Lately I’ve been further familiarising myself with emerging field of research called sustainability transitions research which has developed over the past 15-20 years. Broadly such research, according to the Sustainability Transitions Research Network’s (STRN) research agenda (which, it must be said, doesn’t clearly define what a ‘sustainability transition’ is nor does it clearly define the field/scope of research), aims to “improve scientific understanding of sustainability transitions” and seeks to inform actions which address “the crucial challenge for sustainable development”. This challenge is “the fact that existing systems tend to be very difficult to ‘dislodge’ because they are stabilized by various lock-in processes that lead to path dependent developments and ‘entrapment’.”
The STRN research agenda has eight main themes:
- Understanding transitions;
- Governance, power and politics;
- Implementation strategies for managing transitions, aiming to assess “the impact and effectiveness of instruments that aim to influence sustainability transitions in practice”;
- Civil society, culture and social movements in transitions;
- The role of firms and industries in transitions;
- Sustainable consumption: transitions in practice and everyday life;
- The geography of transitions; and
- Modelling transitions using formal mathematical models.
This is clearly a broad range of topics! There are researchers who describe their research as sustainability transitions research looking at all these topics, but it’s less clear that it adds up to a coherent field of research nor is it clear that a rigorous body of knowledge is being produced.
One way of orientating yourself to a field of research (or discipline) is to look at major debates in a field, such as the debates in research communities developing transition theory or doing transition research more broadly. I don’t know the field well enough to definitively define these debates, far from it, but some debates seem to be fairly evident regarding a number of topics:
- Debates over units of analysis;
- Debates over what kind of knowledge is desired (e.g. explanatory knowledge), the objects under investigation, and how such knowledge should be produced;
- Debates over the role of scientists and other actors in transitions;
- Debates over ontology (e.g. assumptions about how social reality is organised) and how key concepts should be operationalised (e.g. the concept of “socio-technical regimes”); and
- Debates about the relationship between transition theory/research and ideology.
Units of analysis are somewhat contested. The STRN research agenda points to a focus on “change at the systems level”. Linked with this, some scholars in the field describe a transition as a “set of processes that lead to a fundamental shift in socio-technical systems” (Markard et al. 2012). I’ve also observed that scholars in this area tend to frame transitions from a systems perspective although in many cases it is unclear how systems (the core unit of analysis in this approach to sustainability transitions research) are defined and bounded for transition-focussed analysis. However, other scholars in the field state that this research focus may “have come at the expense of a more actor-oriented and agency-sensitive analysis” (Farla et al. 2012, p.992). More actor-centred and agency-sensitive approaches may require research that makes individual people the unit of analysis, whilst also recognising that meso-structures exist and that these social structures can have autonomous causal properties.
Different positions are also taken on the kinds of knowledge that are desired and how it should be produced. Some research in the field is more historical in orientation seeking to explain historical phenomena (typically some example of a transition which has occurred, producing an explanation of why the transition occurred and the form it took). If the goal is to explain transitions a related question is where should researchers’ focus when seeking to identify the main causal mechanisms? The dominant view seems to be that scholars should adopt a multi-level perspective on change (including examining the interactions of different level of change), but other scholars contest this view. Others argue that the field should be solution-oriented and focussed on current real-world problems (see the call for papers for the 2016 international sustainability transitions conference), and concerned with both knowledge production and achieving societal impact. Some such researchers adopt an explicitly transdisciplinary approach to research. Exactly what knowledge is needed to contribute to such solutions and how it should be produced is less clear.
A special issue of the journal Research Policy also points to this dual focus. The issue editors note the diverse research being done “to study and explain the particularities of transitions” and increasing research and policy interest in “how to promote and govern a transition toward sustainability”. The relationship between these research streams is, largely, less clear/explicit.
Linked with the above there are debates about the roles of scientists, a question raised in the call for papers I noted earlier. One view, advocated by Jan Rotmans at a recent Australia-based Sustainability Transitions Alliance (ASTRA) workshop, is that researchers should be “scientivists” – that is, both scientists and activists. My sense, based on a little bit of exposure to the field, is that many scholars who are attracted to the field hope it can help to legitimise a more interventionist role for scientists and researchers more broadly. Others in the field adopt far less socially engaged approaches.
