Harnessing concepts for sustainability: a pledge for a practice

N. Antoine-Moussiaux, S. Leyens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The high creativity at play in sustainability science and practice gives rise to a wide variety of concepts, each trying to promote new lines of thinking and action. Successful concepts may become true imperatives within professional circles or may even become buzzwords, often losing their ability to convey a well-defined meaning for all their users. The concepts at stake, known as “thick concepts”, are conveying values and inspiring action. As such, they are key in spurring or supporting collective action. However, the actors endorsing them may ascribe very different consequences behind their use. In the inter- or transdisciplinary endeavors that are the backbone of sustainability science, the polysemy or diversity of interpretation of those concepts may pose particular problems. Indeed, this lack of clarity is further amplified by the diversity of backgrounds of collaborators, which already makes communication and the common understanding of actions a daily challenge. Anchored in pragmatist philosophy and more precisely drawing on inferentialist theory of concepts, this paper is a pledge for the conscious and practical mobilization of concepts within inter- and transdisciplinary collaborations, proposing a framework to this end. It aims at exposing to a wide scientific and practitioner audience the nature and roles of thick concepts and the philosophical bases of their analysis. It then deploys the main lines of the practical implementation of concept analysis and operationalization for teams of researchers and practitioners, based on the experience gained through its mobilization in a postgraduate master anchored in the One Health approach.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2441-2451
Number of pages11
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2023


  • Complexity
  • Creativity
  • Inferentialism
  • Methodology
  • Pragmatism
  • Transdisciplinarity


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