Programme Research: Ecological Economics – Development of an Interdisciplinary Research Field


By Anna Tunlid

Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences

Lund University


Ecological economics emerged in the late 1980s as a new interdisciplinary research field. Contributions to the new field were diverse but included among others perspectives from systems ecology, different strands of economics, energy studies and general system theory. A common view among the different initiators were that –the human economy and the ecological systems were deeply intertwined, and hence that ecology and other natural sciences had to cooperate with the social sciences, including economics, in order to deal with the environmental problems.

The Beijer Institute at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Sweden has played a central role for the establishment and development of ecological economics. The institute initially had a focus on energy and human ecology, but was in the early 1990s transformed to the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics. Driving actors in this process were among others the systems ecologists Bengt-Owe Jansson and AnnMari Jansson, and the economist Karl-Göran Mäler. The Beijer institute has since then become one of the main institutes within the international community of ecological economics.


Image: Wikipedia commons

The aim of this project is to examine the development of ecological economics at the Beijer Institute, including both conceptual, institutional, and policy perspectives. The study takes an historical approach and will have a particular focus on two interrelated aspects, firstly how nature and society are incorporated into the models and concepts of systems ecology and later ecological economics, and secondly the process of interdisciplinarity within ecological economics. The project will hence have two different but linked subprojects.

The first one is the development of systems ecology at the Askö laboratory in the Stockholm archipelago in the 1970s-1980s. This part will focus on AnnMari Jansson’s study of the island Gotland as an integrated ecological-economic system, which was strongly influenced by the American systems ecologist Howard T. Odum. The objective here is to analyze how knowledge, values and views of nature and society were integrated in the models of Gotland’s ecosystems.

The second subproject focuses on the emergence of ecological economics in the 1980s and the following institutionalization of the research field at the Beijer Institute in the 1990s. This part of the project will concentrate on the collaboration between ecologists and economists and on the driving forces as well as the challenges that are associated with this kind of interdisciplinary research. It will also examine the relation between the Beijer Institute and the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, not least with respect to the institutionalization process.

The intention with the project is to contribute to a deeper understanding of the collaboration between ecologists and economists at the Beijer Institute, and how core concepts and underlying assumptions about nature and society have been – or have not been – integrated within ecological economics.


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