A SoK-based perspective on sustainability transition(s)?

This page sketches the outlines of an analytical focus and perspective (the sociology of knowledge) which I intend to explore further in thinking about, and potential doing work on, sustainability transitions (e.g. energy transitions) along with what others think of as the sustainability transition. At present it’s mostly a ‘hobby’ project which builds on aspects of my PhD thesis that drew upon ideas from science and technology studies (STS).

The simplest way to summarise it is to say that it would be the application of sociology of knowledge (SoK) to sustainability transitions – a SoK-based perspective on them.

Related interests of mine include whether SoK-based perspectives can be draw upon to (or further developed) when considering: 1) actors’ everyday routines – and their other messy day-to-day activities and processes – and the wider socio-cultural consequences of these actor routines and practices; and/or 2) whether such perspectives can be mobilised when utilised when seeking to better understand the drivers of controversy – in the context of contemporary sustainability challenges – and how these controversies can be resolved (to the extent that they can be). Associated cognitive dynamics are also of interests such as Tidd and Bessant’s (2018) observation that “human beings cannot process all the rich and complex information coming at them and so they make use of a variety of simplifying frameworks – mental models – with which to make sense of the world”.

A central causal mechanism of interest in the cultural structuring of knowledge practices, and the development of associated largely unconscious ways of doing things. (The article ‘Seeing like the Fed’ analyses an interesting illustrative example of such processes and the effects they can give rise to). Additional example social mechanisms of interest include the development of an accepted frame (which has sociological meanings, but has also been conceptualised as, roughly, a way of seeing the world that filters and shapes perceptions of what is relevant and important) and socio-cognitive processes of reframing.

This isn’t an existing perspective on transitions (see this research agenda for some major prevailing perspectives), so it requires a lot of work and tentative exploration to even sketch. This page only begins work on this task, providing a guiding orientation and framings. Additionally, my PhD thesis also points to practice-oriented approaches.

One broad starting point is the idea that the sociology of knowledge asks questions about both “where humans’ knowledge and day-to-expectations come from” (Collins, 2019) and “how people came by their beliefs” (Collins, 2014). Broad questions, for sure, but these can be elaborated by asking, for example, ‘how do people come by their beliefs about sustainability transitions? (or more specific things like GM foods, or about energy futures and technologies, etc?)’. A related consideration is understanding why people in one group (or society) believe one thing and people in another believe something different.

Another contributor to this field – Charles Camic (Northwestern University) – positions it as exploring the social foundations (or ‘bases’) and consequences of cognitive products and processes. For Camic, SoK’s speciality is “dealing, in diverse ways, with the relationship between various processes and products of human cognition and other sociocultural factors” (Camic, 2001). He suggests it deals with a wide range of intellectual/cognitive products “including ideas, ideologies, scientific theories, religious, philosophical and political doctrines, moral beliefs, mental categories, cultural and organizational discourses, and the forms and practices of everyday knowing”. Related themes include: the claimed sociocultural origins of such cognitive and intellectual processes and products; the sociocultural consequences of these cognitive/intellectual products and processes; and, finally, their transformation (the transformation of these intellectual products).

These results (or outputs) from these cognitive processes also ‘travel’ to social locations which may be a significance distance (e.g. in space and/or time) from the core-set of actors (‘insiders’) which were involved in their production (see Collins, 2014), such as contexts of use. Related social patterns such as ‘distance lends enchantment’ have been proposed by SoK scholars (Collins, 2014). Such ideas provide ways of beginning to consider the social consequences of cognitive products and processes. In my own PhD research I found that such lines of social inquiry were important for research impact evaluation.

Camic further positions contemporary SoK as adopting ‘constructionist’ research agendas and perspectives. These range from a ‘broad-constructionist’ approach – which Camic suggests moves SoK towards the sociology of culture and emphasises the influence of macro-level social factors – and a ‘narrow-constructionist’ approach which attends more to knowledge specialists and places emphasis on the social processes by which their cognitive products emerge and develop. The latter approach further contends that sociocultural processes are ‘internal’ to the production of those products (Camic, 2001).

