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Indicators as ‘circular argumentation constructs’? An input–output analysis of the variable structure of five environmental sustainability country rankings

Borgnäs, Kajsa
Environment, development and sustainability 2017 v.19 no.3 pp. 769-790
environmental sustainability, issues and policy, risk
This paper is concerned with the normative underpinnings of popular sustainability indicators and country rankings. Attempts to quantify national sustainability in the form of composite indicators and rankings have increased rapidly over past decades. However, questions regarding validity and interpretability remain. This article combines theoretical and statistical tools to explore how input variables in five popular sustainability indicators can be related to different theoretical paradigms: weak and strong sustainability. It is shown that differences in theoretical interpretations affect input variable selection, which in turn affects indicator output. This points towards the risk of indicators becoming a sort of ‘circular argumentation construct’. The article argues that sustainability indicators and country rankings must be treated as theoretical just as much as statistical instruments. It is proposed that making underlying normative assumptions explicit, and making input variable selection more clear in a theoretical sense, can enhance indicator validity and usability for policy makers and researchers alike.