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Environmental Change, transformation and the social sciences

Feola, G. 2013. Environmental Change, transformation and the social sciences. International Conference Transformation in a Changing Climate,19-21 June, 2013, University of Oslo, Norway.

Abstract

The concept of transformation is growingly used in environmental change research. However, while transformation is generally associated with the idea of radical change, different and often contrasting conceptualizations have been proposed. Furthermore, transformation is used both as a model of change and as a policy, i.e. normative, goal. Given such unclear status and meaning, is transformation a useful concept? This paper examines conceptualizations of transformation used in environmental change research on the basis of seven analytical criteria derived from Sztompka (1993): system model, levels, form, seat of causality, social consciousness, temporal range, end-result. This ‘anatomy’ of transformation helps to characterise different conceptualizations, discuss their contribution, and identify knowledge gaps and research needs. The most significant differences among the conceptualizations of transformation concern the system model (the system definition), the seat of causality (the agent of change), and social consciousness (deliberate or unintended change). The paper argues that a distinction between the normative and the analytical dimensions of transformation is needed, and that they correspond to two different, but complementary social scientific approaches. The former relates to a direct and active role of science in bringing about change (transformational social sciences), whereas the latter, which requires a more rigorous definition of transformation, supports the analytical understanding of transformative change in social systems. The paper identifies knowledge gaps, i.e. system models, definition of social constructs and their relations, and mechanisms of change, and argues for the integration of some currently underexploited social scientific theories as a way to fill such gaps.


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