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]

Degrowth from a transitional perspective

20 08 2013

ESA 2013Paper to be presented at the
European Sociological Association 11th Conference
in Turin
(Panel “Practices of Transformation Beyond Growth and Paths of Transition”),
31st August 2013.


Broadly speaking, the theme of “sustainable degrowth”, as an alternative collective project, has mostly been presented and justified as a new common horizon allowing populations to find solutions to current challenges concerning ecological sustainability and human living conditions. However, if it is a question of moving from one state to another one with different characteristics, the problem will be to find a transition. For this project to be credible, a process of reflection should be undertaken about such a transition that would allow a movement towards a “sustainable degrowth”, and notably about the manner and modalities of this transformation. From this point of view, while it is a question of turning away from paths considered to be harmful, propositions about “degrowth” suffer from not truly being linked to a theory of change. And yet, this theory appears to be essential to conceive the conditions to which this type of vast project could apply. As a starting point for moving forward, three foci of reflection are suggested, which prove to be determining factors because they also correspond to realms of confrontation that such a project would be faced with in the present world:

– the relationship with dominant values which largely influences the conditions of the diffusion and acceptance of ideas;

– the capacities of generalizing (counter-)practices and of facilitating the accumulation of alternative experiences;

– the possibilities of reducing structural constraints thanks to the coordination and networking of existing initiatives.

=> Download the paper

T comme… transition

28 04 2012

Quelques brefs commentaires autour de réflexions en cours et pour profiter de la sortie du dernier numéro (Avril 2012) de CultureScience.mag, le magazine de culture scientifique de l’Université Nice-Sophia Antipolis. Ce quinzième numéro essaye de donner une série d’éclairages sur les turbulences qui agitent depuis quelques années l’économie mondiale, et  propose pour cela un « ABéCédaire de la crise ». À la lettre T (comme transition), il retranscrit des éléments d’un entretien que j’ai eu avec Laurie Chiara, rédactrice en chef du magazine. Nous avions abordé les questions qui occupent mes recherches en ce moment, dans le prolongement de mes travaux précédents sur les enjeux de « soutenabilité écologique », les façons dont ils sont traités et les formes envisagées ou envisageables de transition vers d’autres modèles d’organisation socio-économique.

L’article permet d’aborder des exemples sur lesquels je réfléchis actuellement (formes renouvelées d’agriculture urbaine, promotion de l’open source pour la conception de matériels, fab labs) et qui ont pour particularité de se placer en dehors des cadres marchands dominants. Sans forcément bénéficier d’une grande visibilité, ces expérimentations et initiatives, parmi d’autres en plein foisonnement, tentent de construire à leur manière un début de transition : elles se développent avec l’objectif plus ou moins explicite d’essayer de préparer un autre monde, construit sur d’autres bases que les seules logiques productivistes et consuméristes. Sur le mode du bricolage, pour parler comme Claude Lévi-Strauss, elles paraissent chercher de nouveaux espaces collectifs, à l’écart du système économique dominant, et de nouveaux types de ressources, pouvant permettre de vivre sans tomber dans sa dépendance et à partir de principes qui ne soient pas strictement marchands.

Pour plus de détails, deux possibilités : télécharger seulement l’article (2 pages de lecture) ou, pour élargir aux autres entrées de l’abécédaire, récupérer le numéro complet du magazine.

Dossier « décroissance »

23 06 2009

Après des résultats plutôt favorables à l’écologie politique lors des dernières élections européennes et avant que tombent bientôt les résultats des travaux de la Commission sur la Mesure de la Performance Économique et du Progrès Social (dite aussi Commission Stiglitz-Sen, du nom des deux prix Nobel d’économie à qui le gouvernement français avait demandé de réfléchir sur la pertinence de mesures basées sur le PIB), il peut être intéressant de remettre en perspective certains enjeux touchant à la croissance, à la « richesse » et à leurs effets sociaux et écologiques. La revue Mouvements dans sa version électronique vient justement de rassembler une série d’articles dans un dossier sur le thème de la « décroissance ». Le dossier fournit ainsi quelques textes de Paul Ariès, André Gorz et Fabrice Flipo qui permettent de penser cette alternative par rapport au cadre socio-économique dominant.

