Actor roles in transition: Insights from sociological perspectives

The field of transition research lacks a suitable vocabulary to analyse the (changing) interactions and relations of actors as part of a sustainability transition. This article addresses this knowledge gap by exploring the potential of the concept of ‘roles’ from social interaction research.

The overall question we pose in this article is: What is the potential of the concept of roles for describing and understanding the interaction and relations of actors in sustainability transitions and their governance?

This question is addressed through a literature overview of transition research focusing on the key points of convergence of different streams within this emerging field and their treatment of actors and agency; and a focused literature review of roles theories, starting from classical works and overview articles and zooming in on three perspectives, which allow us to understand roles in relation to societal change.

Throughout the article, we illustrate our argument by introducing a transition experiment in the neighbourhood of Rotterdam-Carnisse, in which we were involved as part of a transdisciplinary engagement funded by an EU-FP7 research project (InContext) and a municipally funded project (Veerkracht Carnisse).  We highlight the knowledge gap in transition research with regard to its treatment of actors, illustrating the analytical challenge this poses by introducing the transition experiment in Carnisse.

Subsequently, we conduct a focused literature review on roles theories and an operationalization of the insights for transition research. The role concept is operationalized for transition research to allow the analysis of (changing) roles and relations between actor roles as indicative of changes in the social fabric and shared values, norms and beliefs. It also allows considering the use of roles as a transition governance intervention. This includes creating new roles, breaking down or altering existing ones and explicitly negotiating or purposefully assigning roles, as well as the flexible use of roles as resources.

We conclude the paper by summarizing the main insights and pointing to future research avenues.

Wittmayer, J.M, Avelino, F., Steenbergen, F. van, Loorbach, D. (2016) Actor roles in transition: Insights from sociological perspectives.  Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 24(2017), 45-56.

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september 22, 2017