To date, 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.
Transitions are described as “multi-actor processes, which entail interactions between social groups” (Geels et al., 2010, p. 11). Focusing on this multi-actor nature of transitions, this article proposes that fundamental changes in the roles of actors and in their relations with others are a vital element of any transition. Illustrated by the case study of Carnisse, it argues that transition research to date lacks a suitable vocabulary to analyse the (changing) interactions and relations of actors as part of a sustainability transition.
We suggest that a promising concept is that of roles, which has a long history in social interaction research. The concept of roles can be situated ‘in between’ the individual and society and has long been a “simple, but useful means for explaining self-society relationship” in sociology (Callero, 1994; p. 228, cf. Arditi, 1987). Roles are shared conceptions within a particular community and a change in role understandings can indicate changing interactions and relations between actors within such a community. As such, changes in roles can be indicative of changes in the broader social fabric and can provide new opportunities for multi-actor collaboration to deal with societal challenges and hence form an important part of transitions.
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?
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.
Wittmayer, J.M., Avelino, F., van Steenbergen, F. and Loorbach, D. (2016). Actor roles in transition: Insights from sociological perspectives. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions. DOI: 10.1016/j.eist.2016.10.003
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October 1, 2017