A review of social science in five industrial ecology journals
Rapport, 2014

A major aim in the industrial ecology (IE) field is to reduce environmental burdens through industrial change. In order to aid and to reflect on this aim, scholars in the field have repeatedly called for or presented opportunities for research on the social aspects of IE, such as organisation cultures, legislation and environmental policy. However, the study of ‘social IE’ has remained fragmentary. In this study, an understanding for this discrepancy between calls and a marginal progress is systematically searched for. Five journals in the field are reviewed – Journal of Industrial Ecology; Progress in Industrial Ecology; the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment; Journal of Cleaner Production; Resources, Conservation and Recycling – covering the years 1988-2010 and backed up by a continued reading of their table of contents into the year 2014. Both ‘social IE’ studies and IE studies in general are covered. An empirically based approach is used, resulting in the following findings. The number of articles published has been growing rapidly since the first of the journals was launched, in 1988. JCP and PIE have the highest shares of ‘social’ articles within each of the journals. A large number of the studies, 49%, cover social aspects, whereof economic aspects account for a large part. For both the studies on social aspects in general and on economic aspects, the absolute number of articles has increased over the years while their shares of the field have remained stable. Analysing the whole field, the articles often seem to be user oriented which importantly includes that they to a relatively little extent make explicit use of or are explicitly designed to be compared to other studies. Also, when looking closer at the ‘social’ articles, it is revealed that only a small part of the ‘social’ aspects are researched using social science theory, and then often using marginally established theories. In addition, no or very few of the ‘social IE’ studies align to any of the paradigms that represent a large part of the social sciences during the last half century. Finally, from a survey of proxies of ‘social IE’ sub fields, four rather small groupings are identified: life cycle costs, life cycle management, supply chain management with several associated concepts, and social life cycle assessment. Reflections on the limitations of this study and on the findings as such point to possible needs for more holistic and society-wide approaches to understanding the research problem identified in this study.

social aspects

industrial ecology

empirically based study



social science





material and energy flows



Mathias Lindkvist

Chalmers, Energi och miljö, Environmental Systems Analysis

Henrikke Baumann

Chalmers, Energi och miljö, Environmental Systems Analysis


Hållbar utveckling


Tvärvetenskapliga studier

Annan naturresursteknik



Report / Division of Environmental Systems Analysis, Chalmers University of Technology: 2014:13

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