Promotion personnelle en même temps, puisque est repris dans ce dossier une version un peu retravaillée d’un texte que j’avais déjà présenté sur ce blog. L’idée principale de ce texte est de réfléchir à ce qu’un tel projet de « décroissance soutenable » demanderait comme conditions de réalisation. Autrement dit, s’il s’agit d’envisager une transition, quels seraient les leviers et les écueils à prendre en compte ? Une version papier devrait être disponible à la rentrée de septembre avec la sortie du numéro 59 de la revue Mouvements.

Degrowth as transition

5 09 2008

« Sustainable degrowth vis-a-vis the question of “how?”
    An overview of prospects for transition and their conditions for realization »

Paper for the International Conference « Economic degrowth for ecological sustainability and social equity », Paris, 18-19 April 2008.


There are numerous reflections which stress that the logics of actual development are not “sustainable”. Logically, the concerns and dissatisfactions raised often lead to the search for an alternative. From this point of view, the idea of “degrowth” arouses a growing interest, even though it remains rather peripheral compared to other discussions, in particular those developed from the concept of “sustainable development”. The available proposals provide a view of a new horizon, although the vision presented is generally rather vague.

This concept in effect appears to be more easily defined by what it does not want than by what it wants. At its core, it proposes the need to leave obsession with economic growth, transformed to an ultimate objective, almost self referential to the detriment of other considerations, in particular ecological and social considerations. It places the schemes of permanent and infinite accumulation in contrast to the limits of the planet, with the idea of promoting the search for a model of social organization which would make it possible to ensure, in an equitable and democratic way, subsistence and activities of the public [populations] without degrading the natural substrata. Such a project should then pass via a “regular reduction in material and energy consumption, in countries and for those populations which consume more than their acceptable ecological impact”.

Around this core, the visions suggested in fact remain diverse, more or less formalized according to their proponents (associations, academics …) and we are still waiting for clarifications. However, beyond the difficulties of definition, proposals on “degrowth” seem to find it all the more difficult to be considered in the debates as the ways of getting there seem even more vague. It is this problem (almost ignored) that this paper wishes to examine. In order to pass from one state to another, with different characteristics, a transition is needed. While the point of arrival might be more clearly defined, which transition would be necessary for sustainable degrowth? The question is all the more important as the obstacles on this path are numerous. And all the more numerous as it would involve major change, on a broad scale and intended to last in time. The transition envisioned in this perspective turns on an inclusive process, supposed to intervene across a whole system in order to make it evolve right to its roots. Touching at the same time rationale, practices, institutions, cultural bases. In other words, if the aim is sustainable degrowth, this transition is similar to the search for means of extrication (“paths of extrication”), to take again (by diverting it somewhat) an expression used in the study of “democratic transitions”, in order to indicate the exit points from authoritarian modes.

Beyond this analogy, this idea of extrication is interesting in the sense that the objective of degrowth in effect presupposes that it is necessary to leave those trajectories considered to be damaging. Adopting this perspective encourages movement of the analysis toward the identification of possible paths and, in continuation, to re-situate these paths in relation to the collective choices to be carried out and with the more or less same weight as the previous structures. This extrication implies passage through a period of reorganization, which itself can have us envisage various stages, various sequences. What it is then necessary to explore, is the installation of a process of transformation, which is a matter of consciously realizing, over the long term, a nearly general adaptation combining multiple intermingled adjustments, in a plurality of dimensions (economic, technological, cultural, institutional). However, from this point of view, the proposals for degrowth do not appear truly articulated in a theory of the change.

Such an imposing transforming perspective effectively assumes one collective intention as to the direction to be considered, but also raises the stakes in finding the means of organizing or “managing” such a transition. In fact, a project, especially one with such vast ambition, can only be carried out with difficulty if the conditions under which it can apply are thought through. It raises interdependent problems, and whatever the entry point, leads to a pass through a cascade of subjects which can hardly be treated without an overall picture. What it also means is that one has to find a plurality of levers whose actions are coherent amongst themselves. As much on the analytical level as the pragmatic, it then becomes preferable to have a systemic overview of the situation and its possible evolution. But that leads at the same time to the question of complexity (because of a multitude of potentially heterogeneous variables to take into account) and the possibility of dealing with it within a logic of change.

