In the context of rapid social, ecological and technological change, there is rising global demand from private, public and civic interests for trans-disciplinary sustainability research. This demand is fuelled by an increasing recognition that transitions toward sustainability require new modes of knowledge production that incorporate social and natural sciences and the humanities. The Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre’s ‘pathways approach’ and the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s (SRC) ‘resilience approach’ are two distinct trans-disciplinary frameworks for understanding and responding to sustainability challenges. However, the varieties of trans-disciplinarity pursued by the SRC and STEPS each have distinct origins and implications. Therefore, by selecting either the ‘resilience’ or ‘pathways’ approach, or indeed any distinct approach to sustainability, the researcher must contend with a range of foundational ontological and epistemological commitments that profoundly affect the definition of problems, generation of knowledge and prescriptions for action.
What does an (un)sustainable world look like? How might we ‘know’ and research (un)sustainability? How should sustainability researchers position themselves in relation to civil society, policy, business and academic communities? In this paper we explore how resilience and pathways address these questions, identifying points of overlap and friction with the aim of generating new research questions and illuminating areas of potential synergy. As a group of early-career trans-disciplinary researchers we think that exciting areas of sustainability research lie in the boundaries between emerging trans-disciplinary research communities such as the SRC and STEPS. We propose future research that draws energy from current tensions between, for instance, competing visions of reflexive and policy-relevant research, and between ‘functional’ and ‘equity’ perspectives on social- ecological change. More broadly, we aim to stimulate thinking and debate about possible research agendas for sustainability that are more reflexive about the boundaries of trans-disciplinary research and encourage greater collaboration across and between research with different ontological and epistemological starting points.