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Boersema, L.

Department of Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy

Sustainable Development as an Essentially Contested Concept and the Contribution of the Actor Network Theory

To this day many commentators and practitioners are still searching for an unambiguous meaning of the concept of sustainable development. From their perspective concept analysis has to establish a universally agreed upon meaning before it can be implemented in practice. However, Gallie already questioned this approach back in 1956 with his notion of essentially contested concepts. He claimed that it is perfectly rational to have endless debates about complex concepts, such as democracy and social justice, which have multiple meanings/usages.

This thesis discusses sustainable development as an essentially contested concept, and addresses it shortcomings with the help of the actor network theory. I suggest that the actor network approach goes beyond the cognitive restriction of (endless) discussions (Gallie), and offers a way to describe material realities (meanings/usages) of the concept sustainable development within different networks. I show how each sustainable development practice creates an actor network of humans and nonhumans, an own reality.

Although these different realities may still be related to one another, it is no longer possible to unify them in one meaning of, or in a fixed theory on, sustainable development. Instead every network has a different figuration of humans and nonhumans, which results in different forms of sustainable development practices in different places. This means that every theory (meaning) is embedded and extended in empirical practice, incapable of ever being fixed or universally valid.

Last modified:24 April 2017 2.39 p.m.