Methods of Sustainability Research in the Social Sciences


Frances Fahy & Henrike Rau

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    About the Editors

    Dr Frances Fahy is a lecturer in Environmental Geography at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She completed her Geography and Sociology degree (1997–2001) and PhD (2001–2005) in the Department of Geography, Trinity College Dublin. Frances formerly worked as an EPA Post-doctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Geography NUI, Galway (2005–2007) and as a lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Environmental Sciences in University of Ulster (2007–2008) before joining the department in November 2008. Frances’ primary research interests are in the field of environmental planning and sustainability, specifically the social and cultural consequences of environmental change. Frances has published widely in the field of sustainability and has led a number of research projects exploring innovative methods for public participation in planning and developing sustainable planning tools (in particular quality of life indicators and community mapping) for progressing local processes for sustainable development in local authorities. She is the current President of the Geographical Society of Ireland (2012– 2014). Frances is a past Chair of the Planning and Environment Research Group (PERG) of the Royal Geographical Society (2007–2012) and is the current cluster leader of the Planning and Sustainability Research Cluster in Geography at NUIG.

    Dr Henrike Rau is a lecturer in Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She studied sociology and psychology at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena and the National University of Ireland, Galway. In 2008–2009 she spent her sabbatical leave as guest researcher at the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna (Austria). Dr Rau's research focuses on sociocultural and political aspects of consumption, especially with regard to (un)sustainable transport patterns. She currently leads research on transport, mobilities and the ‘consumption of distance’ as part of ConsEnSus, an EPA Ireland-funded collaborative project between Trinity College Dublin and NUI, Galway on consumption, environment and sustainability ( Her other areas of expertise include environmental sociology, social-scientific and interdisciplinary sustainability research and cross-cultural studies. She is particularly interested in the implications of human time use for sustainability, which enables her to link her previous PhD research on time cultures and temporal practices in Germany and Ireland to her current interests in sustainability. Recent publications include the edited collection Environmental argument and cultural difference: locations, fractures, and deliberations (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008, co-edited with Dr Ricca Edmondson) as well as peer-reviewed book chapters and articles in national and international journals such as Journal of Consumer Policy, Environmental Politics and Nature and Culture. Her book, Unsustainable times? Time, culture and social change in Ireland and Germany, is expected to be published by Peter Lang in 2013. Dr Rau is a member of the Sociological Association of Ireland (SAI) committee and the ISA-RC24 (Environment and Society) network. As a strong contributor to the sustainability research community at NUI, Galway, Dr Rau has led the development of the Environment, Development and Sustainability research group in the social sciences since 2008. In 2010 she joined the Strategy Committee of the Ryan Institute at NUI, Galway as representative of the social sciences.

    About the Authors

    Stewart Barr graduated from the University of Exeter's Geography Department in 1998 and continued his studies at Exeter undertaking a PhD thesis entitled ‘Factors influencing household attitudes and behaviours towards waste management in Exeter, Devon’. Building on this research, he worked for two years in the Department as a Research Fellow on an ESRC-funded project entitled ‘Environmental Action in and Around the Home’. He became a lecturer in human geography in 2003, senior lecturer in 2008 and since 2012 has been working as an Associate Professor in Geography. Stewart's research interests include geographies of sustainable development: environmental policy in the UK; sustainable lifestyles and citizenship; sustainable travel, tourism and mobilities, and quantitative methods in geography. He is author of Environment and Society: sustainability, policy and the citizen (Ashgate, 2008) and co-author of the third edition of Statistical Techniques in Geographical Analysis (Fulton, 2004).

    Anna Davies is a Professor in Geography at Trinity College Dublin. Her research and teaching focuses on the realm of environmental governance. She has published extensively on areas including environmental values, governance and sustainability across a range of sectors such as land use planning, climate change, waste management and sustainable consumption. Her current research focuses on matters of environmental governance in three interrelated areas: climate justice, sustainable consumption and grassroots sustainability enterprise. In addition to focus groups her research team are also adopting and modifying collaborative visioning techniques, interactive on-line platforms and mobile diaries. Alongside her academic work Anna is an independent member of the National Economic and Social Council in Ireland and a board member of the Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun, Dublin, a grassroots sustainability enterprise.

