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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Frank W. Geels
SPRU, University of Sussex
DTU- seminar, 10 May 2010
foundational assumptions about actors and causal mechanisms
2. Discuss various conceptualisations of transitions + sustainability
3. Reflection on epistemology
4. Discuss ontology crossovers in MLP + research agenda
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
Sustainability: Get the prices right and leave to market.
Causal agent: Boundedly rational agents in population competing for scarce resources
Causal mechanism: Variation (search, innovation), selection, retention
Example: Evolutionary economics
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
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.
Example theories: Social Construction of Technology, sensemaking
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
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
* 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.
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:
Shove’s practice approach is exception for a)
Stability, equilibrium or incremental change
Change (and stability)
Main crossover (also ASEAT + Ken)
1. Evolution theory: niches, regimes, trajectories, market selection
reproduction (adapted from Barley and Tolbert, 1997: 101)
2. Structuralism and
1. Rational choice: works well in stable situations, but not in ‘periods of flux’
Focus on system and consensus precludes attention for conflict, diversity.
Difficult to include niches (which emerge separately from dominant system)
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
1) Innovation studies well placed to study socio-technical transitions
2) Transitions to sustainability require conceptual broadening
3) MLP useful middle-range framework, but needs complementary theories.
4) We need more theoretical resources, but also reflexivity