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A social science of the nexus?
Kevin Burchell

In recent years, the ‘nexus’ has become an important concept in international research, policy and business worlds. The term came to prominence in 2011 through a World Economic Forum (WEF) report, Water Security: the water-food-energy-climate nexus,  and – since then – there have been a plethora of nexus conferences, programmes, networks, reports, papers and workshops.

Although definitions vary, nexus-thinking tends to focus on the widely acknowledged future challenges of water, food and energy security, and environmental change (and sometimes land), and most understandings of the nexus now rest upon the assumption that it is important to not identify any one issue as a starting point (as the WEF report did). Instead, nexus-thinking (as illustrated by the UK ESRC Nexus Network) tends to take the nexus itself – the interconnections between the nexus issues – as its point of departure. Nexus-thinking is also explicitly solutions oriented, and assumes that – since future challenges are to be found at the nexus – the same is true of the solutions. Further, in the UK and elsewhere, the nexus metaphor is readily extended to encompass the assertion that responses to the nexus challenges should be interdisciplinary (work should be done at the nexus of disciplines), and should be undertaken jointly by researchers, government, business and civil society (work should be done at the nexus of sectors).

The nexus is clearly crucial to Research Councils UK’s plans for the next few years and will no doubt emerge in other research contexts. In response, social science researchers will inevitably ‘become’ interdisciplinary nexus-experts, keen to work with business and scientists, and will frame their proposals in these terms. To my mind, however, the nexus poses a number of challenging questions:

  1. With origins at the World Economic Forum, and a strong emphasis on security and business, to what extent does the nexus represent a deepening neo-liberal framing of the environmental challenge? (1)
  2. As an associated point, what does the emergence of nexus-thinking mean for existing concepts, in particular sustainable development with its important emphasis on equality (as opposed to, for example, security and business)?
  3. To what extent will the nexus focus on solutions lead to a relative neglect of understanding problems and the generation of new knowledge?
  4. Similarly, to what extent does nexus-thinking inevitably steer research towards macro-, infrastructural and supply-side responses (a quick look at the ESRC Nexus Network Thinkpieces suggests that it does).
  5. Finally, what becomes of social science when it is obliged to collaborate with the sciences and the private sector? In such contexts, whose interests is social science serving, where are its objectives being determined and how difficult is it to be critical and to develop new theory (2)?

While these comments are the fruits of enjoyable conversations with Danny Fitzpatrick (Manchester), Haley Leck (LSE), Dominic Moran (SRUK), Julia Tomei (UCL) and my colleagues in PSI, they may disagree with me on some of these points!


(1) Williams et al (2014) Politicising the nexus, Nexus Network Think Piece Series, Paper 001

(2) Burchell, K. (2009) A helping hand or a servant discipline? - Interpreting non-academic perspectives on the roles of social science in participatory policy-making, Science, Technology & Innovation Studies, Vol 5, No.1

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