More broadly, Markard et al. (2012) have pointed to large gaps in knowledge regarding “the roles of different actors in transitions and the underlying conceptualization of agency”. I have witnessed heated debates over issues related to these knowledge gaps. Perspectives often seem to be both empirically and ideologically-driven like other areas of sustainability-related scholarship.
Issues related to ontological assumptions have also frequently come up, such as regarding the way that the multi-level perspective (MLP) on transitions has been conceptualised and the assumptions made by those who use the MLP. This, along with many other criticisms, led the main creator of the MLP, Frank Geels, to publish an important but not entirely convincing response to critics in 2011. Transition scholars often use concepts like “socio-technical regime”, “niche” and “landscape” as per the MLP which are claimed to refer to real aspects of the world (i.e. the concepts are not used as metaphors or heuristics). Many scholars point to problems operationalising key concepts and applying them empirically. I myself have witnessed many PhD students (who are using transition theory in their research) giving presentations in which they have been unable to provide clear definitions of key concepts like these nor are they able to clearly explain how they’ve operationalised the concepts in their research. This is not a good sign! Some transition researchers also posit the existence of large socio-technical “systems of provision” (which for some researchers may be synonymous with a “regime”).
Related lines of inquiry have recently been proposed, e.g.:
“There is a definite need to elaborate and specify the conceptual frameworks and methodological underpinnings for understanding both historical and ongoing transitions. This includes challenging the existing conceptual approaches in terms of where and how they can be applied, what their limitations are, upon what ontological assumptions they are based, etc.” (Markard et al. 2012, p. 962)
A final issue, the relationship between transition research and ideology, can be a source of contention and is also linked to theory choice, selection of research designs, and so on. Is sustainability transitions research, in a sense, ideological? Do scholars in the field necessarily advance distorted views of the world shaped by their experiences, backgrounds and position in the world?
Sustainability transitions theorists argue that transitions require “decisive interventions” because prevailing systems are “characterized by inertia and lock-in” (e.g. Markard et al. 2012, p. 964). This is important because such “decisive interventions” need justifications which need to be clearly linked to normative understandings which may have a strong ideological basis, not simply citing supporting facts. Where transition scholars are studying the interventions that others are conducting (or have conducted) this is less of an issue. However, if the researchers are conducting such interventions themselves then broader justifications than claims about inertia and lock-in are likely to be required to justify and motivate the specific interventions(s) that are being conducted.
The use of complex systems theory by some scholars in the field is also an interesting case. Few if any of these scholars are true exponents of complexity theory in the sense of have a mathematical background and advancing such mathematical theories. More often concepts from such theory (such as theories of complex adaptive systems) are used in a more high-level sense to ‘ground’ approaches to transition research or to support claims. In some cases this appears to be partly ideological, such as the beliefs – which are frequently stated in various ways – that in a ‘complex system’ small interventions/changes can have disproportionately large effects and about ‘emergence’, which are related to theories of nonlinear systems. These are attractive beliefs to hold if you’re an activist scholar hoping to have a large social impact. Such theory is strongly evident in the ‘transition management’ approach which also adopts what DRIFT terms a “participatory steering philosophy” (which also indicates an ideology!).
Enough has been said above to suggest that significantly advancing sustainability transition research is likely to require greater resolution of the five debates sketched out here, amongst others. My limited exposure to this field of research has not filled me with confidence that it will outlive the current key scholars in the field (i.e. it could disappear just as quickly as it’s arrived); although that’s not to say that scholars in this area are doing unimportant research or research that isn’t interesting.
One view on these debates could be that we should “let a thousand flowers bloom”. Maybe. This could also slow progress and lead to a less productive splintering of efforts. More fundamentally ontological and epistemological problems, as well as ideological biases/issues, could significantly hamper progress if they are not clarified and addressed. Recently economics has been heavily criticised on these bases and sustainability transitions theory and research appears open to the same critiques.