Perspectives of scholars on the nature of sustainability: a survey study

Payam Aminpour*, Steven Gray, Robert Richardson, Alison Singer, Laura Castro-Diaz, Marie Schaefer, Mohd Aswad Ramlan, Noleen Rutendo Chikowore

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: This paper aims to investigate different ways in which faculty members of sustainability-related departments in universities across the world perceive, understand and define sustainability and how these definitions are linked to their demographics and epistemological beliefs. Design/methodology/approach: Scholars from different disciplines investigate the sustainability of social-ecological systems from different perspectives. Such differences in the understanding of, and approaches to, sustainability have created ambiguity within the field and may weaken its effectiveness, impact and reputation as a field of research. To contribute to the discussion about sustainability definition, a survey was conducted involving university faculty members working in sustainability-related academic departments around the world. Participants’ responses were analyzed using SPSS 24.0 involving descriptive and inferential statistics and principle component analysis. Additionally, responses to open-ended questions were qualitatively analyzed. Findings: Factor analysis on sustainability definition items reveal four emergent universal definitions of sustainability, labeled as Environmentalism concerns, Common understanding, neo-Malthusian environmentalism and Sustainability as well-being. Statistical analyses indicate that individuals from developed countries are more likely to define sustainability as Environmentalism and Common understanding; however, individuals from developing countries tend to define sustainability as well-being. Also, more heavily engaged scholars in interdisciplinary research of sustainability are more likely to perceive sustainability as Common understanding. Logistic Regression models demonstrate a connection between epistemological perspectives of researchers and sustainability definitions. Qualitative content analysis indicates that interdisciplinarity and collaboration are the most common challenges to sustainability research. Originality/value: The findings of this study demonstrate disconnects between scholars from developing and developed countries in understanding and defining sustainability, and these disconnects may present further challenges for global sustainability scholarship.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)34-53
Number of pages20
JournalInternational Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jan 2020


  • Epistemology
  • Interdisciplinary research
  • Sustainability definition
  • Sustainability perceptions in higher education
  • Sustainability research


Dive into the research topics of 'Perspectives of scholars on the nature of sustainability: a survey study'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this