Baggio, University of Central Florida


“How to reduce the human ecological footprint on the planet – which likely entails slowly reducing the size of the human population – in a just, humane, transparent and agreeable way without messing things”

Örjan Bodin, Stockholm University


“How do we move ESS research results rapidly to actual changes on the ground? I am aware this is going beyond the conventional conceptualization of what science should be or do. However, without affecting actual change, a lot of our science loses its purpose. Though changes in the management of our environment are occurring, they are not pervasive enough; they are too slow and narrow to avoid further degradation and loss of environmental systems. Of course, most people (i.e., policy-makers and general public) say the environment is important; and some of them actively try improving the situation. However, most people seem stuck in inertia. How do we move these people to sustained action?”

Michael Drescher, University of Waterloo


“How can we achieve political consensus for deep decarbonization?”

Paasha Mahdavi, University of California Santa Barbara


“How can we best evaluate “political will”?”

Chanda Meek, University of Alaska Fairbanks