A Critical Realist Approach to Reflexivity in Sustainability Research

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In sustainability science, the research is expected to go beyond disciplinary thinking and incorporate different concepts, methods, and data to explore nature–society interactions at different levels and scales. In realizing these expectations, reflexivity is often noted as an influential factor in inter- and transdisciplinary research processes in sustainability science, wherein researchers reflect on their assumptions, judgments, roles, and positions in the research processes, rethink their ways of knowing and doing, and open up new possibilities for actions. Despite the growing literature on the notion of reflexivity in sustainability science and how it emerges during the research processes, the debates and discussions are often based on lessons learned from sustainability research projects, drawing on individuals’ experiences and motivations. This paper aims to grapple with the notion of reflexivity from a structural point of view, which is less discussed in sustainability research, by drawing on critical realist literature. The paper first presents how reflexivity is understood and analyzed in inter- and transdisciplinary research processes by reviewing the recent studies of reflexivity in sustainability science research. Second, it highlights the knowledge gaps and the need to engage with an alternative view on reflexivity offered by Margaret Archer, one of the leading critical realist scholars. Third, it takes Archer’s framework on reflexivity into sustainability research to explain the causal mechanisms impeding the emergence of meta-reflexivity in the process of knowledge integration and production in contemporary marketized and managerialized universities. Finally, the paper argues that in establishing practices (modus vivendi) that could address the structural barriers (not observable challenges), we need collective agency. To this end, it discusses different collective initiatives and courses of action that could lead to the emergence of collective agency, capable of tackling the cultural and material barriers to reflexivity.
Original languageEnglish
Article number2685
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2023 Feb 2

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Social Sciences Interdisciplinary

Free keywords

  • reflexivity
  • sustainability science
  • transdisciplinarity
  • interdisciplinarity
  • sustainability research
  • Archer
  • critical realism


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