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 T.J. Kok, David Manuel Navarrete, Peter Messerli, Patrick Meyfroidt, Tomás Václavík, Sergio Villamayor-Tomas

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)


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
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019


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


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