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Ontologies, socio-technical transitions (to sustainability), and the multi-level perspective. Frank W. Geels SPRU, University of Sussex DTU- seminar, 10 May 2010 Copenhagen. Motivations: response to critics. MLP as descriptive theory. What about explanation and causal mechanisms?

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Ontologies socio technical transitions to sustainability and the multi level perspective

Ontologies, socio-technical transitions (to sustainability), and the multi-level perspective

Frank W. Geels

SPRU, University of Sussex

DTU- seminar, 10 May 2010


Motivations response to critics
Motivations: response to critics and the multi-level perspective

  • MLP as descriptive theory. What about explanation and causal mechanisms?

  • MLP as functionalist or structuralist theory? What about agency?

  • MLP as synthesizing middle range theory. Too much integration and eclecticism?

Approach reflexive article
Approach: reflexive article theories

  • Venture in to social theory and ontologies:

     foundational assumptions about actors and causal mechanisms

    2. Discuss various conceptualisations of transitions + sustainability

    3. Reflection on epistemology

  • Full synthesis of ontologies

  • Incommensurable

  • Eclecticism (ad-hoc combinations)

  • Crossovers

    4. Discuss ontology crossovers in MLP + research agenda

Foundational parameters in social science
Foundational parameters in social science theories

  • Idealism vs. Materialism

  • Individualist vs. Collectivist

  • Conflict vs. Consensus

  • Positivist vs. Interpretive approach

Different ontologies
Different ontologies theories

  • Rational choice

  • Evolution

  • Structuralism

  • Interpretivism/constructivism

  • Functionalism (system theories)

  • Conflict an power struggle

  • Relationism

1 rational choice
1. Rational choice theories

Causal agent: Individual, self-interested actors

Causal mechanism: Decentralized choice by instrumental rationality (cost-benefit calculation) and aggregation mechanism (often market)

Example: neo-classical economics


  • changes in factor costs lead to shifts along production function.

  • technology adoption leads to shift in production function.

    Sustainability: Get the prices right and leave to market.

2 evolution
2. Evolution theories

Causal agent: Boundedly rational agents in population competing for scarce resources

Causal mechanism: Variation (search, innovation), selection, retention

Example: Evolutionary economics


  • Technological discontinuities, disruptive innovation emerge in niches and subsequently replace incumbents [markets, technology, firms]

  • Long wave theory and techno-economic paradigms: pervasive technologies drive socio-institutional adaptation.


  • stimulate green variety (green technology, R&D investments),

  • change selection environment (green taxes, regulations)

3 structuralism
3. Structuralism theories

Causal agent: Taken-for-granted deep structures (belief systems)

Causal mechanism: Deep structures’ operate 'behind the backs' of actors, influencing their views and preferences

Example: Structuralist anthropology (Levi Strauss), Frankfurt School, some cultural theories

Transitions: change in societal belief system and ideology create pre-conditions for socio-technical transitions (sense of urgency, legitimacy)

Sustainability: sustainability repertoire competes with other societal aspirations: a) neo-liberalism and globalisation, b) safety, security, threats, terrorism, c) individualism, self-development, tourism etc.

Dilemma: maybe beliefs change too late, when we experience problems

4 interpretivism
4. Interpretivism theories

Causal agent: Individual actors with varying ideas and interpretations

decisions + (rational) choices are preceded by interpretations

Causal mechanism: Social interaction, construction of shared meaning, sensemaking, learning, debates.

Ontologies socio technical transitions to sustainability and the multi level perspective

Example theories: Social Construction of Technology, sensemaking


  • Interpretive flexibility about desirability of niche-innovations and direction of transitions.

  • Importance of experimentation and (social) learning.

  • ‘Closure’ and convergence accelerates transitions.


  • Green transitions hindered by lack of single vision.

  • Sustainability is contested concept. Groups attach different meanings to wind turbines etc. (‘green’, bird killers, horizon pollution, noise generators).

  • Debates, participation, deliberation are crucial.

5 functionalism system theories
5. Functionalism (system theories) theories

Causal agent: Social system with sub-systems

Causal mechanism: Actors fulfil system needs, and enact roles, tasks, functions and norms

Example: Parson’s structural-functionalism, Technological Innovation Systems


  • Exogenous shock disrupts equilibrium, and changes system needs.

