This project (2020-1-SE01-KA203-077872) has been funded with support from the European Commission. This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Can ecosystem services lead ecology on a transdisciplinary pathway?

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Reyers, B., Roux, D.J., O’farrell, P.J., 2010. Can ecosystem services lead ecology on a transdisciplinary pathway? Environmental Conservation 37, 501–511.
Thematic Area
Environmental studies
The discipline of ecology has evolved through several phases as it has developed and defined itself and its relationship with human society. While it initially had little to do with human concerns, it has become more applied, and is today more integrated with the human element in the way it conceptualizes complex social-ecological systems. As the science has developed, so too have its relationships with other disciplines, as well as people and processes outside the domain of science. However, it is unclear how far ecology has progressed in developing these relationships and where it should best focus its efforts in the future in order to increase its relevance and role in society. The concept of ecosystem services (the benefits people get from nature) has the potential to further this integration and clarify ecology's role and relevance in society, however doubt remains as to whether the concept has helped ecology in developing disciplinary and societal relationships. This review assesses the progress of ecology in relation to a transdisciplinary knowledge hierarchy (empirical, pragmatic, normative and purposive) where all levels of the hierarchy are coordinated on the basis of an overall purpose introduced from the purposive level down. At each of the levels of the knowledge hierarchy, the principles of transdisciplinarity, ecology's progress, the contribution of ecosystem services to this progress and future directions for a transdisciplinary ecology are explored. Ecology has made good progress in developing an interdisciplinary dialogue between the natural and social sciences and sectors. It is well-integrated with empirical and pragmatic disciplines and coordinates research at these two levels. At the normative level, the absence of collaborative frameworks and planning instruments is a major gap limiting the influence that ecology can have on land and resource use decisions at this level. At the purposive level, ecology has limited interactions with a narrow set of values associated with ecological ethics and economics. There is an obvious need for ecology to engage with the purposive disciplines of philosophy, ethics and theology, but also a need for ecological research to transform itself into a social process dealing with values and norms of both society and science. Ecosystem services have helped ecology to make links with many disciplines at the empirical and pragmatic levels, provided a useful concept and framework for interactions at the normative level requiring further examination, and helped make values explicit, allowing ecologists to begin to interact with the purposive level. The Western ecological economic origins of the ecosystem service concept presents a potential constraint to interactions at the purposive level, and must be considered and addressed if ecosystem services are to further the development of a transdisciplinary ecology, the joint ecology-society debate and the formulation and execution of policy.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
The article examines how ecology has made links to other academic disciplines with a focus on how the concept of ecosystem-services has contributed to such links. The rationale is that ecology has started to shift humans and society as integral to eco-systems and not as external agents. Part of the perspective is still prevalent in the concept of eco-system services as this depicts what “nature” provides for humans, despite its contributions to build knowledge links in the academic system and beyond. The analysis is based on a transdisciplinary knowledge hierarchy where four levels constitute a complex knowledge system:

The empirical level includes the basic life, earth, social and human sciences which use logic as their organizing language and usually claim objectivity
The pragmatic level includes applied or sectoral interdisciplines like forestry, engineering and architecture, which are informed by the underlying empirical disciplines, while at the same time providing them with direction and coordination
The normative level uses planning as its organizing language and deals with the design of social systems including policy, planning and law. It is at this level that humans shape their own and Earth´s future
The purposive level, also referred to as the level of meaning, is the final level of the knowledge hierarchy. It introduces values into the interdisciplinary structuring of the normative disciplines below.


The point of departure is that the way knowledge systems are currently structured and managed need to be challenged by allowing the purposive level defining the directions. Also, the article recognizes the importance of stakeholders in civil society in driving bottom-up transdisciplinary research; a research process which shifts from a simple process providing a solution, to a social process resolving a problem through the participation and mutual learning of stakeholders. The change advocated for is a shift in the overall purpose of the knowledge system from a system that values ‘progress’ to one that values ‘ecological balance’ to indicate the totally different knowledge system implied. Transdisciplinary approaches are better able to tackle complexity and the fragmentation of knowledge, work with local contexts and uncertainty, and promote close collaboration and communication during all phases

Findings on links between levels

. A closer interaction of the pragmatic and empirical disciplines directed by a common goal will aid in ensuring that social, ecological and economic knowledge, which is relevant and ready for use by the pragmatic disciplines, is produced.
Interactions of ecology with the normative disciplines are infrequent and often limited to discussions of how ecology should interact, rather than demonstrations of how it already does interact
The authors propose that if ecology is to be useful and relevant in solving today’s complex environmental problems, then it will need to move beyond the interdisciplinary collaboration of the empirical and pragmatic, to a truly transdisciplinary collaboration involving the normative and purposive as well
Point of Strength
The article reflects on how current disciplinary oriented  knowledge systems can become transdisciplinary to deal with complex challenges related to sustainability. The approach is a clear example of systems thinking, although ithe article is not explicitly relating to systems approaches. The analytical use of a hierarchial model with systems components and links leads up well grounded arguments for how a single concept can help to strengthen systemic links and where such links still are missing.