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Is knowledge just another buzzword in the sustainability sciences?

Sustainability scientists have been increasingly addressing the role of knowledge in fostering societal change towards living within the planetary boundaries. Knowledge is what allows us to make inferences about the possible effects of our actions and to act purposefully, rather than randomly, towards certain goals.

But what exactly is this “knowledge” that the action-oriented field of sustainability science so eagerly talks about?

A new paper by Cristina Apetrei, Guido Caniglia, Henrik von Wehrden and Daniel Lang attempts to elucidate knowledge-related concepts as they are being used in practice in the sustainability scholarly community. Using a systematic approach to review existing literature, the paper brings to the surface five entry points to understanding knowledge: knowledge as system, knowledge as entity, as process, knowledge for and through learning, and knowledge at interfaces. These five aspects are interconnected and they jointly provide an integrated perspective on the various facets of knowledge.

In addition, the paper discusses in detail the diverse interpretations of some of the most often encountered knowledge-related concepts (e.g. knowledge co(-)production, knowledge integration, sustainability learning, knowledge-to-action etc.) and identifies points of agreement and divergence between various authors. This endeavour supports the call of the authors towards more clarity in how we use terms, as a first steppingstone towards better empirical science.


how can we take the next step towards operationalising knowledge by building upon the existing diversity of knowledge-related concepts and their uses?


To gain more insight about the paper and how it can be used by those interested in sustainability science, we asked first author Cristina Apetrei a few questions.


How did the study come about?

Apetrei: This study was born out of our wish to advance the agenda of empirical analyses of where and how knowledge plays out in societal and individual decision-making. Knowledge can be a very elusive concept and it has been the subject of much philosophical debate for centuries. Within sustainability science, we talk a lot these days about the need to co-produce knowledge, or to integrate multiple knowledge systems. However, as we show in our paper, there is not much agreement, nor even clarity, about what these terms refer to. Moreover, we don’t understand why and under what circumstances, and for whom such knowledge processes are beneficial, as we often claim they are. So we asked ourselves: how can we take the next step towards operationalising knowledge by building upon the existing diversity of knowledge-related concepts and their uses? Hence, we aspired to gain an overview of this rich universe of concepts and to lay the foundations for clearer language use.


How can others use your results?

Apetrei: One goal of our paper is to alert the scholarly community to the existence of five different entry points by which knowledge is approached in the sustainability science literature. We would hope this integrated perspective to help researchers situate their own views of knowledge, or their favourite knowledge concept, into the broader landscape of inter-related and complementary notions. It is also an invitation to consider all these five facets when discussing knowledge.

Secondly, we organized the paper so that it can serve as a quick reference guide / dictionary, offering a detailed account of 12 selected, frequently-used knowledge-related concepts from the literature (see Section 4 & Table 5). For each concept, we aimed to provide an overview of some of the key discussions in the field and to offer relevant references for further study.


What do you hope to inspire with your paper?

Apetrei: Overall, our article offers a bird-eye’s view on the concept of knowledge as it has been used so far in the sustainability science literature, to the benefit of newcomers and experts in the field alike. Hopefully, it will contribute to more clarity in how various knowledge concepts are defined and it will allow for better operationalisation of knowledge in support of future empirical research. Understanding the concrete contributions that knowledge is able (or not) to make to societal choices will open the path to better tailored policies in support of sustainability transformations.



Apetrei, C. I., Caniglia, G., von Wehrden, H., & Lang, D. J. (2021). Just another buzzword? A systematic literature review of knowledge-related concepts in sustainability science. Global Environmental Change, 68, 102222.