    Dr Ricca Edmondson was born in South Africa and brought up in England. After her D.Phil at Oxford, she taught philosophy at universities in Berlin, also working as a translator. She then carried out sociological research at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development before coming to the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway. As well as culture and interculturality, her interests include argumentation and (wise) reasoning, especially in relation to ageing and the environment. She is now working on the history, philosophy and ethnography of wisdom. She is the author of Rhetoric in Sociology (Macmillan), Rules and Norms in the Sociology of Organisations (Max Planck Institute for Human Development), and Ireland: Society and Culture (Distance University of Hagen). She is editor of Collective Action in Context: Power, Argumentation and Democracy (Routledge, 1997) and co-editor of Valuing Older People: Towards a Humanistic Gerontology (with Hans-Joachim von Kondratowitz: Policy Press, 2009), Environmental Argument and Cultural Difference: Locations, Fractures and Deliberations (with Henrike Rau: Oxford, Peter Lang, 2008) and Health Promotion: Multi-Discipline or New Discipline? (with Cecily Kelleher: Irish Academic Press, 2000). With Anne Byrne and Tony Varley, she co-authored the hundred-page introduction to the 2001 edition of Arensberg's and Kimball's Family and Community in Ireland. She has recently served as Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, University of Potsdam, Germany (Semester 11, 2011). She is a member of the Executive Committee of the European Sociological Association, where for 12 years she served as Co-Convenor of its Research Network on Ageing. She belongs to the international advisory boards of Ageing and Society, Poroi, Ecopolitics, and the Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies, and she is engaged in active research projects with colleagues in (among others) universities in Salford, Oxford, Helsinki and Wuhan, and is Convenor of the Galway Wisdom Project.

    Dr Karlheinz Erb holds an MSc in ecology from the University of Vienna (1999), a doctoral degree in human ecology, University of Vienna (2003) and a habilitation (‘venia docendi’) in Social Ecology, University of Klagenfurt (2008). His habilitation focused on the role of land use in the Earth System and on methods for analysing drivers, patterns, processes and impacts across spatial and temporal scales. He is member of the Scientific Steering Committee of the Global Land Project (since 2011), member of the Young Curia at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (since 2011), and member of the Commission on Ecosystem Management (CEM) at The World Conservation Union (IUCN; since 2006). In 2010, he was awarded an ERC Starting Independent Researcher Grant by the European Research Council, for the project ‘Land Use Intensity from a Socio-Ecological Perspective’.

    Dr Mark Garavan co-ordinates and lectures on the Applied Social Studies programme in the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Castlebar. His PhD research was an investigation of Irish environmentalism using a variety of quantitative and qualitative research methods. It employed a number of methodologies which permitted direct comparison with an eight-nation study ‘The Transformation of Environmental Activism Project’ coordinated by Professor Christopher Rootes, University of Kent, Canterbury. The Irish research was carried out under the aegis of the Environmental Change Institute, NUI, Galway (Human Impact Cluster), under the supervision of Dr Ricca Edmondson, School of Political Science and Sociology, NUI, Galway. He has written widely on the Corrib gas dispute and on sustainability issues. He is the author of Compassionate Activism: An Exploration of Integral Social Care. He is a Director of Feasta, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability. He acted as spokesperson for the Rossport Five in 2005 and 2006. These were five local men imprisoned for their opposition to the Corrib gas project.

    Dr Veronika Gaube holds an MSc in ecology (2002) from the University of Vienna and a PhD in social ecology (2009) from the University of Klagenfurt. Her doctoral thesis examined regional sustainability initiatives with regard to land use in Austria through a combination of institutional analysis and integrated modelling. Her research interests include sustainable rural and urban development and the impacts of multi-party decision-making on land use, material, substance and energy flows at the regional level. Methodologically, she is experienced in interlinkages of spatially explicit (GIS) models, dynamic system models and agent based models for socio-ecological systems. Other research interests include the integration of socioeconomic and ecological parameters in land-use models, material, energy and substance flow assessments and nutrients in (agro)ecosystems. Dr Gaube recently contributed to several projects involving participative approaches (‘participative modelling’). She was responsible for the development of agent-based models simulating decisions by members of farming households in several rural regions concerning their agricultural production and land use strategies. Currently, she is also involved in projects modelling residential location decisions of different household types in cities and their impact on the urban energy use. Dr Gaube has published widely in books and national and international peer-reviewed journals.

    Dr Helmut Haberl holds an MSc in biology and mathematics, University of Vienna (1991), a doctoral degree in ecology, University of Vienna (1995) and a habilitation (‘venia docendi’) in human ecology, University of Vienna (2001). His doctoral thesis presented a calculation of the human appropriation of net primary production in Austria. His habilitation focused on the concept of ‘energetic metabolism of societies’ and its significance for analysis of society-nature interactions. Helmut Haberl was a member of the Scientific Steering Committee of the Global Land Project and of the Scientific Committee of the European Environment Agency. He served as a lead author for two chapters of the Global Energy Assessment (published November 2011) and is currently lead author for the chapter on agriculture, forestry and other land use in working group III (mitigation) in the 5th assessment report of the IPCC (to be published in 2014). He has published more than 70 papers in international peer-review journals and co-edited several special issues of peer-review journals as well as edited volumes.

