Archetype analysis in sustainability research: Methodological portfolio and analytical frontiers

Diana Sietz*, Ulrich Frey, Matteo Roggero, Yanqing Gong, Nicholas Magliocca, Rong Tan, Peter Janssen, Tomáš Václavík

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


In sustainability research, archetype analysis reveals patterns of factors and processes that repeatedly shape social-ecological systems. These patterns help improve our understanding of global concerns, including vulnerability, land management, food security, and governance. During the last decade, the portfolio of methods used to investigate archetypes has been growing rapidly. However, these methods differ widely in their epistemological and normative underpinnings, data requirements, and suitability to address particular research purposes. Therefore, guidance is needed for systematically choosing methods in archetype analysis. We synthesize strengths and weaknesses of key methods used to identify archetypes. Demonstrating that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach, we discuss advantages and shortcomings of a range of methods for archetype analysis in sustainability research along gradients that capture the treatment of causality, normativity, spatial variations, and temporal dynamics. Based on this discussion, we highlight seven analytical frontiers that bear particular potential for tackling methodological limitations. As a milestone in archetype analysis, our synthesis supports researchers in reflecting on methodological implications, including opportunities and limitations related to causality, normativity, space, and time considerations in view of specific purposes and research questions. This enables innovative research designs in future archetype analysis, thereby contributing to the advancement of sustainability research and decision-making.

Original languageEnglish
Article number34
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2019


  • Archetypical
  • Global change
  • Knowledge transfer
  • Land system
  • Pattern
  • Review
  • Socio-ecological system
  • Up-scaling


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