New ways of analyzing complex sustainability challenges

The aim of the project is to develop new methodological approaches that can be used to analyze why and how interactions between people and the environment cause the acute environmental problems we are experiencing, and how a change in those interactions can create the potential for sustainable development.

Despite growing recognition of the complexity of environmental problems and a growing insight into the interdependence of social and ecological systems, we still lack scientific methods capable of analyzing social-ecological interdependencies and the complex causal structures that give rise to these problems.  

What often happens instead is that research and policy measures for sustainable development are based on simple linear causal relationships that neglect complex causality, with the risk that sustainability policies will lead to unintended outcomes.

The researchers in the project will be using multiple methods: network analysis, narrative analysis, process tracing, quantitative methods, as well as agent-based modeling. They will test combinations of these methods on the same empirical material to identify the ones that yield the best understanding of different aspects of complex social-ecological systems.

The multi-methods approach will be developed in three stages:

  1. Evaluation of common methods and method combinations in the natural and social sciences as regards their ability to take account of aspects of complex causality such as interactions across scales, path dependence and social-ecological feedback mechanisms.
  2. Development of new method combinations focusing on causal analysis of complex phenomena.
  3. Evaluation of these new methods by applying them in two case studies of water governance in Sweden and in Spain.

The project will develop a toolbox containing new interdisciplinary methods and approaches for analyzing the structures, processes and mechanisms that generate environmental changes in an increasingly interconnected world. The project will be combining quantitative and qualitative methods to create a better understanding of complex phenomena that can be transferred and support the transition to sustainable societies.

“Novel methodologies for analyzing complex causality in human-environment systems”

Principal investigator:
Professor Maja Schlüter

Stockholms universitet
Andreas Duit
Örjan Bodin
Michele Lee Moore

Stockholm University

SEK 7.5 million