Research‎ > ‎

Societal transformation to sustainability through the unmaking of capitalism?

Project: Societal transformation to sustainability through the unmaking of capitalism? A comparative study of radical grassroots innovations

Popular abstract

Radical civil society initiatives may hold the potential to transform society toward sustainability. This project will use a novel interdisciplinary theory and an innovative combination of methods to explain whether, when and how radical civil society initiatives unmake environmentally disruptive institutions and practices that are deeply ingrained in capitalist societies.   

Scientific abstract

Modern, capitalist societies engage destructively with the natural environment. Societal transformation to sustainability is urged, but it implies a degree of disruption of capitalist ways of being and doing. Radical grassroots innovations – those that posit a profound cultural, economic, and political transformation of dominant institutions and practices - hold the potential to lead such transformation, but may be constrained by their marginal, local, small-scale character.

This project aims to understand to what extent, under what conditions and through what processes radical grassroots innovations unmake modern, capitalist institutions and practices. This research will comparatively analyse Dutch and Spanish radical grassroots innovations in agriculture to: (1) identify and categorize mechanisms of unmaking that are involved in radical grassroots innovations; (2) explain whether and how unmaking creates space for alternatives from the individual to the social-ecological level; (3) understand how mechanisms of unmaking at different levels interplay; (4) explain why unmaking may result in different outcomes in the face of different types of capitalism; (5) develop a theory of unmaking in societal transformation to sustainability.

This research is ground breaking as it (1) approaches societal transformation from the perspective of unmaking of dominant institutions, rather than of the introduction of innovations, (2) mobilizes theories that have so far not been considered, and thereby innovatively integrates theories and levels of analysis, (3) originally employs mixed methods that capture trajectories of change, and enable to generalize causal mechanisms in complex social-ecological systems.

This project will push the frontier of our understanding of transformation to sustainability. It will generate scientific knowledge that will be relevant across the social sciences and, will offer a theoretical lens –unmaking-, and a process-tracing methodological approach, to stimulate interdisciplinary collaboration. It will be relevant to policy-makers and the civil society as it will illuminate key mechanisms of transformation to sustainability.


The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) Vidi Research Grant.

Giuseppe Feola (Project Lead), Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University (The Netherlands), and Department of Geography and Environmental Science, University of Reading (United Kingdom).