I’ve been reflecting on my PhD work and some potential future directions for my research which build on my growing interest in knowledge-related aspects of sustainability transitions. This post sketches a few preliminary thoughts regarding what a research agenda focussed on these aspects of transitions could examine and why.
An important line of inquiry in my doctoral research was to consider the interplay between actor practices, cognitive factors (capacities and mechanisms), and context and, secondly, to explore the downstream consequences of these interplays for transitions. The core notion of “knowledge practices” in this inquiry refers to modes (or ways) of doing, acting and thinking: specifically, what people do in the course of acquiring, evaluating or using the forms of knowledge with which they deal (see Camic et al 2011). Such actor practices can also be conceptualised and studied in terms of epistemic activities and associated “systems of practice” constructed and performed to achieve specific aims (Chang, 2017).
Recently I’ve had a chance to review similar research by Neil Fligstein, Jens Beckert, as well as Karen Cerulo’s interesting book Never Saw it Coming on worst case scenarios and the factors which shape their influence on thought and social action. Like my doctoral research, this sociological research highlights the interaction of epistemic, social and cognitive processes and the need to consider their social consequences.
This research points to key building blocks for developing new perspectives on sustainability transitions which are a stark contrast to existing theory of transitions. Much existing transition theory is underpinned by a core “niche”-breakthrough conceptualisation of change, theorises related ‘windows of opportunity’, and views action in socio-technical “regimes” as strongly rule-based (Sorrell 2018). Emerging alternative perspectives more strongly emphasise concrete practices, consider different models of action, and probe in more detail what actors actually do and why during transition processes.
Relevant considerations include: the extent to which current and future states of the world are knowable to actors (or even imaginable in the case of future states); how actors go about seeking, appraising and using relevant forms of knowledge and manage to take action despite their incomplete and often flawed knowledge; related social dynamics (e.g. group processes and expectation dynamics); and the consequences of this for transitions. As Jens Beckert argues we also need to consider the basis of action under conditions of fundamental uncertainty: what motivates or guides action under such conditions?
Related lines of inquiry point to the importance of microfoundations, similar to Beckert’s work on capitalist dynamics which theorises the role of “fictions” (i.e. imagined future states of the world) in economic action.
For instance, consider energy transitions. It may be possible to better understand energy transition processes and barriers by also examining actors’ knowledge practices. In Fact and Fiction in Global Energy Policy Sovacool et al point to issues such as the tendency for data to “turn over much faster than peoples’ convictions” (p.338), “contextual” rather than universal truths, incomplete knowledge, and the influence of social factors such as “ideological frames” (p.4) on knowledge practices. This points to perspectives on energy transitions which consider how imperfect knowledge and emergent social dynamics (e.g. bandwagon effects) shape transitions. It also points to the need for those running ‘interventions’ to understand knowledge practices given that the outcomes of those interventions will be influenced how the resulting knowledge is interpreted and used.
Moreover, we live in a time in which many knowledge practices are both highly socially significant and are being more widely questioned (as per the so-called ‘post-truth’ era). Consider practices involving climate models and related use of climate information. These knowledge practices are socially significant, though many would argue that they’re not yet significant enough, Additionally, we can consider whether and how their social significance and authority is, in part, socially constructed.
So, having somewhat set the scene, this post will consider what such knowledge practice-oriented inquiry could entail and further address the key ‘so what?’ question.
First, I should note that it’s not the case that the nature and roles of knowledge aren’t considered. For instance, some people interested in sustainability transitions are very concerned about the links between knowledge and social action such as science-policy connections. But much else needs to be considered and underlying conceptions of knowledge can be somewhat naïve.
One consideration is that the genesis and evolution of “sustainability transition” issues – as well as related claims-making activity – can partly ‘turn’ on how evidence is acquired, appraised and used (or not used) and related factors. Yet these aspects are rarely given serious attention by scholars in sustainability transition studies. There seems to be a tendency to take transition issues for granted and focus on innovation processes and social change in response to an issue.
This can be stated more concisely: transition research has concentrated on socio-technical change processes such as by studying past and present technological transitions.
Indeed, some scholars in the field view the study of sustainability-related transitions as a sub-field of innovation studies.
A further consideration is underling ideals of science and how such ideals inform activities and interventions related to sustainability transitions. My exposure to a little philosophy of science has given me more awareness of related issues. Sociologists of science such as Steven Yearley have also clearly pointed to underlying tensions between common ideals of science and the limitations of science and how these can manifest in environmental arguments and both enable and constrain green movements. Moreover, a more realistic ideal of science may be instructive for research and effective action on sustainability transitions (more on this below).
Additionally, consider the epistemic humility that many philosophers of science call for. Such intellectual virtues are indeed important but real-world cases suggest it’s difficult to maintain them during intense political debates which seem to push actors to assert their positions more confidently (or forcefully) and to push them towards certain views. This tells us something about the importance of the social environment in which practices develop and are used.
A knowledge practice studies perspective ought to explore the kinds of issues pointed to in previous paragraphs and the social and cognitive factors that influence such practices.
A further framing point is that I rarely see discussion about what a realistic ideal for science (or knowledge more broadly) might be for sustainability transitions, nor any discussion about related doctrines (e.g. pluralism, monism). Instead there seem to be implicit assumptions. For example, actors in a transition-related debate may assume that there is one true answer to questions under debate and expect a high degree of consensus or steady progress towards such a consensus (e.g. via more scientific research), or a more pluralist position might implicitly be adopted.
These basic points can be pushed much further by considering possible social scientific perspectives on knowledge practices such as objectivist and constructionist approaches.
