BRILLIANT paper on sustainability transitions and political ecology. #holycrap #jealous

And the Best Paper I Have Read This Month Award goes to… drum-roll please…

Lawhon, M. and Murphy, J. 2011. Socio-technical regimes and sustainability transitions: Insights from political ecology. Progress in Human Geography. Vol. 36 (3), pp.354-378.

Here is the abstract

Sustainability is increasingly becoming a core focus of geography, linking subfields such as urban, economic, and political ecology, yet strategies for achieving this goal remain illusive [sic!]. Socio-technical transition theorists have made important contributions to our knowledge of the challenges and possibilities for achieving more sustainable societies, but this body of work generally lacks consideration of the influences of geography and power relations as forces shaping sustainability initiatives in practice. This paper assesses the significance for geographers interested in understanding the space, time, and scalar characteristics of sustainable development of one major strand of socio-technical transition theory, the multi-level perspective on socio-technical regime transitions. We describe the socio-technical transition approach, identify four major limitations facing it, show how insights from geographers – particularly political ecologists – can help address these challenges, and briefly examine a case study (GMO and food production) showing how a refined transition framework can improve our understanding of the social, political, and spatial dynamics that shape the prospects for more just and environmentally sustainable forms of development.

Why is it so good?   Very clearly written, very clearly argued, and the authors have read heaps of important literature and synthesised it beautifully.  There is so much here for academics, but also for activists who want to loot the ivory tower.  I can’t quote too much, but these bits, from an activist perspective are useful (I read it with my Write Your Bloody Thesis Hat on, the hat I will be wearing from now until it is done, or the Donald starts a thermonuclear war based on a stray tweet.)

Once the lens is extended to include diverse actors, questions will arise regarding the roles played and the kinds of interactions between them. How and why were different stakeholders approached, informed about, and enrolled into the transition management process? What kind of language was used in these processes? Are participants made to feel that their opinions are valued and considered in decision-making?
When considering these kinds of questions, Whatmore (2009) argues for the development of competency groups as a means to more pluralistically and fairly develop interventions in response to social or environmental problems while still keeping focused and including relevant, affected actors
(Lawhon and Murphy, 2011: 366)


As Allen (1997) has shown, power can be conceptualized in a variety of ways – as an ‘inscribed capacity’, a collectively produced resource mobilized by groups to achieve particular ends, or as a mobile and diffuse phenomenon realized as a series of ‘strategies, techniques, and practices’.
(Lawhon and Murphy, 2011: 367)


Power may be expressed directly – in terms of who controls the selection of participants in decision-making processes, who participates, and whose voices count in the making of decisions – or indirectly – in terms of the language used to convince others to support a position or to create discursive alliances (Birkenholtz, 2009).
Many political ecologists emphasize the relational nature of power, arguing that power is found not in elite individuals as suggested by socio-technical transition theory but instead in relationships.
(Lawhon and Murphy, 2011: 367)

But activists won’t get away from the smugosphere, the emotathons, and will keep losing, and keep burning through potential recruits, who – after being used as ego-fodder a couple of times – give up and stay home.

In terms of the politics of sustainability socio-technical transitions (my Thesis) it is insanely useful.  I’ll stop gushing now – gotta read a few 2016 papers (Avelino et al x 2)

Here’s the references that look particularly mouth-watering to me, fwiw.. (no offence intended to the others)


Allen J (1997) Economies of power and space. In: Lee R and Wills J (eds) Geographies of Economies. London: Arnold, 59–70.

Allen J (2003) Lost Geographies of Power. Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell.

Angel DP and Rock MT (2003) Engaging economic development agencies in environmental protection: The case for embedded autonomy. Local Environment 8: 45–59.

Avelino F and Rotmans J (2009) Power in transition: An interdisciplinary framework to study power in relation to structural change. European Journal of Social Theory 12: 543–569.

Bailey I and Wilson GA (2009) Theorising transitional pathways in response to climate change: Technocentrism, ecocentrism and the carbon economy. Environment and Planning A 41: 2324–2341.

Berkhout F, Smith A, and Stirling A (2004) Sociotechnological regimes and transition contexts. In:

Elzen B, Geels FW, and Green K (eds) System Innovation and the Transition to Sustainability. Cheltenham: EdwardElgar, 48–75.

Blaikie P (1985) The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries. Harlow: Longman.

Castree N (2005) Nature: The Adventures of a Concept. Abingdon: Routledge.

Ekers M and Loftus A (2008) The power of water: Developing dialogues between Gramsci and Foucault. Environment and Planning D 26: 698–719.

Freeman C (1991) Innovation, changes of techno-economic paradigm and biological analogies in economics. Revue Economique 42: 211–231.

GandyM (2002) Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Geels FW (2006) The hygienic transition from cesspools to sewer systems (1840–1930): The dynamics of regime transformation. Research Policy 35: 1069–1082.

Hodson M and Marvin S (2010) Can cities shape socio-technical transitions and how would we know if they were? Research Policy 39: 477–485.

Kemp R, Schot J, and Hoogma R (1998) Regime shifts to sustainability through processes of niche formation: The approach of strategic niche management. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 10: 175–195.

McManus P and Gibbs D (2008) Industrial ecosystems? The use of tropes in the literature of industrial ecology and eco-industrial parks. Progress in Human Geography 32: 525–40.

Mann G (2009) Should political ecology be Marxist? A case for Gramsci’s historical materialism. Geoforum 40(3): 335–344.

Markard J and Truffer B (2008) Technological innovation systems and the multi-level perspective: Towards an integrated framework. Research Policy 37: 596–615.

Meadowcroft J (2005) Environmental political economy, technological transitions and the state. New Political Economy 10: 479–498.

Meadowcroft J (2009) What about the politics? Sustainable development, transition management, and long term energy transitions. Policy Science 42: 323–340.

Patil AC (2009) Transition to clean coal technologies in India. Computer Aided Chemical Engineering 27: 1731–1736.

Robbins P and Bishop K (2008) There and back again: Epiphany, disillusionment, and rediscovery in political ecology. Geoforum 39: 747–755.

Rocheleau D (2008) Political ecology in the key of policy: From chains of explanation to webs of relation. Geoforum 39: 716–727.

Rotmans J, Kemp R, and van AsseltM(2001) More evolution than revolution: Transition management in public policy. Foresight – The Journal of Future Studies, Strategic Thinking and Policy 3: 15–31.

Scott J (1999) Seeing Like a State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Smith A, Voß JP, and Grin J (2010) Innovation studies and sustainability transitions: The allure of the multi-level perspective and its challenges. Research Policy 39: 435–448.



2 thoughts on “BRILLIANT paper on sustainability transitions and political ecology. #holycrap #jealous”

  1. Thanks for this Marc ! We’re basically reading the same bibliography 🙂 Great work on your site, will be following you. Cheers !

    Also, you might want to check out René Audet (2016) Transition as discourse

    1. Thanks for the tip! Will check out. There’s more transition-y stuff coming up on the site over the coming few days (and weeks/months).

      All best


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