Sustainable development and institutional reflexivity

24 01 2014

Sociological FocusMore and more entreaties demand a great transition to try to cope with environmental threats that gain ground. The realization of “sustainable development” tends to be increasingly thought of in such terms. In a recent article (“The search for “sustainable development” pathways as a new degree of institutional reflexivity”, Sociological Focus, vol. 46, n° 4, 2013, pp. 314-336), I try to understand how the “sustainable development” perspective, while penetrating the institutional spheres, has become a catalyst for and the product of a form of collective reflexivity that also has implications in governmental activities. This study thus critically analyzes the reflexive dynamics that appear to be in progress in governmental activities and seem to integrate the transitional perspective as a driving force in a series of interrelated dimensions.

“Sustainable development” issues have become an obligatory point of passage for any public action and an essential value in political and administrative discourse (Rumpala, 2003). There seems to be a pragmatic and hesitant construction of a new meta-narrative (Rumpala, 2010). Under the heading of “sustainable development,” intentions seem to accumulate in favor of a vast corrective program to deal with threats (particularly ecological ones) that weigh heavily on the planet and humanity. Inspirations from the Brundtland report (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) have become an active influence and frequently serve as minimal and nearly consensual references to the most widespread views, which converge to promote something that would resemble a “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is still a great ambition, since it is a question of consciously carrying out, for the long term, a quasi-general adaptation that would combine a variety of interlinked adjustments in many fields and dimensions (economic, social, technological, cultural, and institutional). As a matter of fact, the need for change and the importance of guiding such a process have become structuring ideas and have begun to find their way into institutional agendas. Different milieus (administrative, academic, expert, etc.) more or less close to the institutional sphere are elaborating reflections about the way to manage what can be conceptualized as a transition, that is to say the dynamics enabling human activities to go from one situation (“un-sustainable”) to another (“sustainable”). In the academic and scientific fields, the growing number of publications (reports, articles, books, etc.) written with this perspective and including an expression like “transition to sustainability” in their title can be taken as a reliable indicator of its development. Certain publications clearly communicate the desire to give some sort of support for decision-making processes (for example: Elzen, Green, and Geels, 2004).

The Consequences of ModernityThis transitional perspective seems to confirm an intellectual framework which is beginning to have practical effects. This framework in progress can exert a structuring effect because it can give meaning to what needs to be done and define the ways of organizing and implementing interventions. Basically, this could be analyzed as another instance of “institutional reflexivity” that Anthony Giddens (synthetically in The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1990) has shown to be the central role in the evolution of modern society. With this expression, he actually tried to indicate the importance of recursive phenomena by which the use of the knowledge of social systems also tends to contribute more and more to their organization and their transformation. But it should be clarified that there are also factors that can foster dynamics of institutional reflexivity and this is the hypothesis that this article proposes to work on. Together with the different types of knowledge which can be produced and communicated, the various attempts to think about the transition towards a sustainable development are likely to strengthen such an institutional reflexivity. More precisely, wishes to engage the generalized transition deemed necessary tend to lead to a greater degree of institutional reflexivity. Indeed, the policy communities concerned are reflecting on certain social processes that could be acted on and these reflections are starting to define policies. Therefore, if ways of thinking are brought about by the desire to arrive at a “sustainable” stage of development, it is not only useful to study them but also to more precisely and critically distinguish which elements of reflexivity are developing, in which directions, and in what way they support initiatives and processes that are supposed to drive this transition.

Translations of this objective of sustainable development seem indeed to contribute to building and highlighting relatively new objects of government (Earth’s climate, natural habitats, etc.) or to transform the understanding of older ones (economic growth, technological progress, consumption, etc.). They participate in the reorganization of programmatic frameworks from which institutional responses are elaborated, and they seem to find extensions in a range of devices with operational purposes.

The objective of my article is to go beyond the existing literature on “sustainability transitions” (Markard, Raven, and Truffer, 2012) by considering that a historical moment in a process of rationalization may be under way. This contribution aims to analyze the reflexive dynamics that appear to be in progress in governmental activities and that seem to integrate the transitional perspective as a driving force in a series of interrelated dimensions. The study firstly examines in what spirit and with what aims this theme of transition has benefited from intellectual explorations and has become an object of reflection in academic and politico-administrative milieus. The second part brings to the fore the efforts of actors who defend this perspective to legitimate the transition, and how this has also contributed to making it an object of discursive framing, carried by different forms of apparently voluntarist discourses. Finally, this article explains how the understanding of this transition as an object of government, specifically when policy protagonists approach concrete aspects, can also bring about particular reflexive processes by confronting the envisaged interventions with the practices and interests that make up the social fabric.

The article is available on the journal’s site or on request by email (rumpala [at]



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