An objectivist perspective would consider whether and why actors’ knowledge practices reliably get things right or whether they contribute to actors getting things right. Such inquiry would then probe how the reliability of knowledge practices influences sustainability transitions and consider how social interventions might be conducted or improved to achieve greater accuracy and reliability. What “getting things right” means could itself be a focal question (e.g. it may simply mean empirical and/or predictive accuracy, or it could refer to intermediate outcomes such as decision-making quality, etc).
Or inquiry could adopt a ‘moderate’ social constructionist perspective. For example, core constructionist themes include how groups of people develop shared definitions of reality and how people make sense of the world around them (Loseke, 1999). As sociologist Donileen Loseke frames it, objectivist approaches focus on “how the world is” and evaluate the accuracy of actors’ claims, whereas constructionist approaches “focus on what humans believe the world is” and/or should be like (Loseke, 1999, p.175) and how such definitions of reality emerge.
In contrast to objectivist research, constructionists may want to understand the ways that actor knowledge practices influence “what humans believe the world is” and, perhaps, also how the evolution of knowledge practices (e.g. in the digital era) is influencing belief systems, perhaps largely ignoring the empirical validity of the resulting beliefs. The core goal may be to contribute to greater understanding rather than, say, a consensus on the right belief(s)/answer(s).
For example, different people have strongly contrasting beliefs about the constraints imposed by planetary limits and ecological systems (e.g. constraints related to resource limits). Some people have strong beliefs about the “limits of the earth” and related sustainability transition imperatives and sustainability risks; others believe such environmental limits are less “hard” and are somewhat malleable (either strongly or partly malleable). A social constructionist would wonder: why do people form such contrasting beliefs about how the world is and what therefore needs to be done (because of these characteristics), and what social processes shaped these beliefs? What contribution do actors’ knowledge practices make to these persistent, often intractable, conflicts? And how should such disagreements be handled?
Or we might want to consider how and why some areas of science become high profile and others don’t – why some research results are impactful and others aren’t. In other words, investigating the social construction of research impact. How does this influence transitions?
Other perspectives like critical realism, etc, would also emphasise particular research questions. And particular research approaches such as discourse analysis also imply specific foci. But hopefully the high-level sketch above provides some sense of what inquiry could investigate.
Indeed, my PhD research began such a process of looking at knowledge practices from a range of theoretical and philosophical perspectives. For instance, I found that a “social construction” perspective is useful for understanding knowledge practices as it suggests looking at the social context in which the practice was created and considering how claims-making and claim-evaluation practices are influenced by the social environment in which they occur.
Turning to the ‘so what?’ question, my own scholarly inclinations and interests shape my emerging thoughts on this. Others may have very different thoughts and inclinations which could be explanatory, or normative and/or interpretive in orientation.
Contemporary sustainability transitions – and related sustainability debates – appear to be a context in which knowledge practices have evolved, and are evolving, in socially significant ways. As such I believe it’s important to understand and examine this. The ever-more prominent practice of modelling future scenarios is a great example. There’s much scope for both critical analysis of such knowledge practices as well as for research which seeks to understand and enhance their use and contributions (e.g. seeking to enhance the use of model-based climate information).
Another way to consider the ‘so what?’ question is to consider the potential for gaining prescriptive insights. That is, how should knowledge be produced, appraised and used in order to contribute to effective action on sustainability transitions? I would like to explore whether answers to such research questions could point to specific practices that are necessary or useful, under particular conditions. For example, it may be possible to explore underlying ideals of science (or for research more broadly) when considering such questions, as well as political considerations and their implications, and examine what these imply in terms of concrete knowledge practices. Or evaluation research could be conducted (similar to my PhD research) to develop ideas about how to enhance particular kinds of practices and interventions such as to enhance the use of scenario processes.
Further answers to the ‘so what?’ may address specific sustainability issues and the need to better understand factors shaping related social action. For example, an interesting and somewhat polemical essay by Roger Pielke critically analysed climate policy scenario practices and argues that these problematically constrain climate policy-making. Such analysis points to ways of analysing the origins of particular practices and the downstream consequences of related practice-shaping social processes. Better knowledge of this may help to enable practice innovation and renewal.
The ideas sketched above don’t address knowledge of sustainability transitions (e.g. theory-building goals). I believe that further research on knowledge-related aspects of sustainability transitions could also contribute to somewhat generalisable knowledge of what such ‘transitions’ can involve and can require in-practice and associated theorisation. It may also be an opportunity to examine the knowledge practices of sustainability transition researchers.
Similarly some folk may have an explanatory orientation. Research on knowledge practices may have explanatory benefits, such as informing explanations of why a sustainability transition took the form it did, why it happened (or didn’t), or why particular transition issues are prioritised (or not), etc.
A pragmatist or constructionist perspective suggests that developing answers to explanatory questions will require in-depth analysis of the development of particular habits of thought and action and the roles of knowledge practices in their development, evolution and frequent rigidity. As I noted earlier sustainability battles and debates are often waged by actors who have very different habits of thought and action which tend to be solely attributed to worldview conflicts. It may be possible to develop new insights into such aspects of transition processes by examining knowledge practices.
Others will have a more activist-y orientation. They’ll want to know how the resulting knowledge is expected to enhance change-seeking efforts. One illustrative possibility concerns the strategies that are used to influence other actors. I believe that these are too often based on simplistic information provision style change models (e.g. practices which assume that all that needs to be done is to provide credible evidence and/or produce more scientific evidence). Developing a better understanding of knowledge practices could inform the development of more effective influencing strategies.
Finally, a potential scholarly goal is shedding light on more general social processes and phenomena. For example, social scientists are increasingly interested in practices and practice change and knowledge practices (as an object of investigation) provide a useful focus for such research.
Overall, there seem to be great potential to examine knowledge practice questions associated with sustainability transitions from a wide range of perspectives. I hope to be able to explore them further over the coming months and years.