Putting relational thinking to work in sustainability science–reply to Raymond et al.

Simon West, L. Jamila Haider, Sanna Stålhammar, Stephen Woroniecki

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


We welcome Raymond et al.’s invitation to further discuss the ‘pragmatics’ of relational thinking in sustainability science. We clarify that relational approaches provide distinct theoretical and methodological resources that may be adopted on their own, or used to enrich other approaches, including systems research. We situate Raymond et al.’s characterization of relational thinking in a broader landscape of differing approaches to mobilizing ‘relationality’ in sustainability science. A key contribution of relational thinking in the process-relational, pragmatist and post-structural traditions is the focus on the generation and use of concepts. This focus is proving methodologically useful for sustainability scientists. We caution against viewing the generation of concepts purely in terms of ‘applying the knife’ to ‘divide components.’ Relational thinking offers alternatives more congruent with complexity: away from an ‘external’ actor cutting away at the world with an ‘either/or’ logic, towards an ‘immersed’ actor contributing generatively within it using a ‘both/and not only’ logic. The pragmatics of relational thinking will vary according to purposes. We describe two possible pathways for using relational thinking in research practice–(i) working forwards from relations, and (ii) working backwards from existing concepts–and discuss how relational thinking can contribute to complexity-oriented visions of ‘solutions-oriented sustainability science.’.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)108-113
Number of pages6
JournalEcosystems and People
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 11 Mar 2021


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