    Dr Melanie Jaeger-Erben studied Psychology and Sociology in Germany and Sweden. During her postgraduate studies at the University of Magdeburg she acquired extensive knowledge of qualitative research methodologies. Since 2004 she has worked on topics such as social aspects of the transition to renewable energies and energy efficiency measures, gender, participation and sustainable consumption. Her PhD research deployed a practice theory approach to the study of changes in everyday consumption patterns after life events. Dr Jaeger-Erben's teaching portfolio includes courses in qualitative research methods and applied social-scientific sustainability research. She is currently working at the Center of Technology and Society at the Technische Universität Berlin.

    Dr Su-ming Khoo is a Lecturer in the School of Political Science & Sociology, National University of Ireland, Galway. She is a member of the Sustainable Development, Governance and Changing Communities Research Cluster. Her research and teaching interests are in globalisation and development, North/South contestation, ‘post-development’, development theory, political economy of development, human development, human rights and sustainable development. Her recent publications have been about bridging human rights and development, citizenship, culture, consumer activism, decolonisation, ecology, democratisation and knowledge advocacy and activism, and higher education policy.

    Eoin King is a Postdoctoral Research fellow in acoustics at Trinity College Dublin. His doctoral dissertation developed a practical framework for strategic noise mapping in Europe. In conjunction with his current position at Trinity, Eoin is also director of Infrasonic Ltd, an Irish acoustics consultancy firm. His research interests include environmental acoustics, environmental policy and strategic noise mapping techniques. He has extensive knowledge in the field of noise modelling and prediction. In 2010 he was nominated by the Irish Department of the Environment to represent Ireland on the CNOSSOS-EU Technical Committee of experts. In 2007 he developed the largest and most complex strategic noise maps prepared in Ireland to date on behalf of the Irish National Roads Authority, in accordance with EU Directive 2002/49/EC.

    Enda Murphy is a Lecturer in Planning at the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin. He obtained his PhD from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in 2006. His research interests are broad in scope but centre on the areas of urban transportation, environmental noise, spatial planning and related issues. He has published widely in the international literature being author/co-author of more than thirty academic journal articles, book chapters, conference papers and reports. His work has been published in such journals as Environment International, Journal of Environmental Management, Transportation Research A and D, Urban Studies, Cities, Growth and Change, Town Planning Review and Applied Acoustics.

    Dr Jan Prillwitz is a graduate of the Dresden University of Technology (TU Dresden, Germany). During his PhD research, he worked at the Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research, Leipzig, Germany, investigating the influence of residential relocations and other life course events on travel behaviour. In 2008, Jan received his doctorate from the Institute of Geography at the University of Leipzig. As post-doctoral researcher, Jan worked for two years on the ‘Promoting sustainable travel’ project at the School of Geography, University of Exeter (UK), where he explored motives and barriers for adopting more sustainable behaviour. From 2009 till 2012, Jan was Assistant Professor at the Department of Human Geography and Planning at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. At the current time, he is an independent travel behaviour researcher; his main research interests are in sustainable travel behaviour, mobility styles, concepts of new mobilities and the role of socio-psychological factors for individual travel decisions.


    The need to effectively address today's sustainability challenges has reached a previously unknown level of urgency. The threat of runaway climate change, rapid biological and cultural diversity loss, mounting pressure on the planet arising from population growth and the relentless pursuit of ‘development’ as well as associated potentials for social and political unrest and economic instability can no longer be ignored. At the same time, political responses to these challenges continue to be at best incremental. This makes it all the more important for those who through their theoretical and empirical work try to understand the social and political aspects of sustain-ability to be able to avail themselves of appropriate outlets for their thoughts and findings. This edited collection was intended to provide such an outlet. Its main aim is to show how sustainability can be understood differently (and perhaps more constructively than has hitherto been the case) if studied through the lens of the social sciences.

    Of course, edited collections such as this one are only made possible because of the tireless work of many people. First and foremost, we wish to thank all contributors for their timely submissions. It was a pleasure to work with authors from Ireland, UK, Germany and Austria who are so deeply committed to theoretically informed and methodological rigorous social research on sustainability problems. The range and quality of contributions to this collection clearly demonstrates the vibrancy of the field today and gives hope for its future role and direction.

    We also wish to express our gratitude to Frank Fahy for his assistance with the final manuscript. His observations and comments have greatly contributed to the success of this project. Finally, we would like to thank the editorial team at Sage Publishers for their patience and their highly professional and efficient support.

    Henrike Rau and Frances Fahy

    January 2013

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