“People as social beings should be at the centre of our sustainability discourse”

Ben Jann, Professor of Sociology at the University of Bern, is the new President of the CDE Board as of this year. His research work includes analysis of social structures in Switzerland as well as of (opportunity) inequalities – from education to the labour market. In this interview, he explains how this relates to sustainability, and how sociology can contribute to sustainable development.

Ben Jann
“Sustainability always has social aspects, too, though they are often ignored”: Ben Jann. Photo: Manu Friederich

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

In public debates, sustainability is usually presented as a topic of the natural sciences and economics. This puts the emphasis on ecological crises like climate change or biodiversity loss and the economic perspective on them. Social crises like increasing inequality and its consequences are often addressed in isolation, socially and politically. Can these really be treated separately?

In my view, they can’t be separated at all. Sustainability always has social aspects, too, though they are often ignored. Ultimately, it’s about human beings acting in a particular system. We have traditions, value systems, ideas, and social structures in which we operate. All of this influences our behaviour – and also impacts the sustainability dimensions that relate to environmental science and economics.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

Let’s consider the ecological problems. We might have empirical knowledge about environmental problems, and maybe even about the economic links. Yet we still can’t steer the system in the right direction. So, the question arises as to how we can manage things – and that brings us to governance, people, communities, and societies. Indeed, human beings – operating and behaving within a social system – should always be at the centre of analysis. As it stands, many of our current challenges are ultimately social problems in the sense that it’s hard to influence or control people’s behaviour so that these problems don’t arise.


“As long as much of the population remains trapped in poverty, the scope for change is very limited”


Does this also have something to do with social inequality?

It might not immediately appear to involve social inequality, but it can be strongly linked upon closer inspection. Social inequality can make certain solutions unworkable because particular sections of the population simply lack the necessary room for manoeuvre. In other words, they’re forced to act in a certain way as a matter of survival.

For example?

If you ban subsistence-oriented farming families from cutting trees for fuelwood, for example, it may be impossible to enforce because they have no other option. If there were less inequality, these groups might have more room for manoeuvre. But as long as much of the population remains trapped in poverty, the scope for change is very limited.

So, if we don’t tackle the social crises, then we can’t address the other – for example, ecological – crises?

That’s a very deterministic way of putting it. But it does go in that direction. I would say: A well-functioning society that is relatively balanced and fair is a precondition for being able to tackle such challenges as a society.


“Providing a toolbox to solve problems is not the goal of basic sociological research”


Even in rich countries like Switzerland, measures to protect the climate and biodiversity are often opposed on the grounds that they’re socially unjust because poorer population segments can’t afford them to the same extent as the wealthy. So, are we stuck in a dilemma as to which crisis we must tackle more urgently? Or are there alternatives that make it possible to address social and ecological crises together?

In the end, it’s about who ultimately bears the costs, for example, when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions. The same problem rears its head in other areas. Generally, I’d say that policy measures are problematic when they result in price changes that are felt much differently depending on who pays. This is the situation, for example, with taxes on consumption: the burden on people with little money is much greater in relative terms. So, it’s important to find a balance and deploy different instruments – depending on whether something is a nonessential luxury good or not.

Can’t sociology provide us with tools to help people cooperate better with each other?

Sociology generates knowledge about how societies function, among other things. Providing a toolbox is not the goal of basic sociological research. The fundamental knowledge it produces can help to develop tools – and within sociology there are, of course, sub-areas ranging from basic theory to application, so sociology can certainly contribute to such a toolbox.


“Many SDGs were classic topics of sociology – long before they were declared as sustainability goals”


So, how does sociology contribute to sustainable development?

It can make very diverse contributions, especially considering that many of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) greatly involve sociology: inequality, poverty, gender equality, and others. These are all classic topics in sociology – and were so long before they were declared as sustainability goals. But I also see another dimension that we touched on at the beginning: Ultimately, people as social beings should be at the centre of our sustainability discourse. Technical solutions are needed, too, of course. But their impact depends on how people receive them within their social structure. The branch of sociology that deals with that is social action theory.


It deals with question such as: How can a social system function even though there are numerous mechanisms working against it? How do people living side by side find solutions to these challenges? These are important elements for use in assessing whether particular measures can be implemented or not and under what circumstances. While we might be dealing with rather abstract basic research, certain approaches can be tested under experimental conditions and then transferred into practice. There is definitely potential.


“Put provocatively, you could say that interdisciplinarity has become a discipline in its own right within the field of sustainability”


In terms of sustainability, what do you consider the most pressing issues for science?

I still see interdisciplinarity as one of the biggest challenges. Sustainability in itself is an interdisciplinary field, and is viewed and practiced as such. But to put it provocatively, you could say that interdisciplinarity has developed into a discipline in its own right within the field of sustainability. This, in turn, makes true interdisciplinarity more difficult.

What does interdisciplinarity mean to you?

For me, interdisciplinarity means people with different disciplinary expertise working together without losing their own expertise. Bringing together specialized knowledge to solve an overarching problem demands harmonization of perspectives and goals around a common denominator, focusing on what’s most essential, and finding a language to communicate with the others involved. At the same time, the work should still meet the respective standards of disciplinary science. This is not an easy balancing act. What’s more, each discipline typically actively seeks to differentiate itself from the others.

CDE is an institution that truly tries to address this challenge and provides good examples of how it can work. Nevertheless, interdisciplinarity still remains challenging.

What other challenges do you think CDE faces?

One issue is the institutional distinction between CDE and the Wyss Academy for Nature – at least as perceived from the outside. In my view, there’s still a need to clarify how the institutions differ and why both are needed. Further, the role of the CDE Board should shift somewhat in the direction of a content-focussed forum for strategic discussion.

What’s the first thing you wish to achieve as the new president?

Get the new Board up and running and define its role.


Ben Jann studied sociology, economics, and general ecology at the University of Bern. With his dissertation on “Gainful Employment, Income, and Gender: Studies on the Swiss Labour Market”, he earned his doctorate from ETH Zurich in 2008. In 2010, he became Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Bern, and in 2014 he was appointed Full Professor of Social Structure Analysis. He has been on the CDE Board since 2014.