Climate adaptation is a complex policy domain, spanning multiple sectors, scales and actors, and wherein those most at risk have the least power. The influence of linear positivist models of science uptake are proving ineffective in a world with increasingly concentrated wealth and power, institutional barriers, and rapidly growing risks facing the many. A plurality of approaches is needed to better examine those dynamics of climate adaptation which are often invisible in models of science uptake–equity, the value of contestation, path dependency–and to consider how to empower communities to find solutions. In this conceptual paper, we argue that bridging existing positivist and interpretivist methods with insights from post-foundational theory so as to underpin pluralism and re-orient ethical principles of justice, strengthens the capacity of social research to support transformative climate adaptation. Principles are proposed to facilitate such bridging.