A further broad potential starting point proposed by Harry Collins – a Professor of Social Sciences at Cardiff University whose speciality is the sociology of science – is the claim that engaging with SoK perspectives “leads one to start questioning all one’s beliefs and to realize that pretty well all of them are a consequence of […] contingencies [e.g. where and when you were born] rather that any real reasoning”. Related to this, Collin further asserts that SoK is a “dizzying subject”. I can personally attest to these aspects and effects.

Moreover, from a SoK perspective there’s a need to interrogate and explain how a set of actors reach certainty about a conclusion, or about ‘what is going on’ or ‘what needs to be done’, in the context of, say, messy sciences or data that can be interpreted in different ways (Collins, 2014). Or – to pick a broader theme relevant to many sustainability issues which I’ve looked at, and dynamics reported in books like Fact and Fiction in Global Energy Policy: Fifteen Contentious Questions – why do we so often see competing and polarised sets of certainties? What social patterns or processes related to knowledge (and its social aspects) help to give rise to this? And, can a better understanding of how actors get entrenched in polarised positions inform action aimed at getting actors out of them?

Another potential starting point is the observation that we live in a time in which we have both greater access to technical scientific information than ever before, along with greater exposure and access to discussion of such information that ever before. Increasingly we also have greater potential to gain what’s been termed ‘primary source knowledge’ – such as where technical reports are made available by researchers and/or research organisations, where pre-prints of scientific papers are made publicly available for free (on websites), when published papers are made open access, and when related technical articles and scientific assessments are available online. In other words, over the past couple of decades a new societal context has developed which is unique in human history and related knowledge practices can promote illusions about the extent to which people are scientific insiders or that they have related technical knowledge (a lesson I have had to learn!).

Thus, in part, a SoK-based perspective on sustainability transitions would thus attend more to fundamental questions about knowledge and related intellectual products, processes and related beliefs – how actors acquire their knowledge, where it comes from, related practices that are used and which emerge, and the potential sociocultural origins and consequences of cognitive products (and processes) – along with critical inquiry into associated social trends and behaviours. It can also aspire to both inform potential interventions into the social patterns that it helps us to better understand, and potentially also be drawn upon when evaluating the outcomes of such interventions (see my PhD thesis for an example).

Additionally, a SoK-based perspective would aim to draw upon and build conceptual frameworks derived from different ‘waves’ of science studies (and STS) along with other areas of social science. For example, this could include the notion of knowledge practices; actor roles, typologies and related frameworks (such as those theorising proximity to knowledge production, related actor groups/roles, and the relationship between proximity and certainty [or ‘confidence’]); and wider normative theories of both expertise and the processes by which actors acquire expertise and related knowledge, amongst other elements. It could also include broader analytical and explanatory claims made in such fields of study such as the SoK-informed assertion that ‘distance lends enchantment’.

My doctoral research and thesis already suggests that these conceptual frameworks can be productively integrated with ideas from other cognitive and social sciences. However, further subsequent reflection has led me to wonder if some of the insights I developed could be deepened via greater consideration of a SoK concepts and perspectives.

For example, wider themes relevant my PhD research (and potentially more broadly to sustainability transition processes), include:

  • The nature of disagreements and how these turn into highly polarised ‘campaigns’ (rather than more productive debate);
  • Whether actors can get themselves out of their polarised positions (and why), or whether specific interventions are needed (and why these can be effective);
  • How uncertainties tend to get lost – including about claims about the future (e.g. presented in, or derived from, projections) – in the context of use, and, generally, with greater distance from the core-set of knowledge producing actors; and
  • Actors’ objectives (e.g. are they trying to get at the truth of the matter, or do they have other primary aims?) and how these can shape/condition their research-oriented activities and associated social interactions.

Regarding the above, one possibility I’m keen to explore further is opportunities for drawing on SoK-based perspectives when explaining why disagreements can morph into highly polarised ‘campaigns’ and/or opposing certainties (see Collins, 2014). There may also be opportunities for gaining new ideas on how to shift such campaigns into more productive debates which better support (or enable) socio-technical change processes.

Further work can also begin to explore whether SoK perspectives can inform a sociology of environmental knowledge and associated beliefs shaping transition processes.