Proving the world more imaginary? Four approaches to imagining sustainability in sustainability research

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Authors

  • Sacha Kagan

Sustainability research has set itself the double-challenge of uncovering the complexity of a globally, locally and historically unsustainable development path, and of contributing to a search process for more sustainable development paths for humanity. A small number of researchers involved in this area have suggested “that maybe the challenge of sustainability isn’t to prove the world more real […] but to prove the world more imaginary” (Robinson as quoted in Taylor 2012, n. p.). Taking up this invocation of the imaginary, the article investigates some imaginaries and imagination of sustainability at play in sustainability research. Four relatively distinct approaches to sustainability research are identified, characterized and differentiated: “triple bottom-line”, “sustainability transformation”, “holistic healing/biophilia”, and “culture of qualitative complexity”. They each develop a specific focus, are nourished by partly different imaginaries and develop their imaginations in distinct directions. In this article, imagination is understood as an individual and social, perceptive and creative process by which we shape realities in our encounters with the world; whereas the imaginary is understood as a deep symbolic matrix that enables our access to the world. Imaginaries are not just made up and imposed on the world by the humans, but the result of an imaginative encounter with the human and other-than-human world. Focused attention on imagination and imaginaries not only allows to observe the area of sustainability research through a differentiating perspective that helps understand certain contrasting and/or shared features across different approaches to sustainability research. This focused attention also bears a potentially instrumental value for inter- and transdisciplinary sustainability research itself, because it encourages sustainability researchers to further reflect on the importance, modalities and different framings of creative and reflective approaches to futures-oriented research agendas. The creative exercise of the imagination is not only at the core of “anticipatory competences” (Wiek et al. 2011, p. 7) for sustainability, but also at the core of percipience to nature-culture’s dynamic complexity. In this respect, sustainability research needs to develop its self-reflexivity beyond discourse-rational approaches to narratives, with a deeper understanding of both embodied cognition and of culture. Reflection on, and radically imaginative work with both dominant and alternative imaginaries that sustainability researchers operate from, such as the four imaginaries discussed in this article, are a precondition to any movement beyond institutional path-dependency to a globally unsustainable development.

Translated title of the contributionVom Versuch, die Welt als imaginärer zu beweisen: Vier Ansätze der Nachhaltigkeitsforschung, Nachhaltigkeit zu imaginieren
Original languageEnglish
JournalÖsterreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie
Volume44
Issue numberSUPPL 2
Pages (from-to)157-178
Number of pages22
ISSN1011-0070
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 01.11.2019
Externally publishedYes