  • Political sub-system sets new goals, which adjust economic sub-system.

  • Subsequent anchoring in social and cultural sub-systems.


  • ‘Cockpit’ view with benevolent leaders and experts adjusting systems in green directions.

  • Emphasis on treaties, targets, goals (e.g. Kyoto Protocol, Millennium Development Goals) and subsequent implementation and monitoring.

6 conflict and power struggle
6. Conflict and power struggle theories

Causal agent: Collective actors (groups, classes) with conflicting interests

Causal mechanism: Conflict and power struggle (lobby, threats, backroom deals, coalition politics)

Power is multi-dimensional (resources, contacts, credibility etc).

Example: neo-Marxism, social movement theory, political economy


  • Big industries capture policy makers and water down regulations.

  • Niche-actors, social movements fight to change economic frame conditions.

  • Transitions require shift in balance of power.


    * many unsustainable industries have economic resources and political contacts.

    * Corporatist networks prevent transition.

    * Green niches need to grow (‘economic clout’) or link with public support to create legitimacy-pressures.

7 relationism
7. Relationism theories

Causal agent: Networks and ongoing relations

* actors have no fixed ontology, but are constituted by network

Causal mechanism: Interaction, co-construction, translation, alignment

Example: actor-network theory, practice theory

Transitions: Unclear relevance, because of:

  • micro-focus on local projects and practices,

  • emphasis on fluidity, contingency which hinders generalization.

    Shove’s practice approach is exception for a)


  • Focus on user practices, everyday life (bathing, showering, office heating).

  • Mainly in unsustainable directions (so far).

Intermediate conclusion different views on transitions but differ in default orientation
Intermediate Conclusion theories* Different views on transitions* But differ in default orientation

Stability, equilibrium or incremental change

  • Rational choice

  • Structuralism

  • Functionalism

    Change (and stability)

  • Evolution

  • Interpretivism

  • Power and conflict

  • Relationism

Ontology crossovers in mlp
Ontology crossovers in MLP theories

Main crossover (also ASEAT + Ken)

1. Evolution theory: niches, regimes, trajectories, market selection

2. Interpretivism/constructivism:

  • regimes as ‘rules’ (Giddens)

  • creative actors (no cultural dopes)

  • Multi-actor process: interactions between social groups

  • emphasis on learning and networks

Ontologies socio technical transitions to sustainability and the multi level perspective

Figure 9: A recursive, diachronic model of structural change and

reproduction (adapted from Barley and Tolbert, 1997: 101)

Crossovers to be elaborated in mlp research agenda
Crossovers to be elaborated in MLP (research agenda) and

  • Conflict and power:

  • Regime: a) policy networks and corporatism, b) corporate political strategy

  • Social movement theory: outside groups who exert pressure: a) direct lobby, b) via framing and discourse, c) support for green niches

  • Strategic games between niche and regime actors

Ontologies socio technical transitions to sustainability and the multi level perspective

2. Structuralism and

  • Cultural ideology, repertoire at landscape level

  • Cultural sociology and discourse theory to elaborate symbolic dimensions of niche and regime

  • Importance of legitimacy + performance on public stages

No crossovers to
No crossovers to and

1. Rational choice: works well in stable situations, but not in ‘periods of flux’

No crossovers to1
No crossovers to and

2. Functionalism:

Focus on system and consensus precludes attention for conflict, diversity.

Difficult to include niches (which emerge separately from dominant system)

3. Relationism:

ANT and practice theory see the world as ‘flat’ without ‘levels’ (although they do distinguish between stable and fluid networks).

Complexifying epistemology, instead of middle range

Conclusion and

1) Innovation studies well placed to study socio-technical transitions

2) Transitions to sustainability require conceptual broadening

  • Externalities, polity and civil society

  • Sustainability is contested  cultural and interpretive theories.

  • Sustainability threatens vested interests.  need for conflict theories.

    3) MLP useful middle-range framework, but needs complementary theories.

  • Much opportunities ahead by engaging with mainstream social science.

    4) We need more theoretical resources, but also reflexivity