By Uwe Schneidewind and Karoline Augenstein
‘Transformation’ has become a buzzword in debates about sustainable development. But while the term has become very popular, it is often unclear what is meant exactly by ‘transformation’.
The fuzziness of the concept can be seen as a strength, giving it metaphoric power and facilitating inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation. However, this fuzziness means there is also a danger of the transformation debate being co-opted by powerful actors and used strategically to impede societal change towards more sustainable pathways.
Thus, issues of power are at stake here and we argue that a better understanding of the underlying assumptions and theories of change shaping the transformation debate is needed. We delineate three schools of transformation thinking and their assumptions about what drives societal change, and summarize them in the first table below. We then examine the relationship of these three schools of thinking to power, summarized in the second table.
The Idealist School – Ideas Rule the World
Idealist thinking builds on ideas as the essence and foundation of every tangible aspect of human experience.
Thus, to explain and analyze transformations we have to understand basic ideas – cultural values, dominant dogmas and world views – and how they impact societies. For a transition to sustainability to be achieved, the necessary societal change processes must develop as the result of powerful ideas and discourses.
According to an idealist school of thought, collective ideas or shared beliefs are pivotal in change processes. They are the relevant determining factor, even though external pressures or certain events may trigger societal transformations. Therefore, similar circumstances faced by different societies or groups of people may lead to completely different development paths depending on the respective ideas commonly adhered to.
The Institutional School – Institutions are Enablers of Social Change
Institutional thinking builds on the role of formal and informal rules as a coordinating mechanism, as the basic ‘incentive structure’ for economic and political activity. Due to their longevity, institutions also create stability in the sense that they facilitate credible expectations in recurring situations and reduce uncertainty.
Thus, societal change and transformation depend on the institutional set-up and the specific formal and informal rules shaping society.
Assuming that institutions are simultaneously shaping action and are themselves being shaped by actors, institutions are the central starting point for achieving sustainability transitions via effective policies, suitable organizational architectures and rule systems. These are then followed by (and enable) changing social practices, new ideas and cultures, and sustainability-oriented technological innovation processes and markets.
Thus, societal transitions depend on creating suitable institutional framework conditions.
The Technological Innovation School – Technological Progress Drives Modern Societies
With the accelerating technological developments observed during the 20th century, the increasing importance attributed to technological innovation as a driver of human civilization has been recognized.
Many research approaches that can be counted among the technological innovation school have been key sources for sustainability transitions or transformation research. Radical technological innovations (eg., in the field of renewable energy) play an important role here as well as processes of socio-technical co-evolution, ie., the interlinkages between technological development and societal change.
These approaches connect to change in ideas and institutions, but with an emphasis on the role that radical innovations play in sustainability-oriented transformation processes.
Transformation and Power
How can we relate the three schools of transformation thinking to the issue of power in societal transformation processes? We use the distinction between three ideal-typical conceptions of power developed by Partzsch (2015).
Power with focuses on cooperation and learning, where power emerges as the concerted action of a community built around shared beliefs. This conception of power is closely connected to basic assumptions of an idealist school of transformation thinking, where the power of ideas motivates joint action towards a shared goal.
Power to focuses on resistance and empowerment and thus adds a perspective of confrontation and conflict. Power to assumes an adversarial other, against which a group of actors needs to be empowered, or empower itself, to effect change. This perspective is dominant in research on social movements or environmental non-governmental organizations. It also fits well with the technological innovation school of transformation thinking, where niche innovations challenge existing system structures.
Power over focuses on coercion and manipulation, where powerful actors influence and determine the actions of less powerful groups, shape political agendas and public discourses. This power concept fits well with the institutionalist school of transformation thinking and its emphasis on the role of political or market institutions that determine system dynamics and provide a structural framework for action.
In order to develop what one of us (Schneidewind 2013) has called “transformative literacy” that enables a comprehensive understanding of and orientation to complex transformation processes, it is necessary to map out and understand the different worldviews, assumptions and interests at work in different schools of transformation thinking and how they relate to issues of power.
How do you see these differences in basic assumptions – of approaches, theories and individual researchers? What other approaches have you found useful to arrive at a deeper and shared understanding of what a transformation to sustainability entails?
To find out more:
Schneidewind, U. and Augenstein, K. (2016). Three schools of transformation thinking: The impact of ideas, institutions, and technological innovation on transformation processes. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 25, 2: 88-93. Online: https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.25.2.7.
Thanks to GAIA for making this paper free to access until 30 September 2017.
To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal GAIA: https://i2insights.org/tag/partner-gaia-journal/
Partzsch, L. (2015). Kein Wandel ohne Macht ‐ Nachhaltigkeitsforschung braucht ein mehrdimensionales Machtverständnis. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 24, 1: 48–56.
Schneidewind, U. (2013). Transformative Literacy. Rahmen für den wissensbasierten Umgang mit der “Großen Transformation”. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 22, 2: 82-86.
Biography: Uwe Schneidewind is president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and professor for Sustainable Transition Management at the University of Wuppertal, Germany. He is a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). His main research interests are transformations to sustainability in their technological, economic, institutional and cultural dimensions and the role of science and science policy for sustainable development.
Biography: Karoline Augenstein is a junior research group leader at the Center for Transformation Research and Sustainability (TransZent) at the University of Wuppertal, Germany. Her main research interests are in sustainability transitions research and transdisciplinary approaches, currently focusing on upscaling strategies for an urban sharing society (“UrbanUp”: an inter- and transdisciplinary junior research group funded within the social-ecological research programme of the German Ministry for Education and Research).