for sustainable development

Social Ecology

The theoretical basis of our work and teaching is social ecology – the science that studies societal relations to nature. The central question that social ecology attempts to answer is: how can crisis-prone societal relations to nature can be recognized, understood and then responded to?

Tension between theory and practice

Social ecological research is situated in the space between two poles: As applied scientific research, it seeks solutions to practical, societal problems of everyday life. As a theoretical science, it seeks to systematically order the knowledge produced by its research. The productive tension created in the space between these two poles is maintained by social ecology's transdisciplinary approach to research.

Specific areas of research

The central object of study for social ecology is the various patterns of relations between society and nature – i.e., societal relations to nature. Research is problem oriented, which means social ecology deals with specific, concrete fields of societal activity. The latter are matched by ISOE's specific areas of research. For it is above all in the concrete fields of societal activity that the interactions between societal actions and ecological effects become most evident. And here the need to deal with non-knowledge and the societal evaluation of scientific knowledge is particularly important.

Research on options

Social ecology can also be understood as a form of “options research,” in which possible developments are analyzed and criteria for identifying desirable developments formulated. Feasible paths that could link the possible with the desirable developments are then described, the goal being to encourage thinking and action in terms of options.

So, for example, there are many very different ways to design supply systems for basic goods and services such as water, energy, food or mobility. In response to this array of possibilities, social ecology has developed an approach, using the concept of social-ecological supply systems, to analyze the current forms, and future options and consequences, of supplying such basic goods.

An open theory

The theoretical basis for such a science studying societal relations to nature consists of a network of related terms and concepts, a network containing many nodal points, but one which is also open at the ends. Thus, social ecology is itself open to development and adaptation, and not an entrenched and immutable theoretical edifice.

Contact person

Thomas Jahn
069 707 69 19-0

More on this topic


Sustainability Special Issue on Social Ecology

Social Ecology. State of the Art and Future Prospects. Special Issue Sustainability 2017, 9(7)