Beyond the question of “what to do?”, this paper aims especially at “how to make?”. Indeed, the difficulties evoked above encourage us to take more seriously the transitional dimension, and to reflect more on the adaptation of the idea of transition. In particular it will be a question of examining their bases and the implications of them, acting in particular on the design of the transition as a process to be managed, of the capacity to correct trajectories considered to be problematic, and conditions of collective action vis-a-vis a project aiming at the social whole.

Thus reconsidered, in the end the prospect for the “sustainable degrowth” would have the intent to reflect on:
– the terms of diffusion and acceptance of ideas (like those of sobriety in consumption, of criticism of materialist satisfaction, of revision in the manner of thinking of work…);
– the possibilities of generalizing practices and capitalization of experiences (such as those aimed at revising the links with goods, the modes of use of products, or using innovative forms of economic solidarity like recycling shops…) ;
– the work of coordination to be engaged between existing initiatives (like those seeking to restore short circuits, to create buying co-operatives, to bring consumers and producers closer together…).

These are the three axes that this paper proposes to explore more deeply. In effect, these three axes are less avoidable as they correspond to three fields of confrontation.

The first confronts the project of “sustainable degrowth” with the need to consider standard schemes and vested interests. How to make dominant interests evolve, in particular economic interests? Is it enough to attack advertising as the Ad Busters try to do? If the public is to be sensitized, can conferences and marches for degrowth be enough?

Another important question is that of confrontation with those practices (modes of consumption, modes of transport…), whose anchors reveal the multiple dependences suffered by the public. From which range of proposals to draw to start the adaptation of practices? Is it necessary to support community practices, for example in energy production, housing or transport? Is it necessary to develop a “do it yourself” culture, to restore markets for second hand products?

The final ambition of the project puts it fundamentally on the level of structures, at the same time institutional, economic, technological in their dimensions, etc. The difficulty is to release these capacities, to put intervening actions in synergy, in plans or in different styles? How to structurally create the conditions for collective participation? The dynamics of networks, and more particularly setting up networks of various experiments (like Local Exchange Trading Schemes [LETS], Community-Supported Agriculture [CSA], etc.), which appear to offer one track and their joint development thus deserves more attention.

The paper can be downloaded in French.

Questions sur la « décroissance »

1 09 2008


« La décroissance soutenable face à la question du « comment ? »

   Une remise en perspective par les processus de transition et leurs

   conditions de réalisation »


Communication pour la conférence internationale « Economic degrowth for

ecological sustainability and social equity », Paris, 19 avril 2008.


=> Télécharger la contribution


Résumé :


Dans ses grandes lignes, la thématique de la « décroissance soutenable » a jusqu’à présent surtout consisté à présenter et justifier un nouvel horizon commun permettant aux populations de la planète de sortir de situations actuelles pesant sur la soutenabilité écologiques et les vies humaines. Mais, pour passer d’un état à un autre, aux caractéristiques différentes, il faut une transition. Pour que le projet soit crédible, il devrait donc aussi passer par une étape de réflexion sur la transition qui permettrait d’avancer vers une « décroissance soutenable », et notamment sur la forme de cette transition et ses modalités. De ce point de vue, alors qu’il s’agit de sortir de trajectoires jugées dommageables, les propositions sur la « décroissance » souffrent de n’être pas véritablement articulées à une théorie du changement. Celle-ci apparaît pourtant essentielle pour pouvoir penser les conditions sous lesquelles ce genre de vaste projet peut s’appliquer. En guise de base de départ, cette contribution suggère trois axes de réflexion qui s’avèrent déterminants parce qu’ils correspondent aussi à des champs de confrontation face au monde actuel, à savoir : le rapport aux valeurs dominantes, qui joue fortement sur les conditions de diffusion et d’acceptation des idées ; les possibilités de généralisation des pratiques et de capitalisation des expériences ; et les possibilités de renversement des contraintes structurelles grâce à la coordination et à la mise en réseau des initiatives existantes.


Une version légèrement remaniée du texte a été publiée sous forme d’article dans la revue Mouvements, n° 59, juillet-septembre 2009. Elle est téléchargeable sur le portail cairn pour ceux qui y ont accès ou récupérable ici dans une version qui avait été mise en ligne avant la publication au format papier.