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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.

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Presentation on theme: "Ontologies, socio-technical transitions (to sustainability), and the multi-level perspective Frank W. Geels SPRU, University of Sussex DTU- seminar, 10."— Presentation transcript:

1 Ontologies, socio-technical transitions (to sustainability), and the multi-level perspective Frank W. Geels SPRU, University of Sussex DTU- seminar, 10 May 2010 Copenhagen

2 Motivations: response to critics 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?

3 Appreciative, analytical framework needs specific auxiliary theories

4 Approach: reflexive article 1.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 a)Full synthesis of ontologies b)Incommensurable c)Eclecticism (ad-hoc combinations) d)Crossovers 4. Discuss ontology crossovers in MLP + research agenda

5 Foundational parameters in social science Idealism vs. Materialism Individualist vs. Collectivist Conflict vs. Consensus Positivist vs. Interpretive approach

6 Different ontologies 1.Rational choice 2.Evolution 3.Structuralism 4.Interpretivism/constructivism 5.Functionalism (system theories) 6.Conflict an power struggle 7.Relationism

7 1. Rational choice 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 Transitions: 1)changes in factor costs lead to shifts along production function. 2)technology adoption leads to shift in production function. Sustainability: Get the prices right and leave to market.

8 2. Evolution Causal agent: Boundedly rational agents in population competing for scarce resources Causal mechanism: Variation (search, innovation), selection, retention Example: Evolutionary economics Transitions: 1)Technological discontinuities, disruptive innovation emerge in niches and subsequently replace incumbents [markets, technology, firms] 2)Long wave theory and techno-economic paradigms: pervasive technologies drive socio-institutional adaptation. Sustainability: a)stimulate green variety (green technology, R&D investments), b)change selection environment (green taxes, regulations)

9 3. Structuralism 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

10 4. Interpretivism 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.

11 Example: Social Construction of Technology, sensemaking Transitions: a)Interpretive flexibility about desirability of niche- innovations and direction of transitions. b)Importance of experimentation and (social) learning. c)‘Closure’ and convergence accelerates transitions. Sustainability: a)Green transitions hindered by lack of single vision. b)Sustainability is contested concept. Groups attach different meanings to wind turbines etc. (‘green’, bird killers, horizon pollution, noise generators). c)Debates, participation, deliberation are crucial.

12 5. Functionalism (system 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 Transitions: a)Exogenous shock disrupts equilibrium, and changes system needs. b)Political sub-system sets new goals, which adjust economic sub-system. c)Subsequent anchoring in social and cultural sub-systems. Sustainability: a)‘Cockpit’ view with benevolent leaders and experts adjusting systems in green directions. b)Emphasis on treaties, targets, goals (e.g. Kyoto Protocol, Millennium Development Goals) and subsequent implementation and monitoring.

13 6. Conflict and power struggle 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 Transitions: a)Big industries capture policy makers and water down regulations. b)Niche-actors, social movements fight to change economic frame conditions. c)Transitions require shift in balance of power. Sustainability: * 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.

14 7. Relationism 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: a)micro-focus on local projects and practices, b)emphasis on fluidity, contingency which hinders generalization. Shove’s practice approach is exception for a) Sustainability: Focus on user practices, everyday life (bathing, showering, office heating). Mainly in unsustainable directions (so far).

15 Intermediate Conclusion * 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

16 Ontology crossovers in MLP 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

17 Figure 9: A recursive, diachronic model of structural change and reproduction (adapted from Barley and Tolbert, 1997: 101)

18 Crossovers to be elaborated in MLP (research agenda) 1.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


20 2. Structuralism 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


22 No crossovers to 1. Rational choice: works well in stable situations, but not in ‘periods of flux’

23 No crossovers to 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

24 Conclusion 1) Innovation studies well placed to study socio-technical transitions 2) Transitions to sustainability require conceptual broadening a)Externalities, polity and civil society b)Sustainability is contested  cultural and interpretive theories. c)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

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