Archetype analysis in sustainability research: meanings, motivations, and evidence-based policy making

Christoph Oberlack, Diana Sietz, Elisabeth Bürgi Bonanomi, Ariane De Bremond, Jampel Dell'Angelo, Klaus Eisenack, Erle C. Ellis, M. David, Markus Giger, Andreas Heinimann, Christian Kimmich, Marcel Tj Kok, David Manuel Navarrete, Peter Messerli, Patrick Meyfroidt, Tomá! Václavík, Sergio Villamayor-Tomas

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Archetypes are increasingly used as a methodological approach to understand recurrent patterns in variables and processes that shape the sustainability of social-ecological systems. The rapid growth and diversification of archetype analyses has generated variations, inconsistencies, and confusion about the meanings, potential, and limitations of archetypes. Based on a systematic review, a survey, and a workshop series, we provide a consolidated perspective on the core features and diverse meanings of archetype analysis in sustainability research, the motivations behind it, and its policy relevance. We identify three core features of archetype analysis: Recurrent patterns, multiple models, and intermediate abstraction. Two gradients help to apprehend the variety of meanings of archetype analysis that sustainability researchers have developed: (1) understanding archetypes as building blocks or as case typologies and (2) using archetypes for pattern recognition, diagnosis, or scenario development. We demonstrate how archetype analysis has been used to synthesize results from case studies, bridge the gap between global narratives and local realities, foster methodological interplay, and transfer knowledge about sustainability strategies across cases. We also critically examine the potential and limitations of archetype analysis in supporting evidence-based policy making through context-sensitive generalizations with case-level empirical validity. Finally, we identify future priorities, with a view to leveraging the full potential of archetype analysis for supporting sustainable development.

Original languageEnglish
Article number26
Number of pages19
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019


We gratefully acknowledge comments by Volker Beckmann and participants of the “Second Research Workshop on Archetype Analysis in Sustainability Research” (HU Berlin, 28 February-2 March 2018), which improved an earlier draft of the paper. Marlène Thibault provided valuable language editing. This work has received financial support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant IZ32Z0_173396); the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement 677140 MIDLAND;; the Institute of Geography, University of Bern (research cluster “Governing telecoupled resource systems for environmental justice”); the Centre of Development and Environment, University of Bern; the Mittelbauvereinigung, University of Bern; Humboldt-Univeristät zu Berlin (Resource Economics Group); and the NASA ROSES Land Cover Land Use Change project LCLUC project (award NNX17AI15G). This study contributes to the Global Land Programme (https://glp. earth).

FundersFunder number
Centre of Development and Environment, University of Bern
Institute of Geography, University of Bern
Mittelbauvereinigung, University of Bern
Volker Beckmann
National Aeronautics and Space AdministrationNNX17AI15G
Horizon 2020 Framework Programme677140
European Research Council
Schweizerischer Nationalfonds zur Förderung der Wissenschaftlichen ForschungIZ32Z0_173396
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


    • Archetype
    • Land systems
    • Social-ecological system
    • Sustainability
    • Vulnerability


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