This brief post is the final in a series on the scoping and focussing of my PhD research. A key finding of my literature review was that prospective exercises are increasingly being used as “facilitative” tools as part of efforts to support and/or catalyse action on climate change mitigation and adaptation. For example, technology roadmapping (see UNFCCC paper), participatory scenario-based exercises (e.g. see paper, or this paper), simulation gaming exercises (e.g. see paper), backcasting exercises (e.g. this paper) and technology foresight and assessment exercises are frequently used for this purpose. Additional key findings include: that little empirical research has been conducted to rigorously assess the effects of such exercises; and that these methods remain theoretical underdeveloped (as argued in previous posts e.g. here). A related issue is that rigorous impact evaluation requires causal inferences to be made, which in turn require an understanding of how and why these exercises have such effects (i.e. impacts).
The current state of related research in areas like sustainability transitions research and sustainability science is also instructive. For example, one recently published review of core questions for the future of sustainability science advocated greater examination of the questions “How does envisioning potential futures translate into action? How can this be done more effectively? A special issue of Technological Forecasting and Social Change on sustainability transitions (which emphasised actor-centred, agency-sensitive perspectives) called for more attention to the issue of collective action, the variety of actors that are involved and their roles and resources (e.g. those of incumbents, challengers and newcomers), and the role of expectations and the related “expectations work” performed by various actors.
I would ask some of the above questions a bit differently. For instance the question on ‘how envisioning potential futures translates into action’ could be restated as “to what extent, and in what ways, does envisioning potential futures translate into action?’. And then the question of “action” might be better focussed on particular types of action such as collective adaptive change (e.g. for climate adaptation) and explicitly related to context (e.g. under what conditions do these exercises have these effects).
Indeed the much more focused central research question that’s emerged for my thesis is: To what extent, and in what ways, do prospective exercises result in collective action that advances climate change mitigation and adaptation? This question also entails important sub-questions, especially: How and why do these interventions have these effects? Under what conditions? These sub-questions lend themselves to a ‘realist evaluation’ approach (see outlines here and here).
As the editors of the TF&SC special issue noted, a high degree of coordination between various involved actors and collaborative action are expected to be an important aspects of responses to sustainability problems because of their complexity and the intention to initiate fundamental change. Similarly many of the cases analysed in Successful Adaptation to Climate Change: Linking Science and Policy in a Rapidly Changing World (ed. Moser & Boxkoff, 2013; Routledge) emphasise the importance of initiating and mobilising collective adaptive change and related institutional barriers to action.
My conceptual framework has also begun to take much greater shape in relation to this core research question. Over the past 6-12 months I’ve focussed more on sociological literature, including general sociological perspectives, the study of social movements and dynamics of contention, and institutional theories developed by a range of social scientists. The integrative perspective developed by Fligstein and McAdam (two American sociologists) – which is a type of field theory – is especially well-suited to this study. They develop a holistic perspective on collective action. They: theorise the fundamental unit of collective action (which they argue is a ‘strategic action field’); develop a sociological, meso-level theory of action; and theorise the mediating dynamics which shape collective action and its outcomes. It also has a micro-foundation which builds on a sociological perspective called ‘symbolic interactionism’.
If folk are interested in learning more about this sociological perspective the best places to start are the overview article and the book that was subsequently published by Oxford University Press:
Fligstein, N. & McAdam, D. 2011, ‘Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields’, Sociological Theory, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 1-26.
Fligstein, N. & McAdam, D. 2012, A Theory of Fields, Oxford University Press.