Academic mission statement
The Institute for Social Change and Sustainability (IGN) is embedded in the Department of Socio-economics, which has a well-established focus on issues of sustainability in its research as well as its teaching programmes. Indeed, the Department hosts a number of Chairs and Institutes specialising on particular aspects of sustainability. The IGN has been established, and is fronted, by Prof. Dr. Ingolfur Blühdorn (formerly at the University of Bath, UK), who has joined the WU as Professor for Social Sustainability in September 2015.
Sustainability from the perspective of the social sciences
The IGN explores issues of sustainability from the perspective of the social sciences and sociological theory. Rather than conceptualising social sustainability as the counterpart of economic and ecological sustainability, it explicitly understands sustainability in all its dimensions as a social category, i.e. as an idea and project that is based on culturally determined and socially negotiated values or norms, which keep evolving as societal development proceeds: What is being considered as sustainable, where societal perceptions of unsustainability emerge, to what extent such perceptions trigger concern and to what kind of action such concerns may give rise cannot be calculated using natural science methods alone but is, to a considerable extent, a matter for the social and cultural sciences. Even profound changes in the biophysical or social realm (e.g. loss of biodiversity, consumption of natural resources, climate change, social inequality, migration) often trigger societal responses which are very different from the expectations and demands both of environmental movements and natural-science- or economics-oriented strands of academic sustainability research. Thus, the IGN focuses on dimensions of the sustainability debate which are disregarded wherever sustainability is understood (a) in the natural science sense in terms of empirically measurable material- or energy-flows, (b) in the technological sense as a matter of efficiency innovation, (c) in the economistic sense in terms of different forms of capital or (d) in a technocratic-managerial sense as the implementation of particular benchmarks, targets or codes of conduct. Of course, the IGN recognises the great significance of such objectivating research approaches, and it actively seeks cooperation with research groups and projects pursuing such methodological avenues. In its own work, however, it proceeds from the assumption that issues of sustainability can, ultimately, neither be translated into issues for the natural sciences, economics or managers nor be depoliticised. Not least for a decent understanding of the obstacles blocking the envisaged sustainability transformation, a clear focus on the subjective dimensions seems to be essential.
Sustainability in the Anthropocene
The current point in societal development is often conceptualised as the arrival of the Anthropocene. At this point the IGN’s specific approach gains particular significance: The traditional distinction between a biophysical and a social world is becoming questionable; nature and society are merging into each other, as are natural and social sciences. Societal thinking, communication and action no longer have an extra-societal point of reference. Thus established strategies of legitimating environmental, climate and sustainability policies are losing their seemingly solid foundations. At the same time, modern citizens and societies – in the wake of second order emancipation – are leaving behind the normative commitments which used to underpin ecological, social and political (emancipatory) movements. The post-democratic turn, the post-ecologist turn or the post-political constellation are, just like the Anthropocene, only some of the concepts which social scientists have coined in order to capture the profound changes in the societal context of sustainability-related debates. The new limits to growth and the arrival of the post-growth society – denoting an inconvenient fact rather than a normative demand – are another key parameter in this transformation. It gives rise to the questions:
o How do these changes affect the substance of sustainability politics?
o Which new narratives of legitimation are being forged and which ones are successful?
o How do the abilities and strategies to cope, individually and collectively, with the infringement of established eco-political as well as democratic norms evolve?
o How are the implications of the factual post-growth society being managed?
o How do modern societies organise and administrate ever higher levels of social inequality and exclusion?
o How do societal perceptions and assessments of phenomena of climate change and other ecological changes adjust?
o How does second order emancipation remould prevalent notions of freedom, self-realisation, participation, legitimation, responsibility etc.?
o How do societal ideas of equality, justice and democracy develop?
o Which new forms of political articulation, mobilisation and organisation do emerge?
o What may concepts such as sustainability or resilience imply in the Anthropocene?
o Are there limits to political subjectivation?
o What may be the basis for a critique of the factual politics of unsustainability?
For practical sustainability politics and policy, all these are imminently important questions – and they are unambiguously social science questions. When exploring them, IGN researchers retain an equally critical distance from all societal actors contributing to the diversified sustainability discourse. They neither deny (or even abandon) their own value orientations, nor do they turn a blind eye on issues of interests and power. But rather than making normative demands and offering quick policy fixes they place the primary emphasis on the preliminary task of obtaining a detailed understanding of why society’s transformation to sustainability turns out to be so immensely difficult, what exactly the politics of unsustainability implies, and how the condition of sustained unsustainability is organised and stabilised in practice. This primarily descriptive-analytical approach is constitutive for the work of the IGN and a distinctive feature – whereby the inherent contradiction of the endeavour to investigate irreducibly normative and political issues in a non-normative manner is fully acknowledged. Accordingly, the theory of science and knowledge, the theory of modern societies and reflection on the sociological foundations of all discourses of sustainability are persistently present in the IGN’s work.
The next five years
Within this general framework, work within the IGN will focus for the next five years on three more narrowly defined research topics:
1. The triangular relationship between processes of societal development, the transformation of social values and aspirations, and the normative foundations of eco-political and sustainability-related discourses and policies;
2. the evolution of societal understandings of democracy (and its constitutive elements) and the redefinition of the link between sustainability and democracy;
3. the reconfiguration of the connection between capitalism and sustainability in the context of post-growth-society.
These three research areas will remain integrated under the heading “value change, societal change, sustainability change