Transformation of what, for whom, by whom? (II): Agency and pathways of change

Type: Paper
Sponsor Groups: Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group, Human Dimensions of Global Change Specialty Group, Development Geographies Specialty Group
Poster #:
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM (MDT)
Room: Washington 6, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Organizers: Karina Benessaiah, Benjamin Warner
Chairs: Benjamin Warner


This is part of a series of three sessions focusing on transformations and its links to agency, scale, power in efforts to shift towards ‘desirable’ pathways. The first session “Transformation of what, for whom, by whom? (I): Uneven vulnerabilities, uneven transformations” highlights the fact that pathways of change always involve differentiated vulnerabilities which lead to differentiated and often contested transformations. The second session “Transformation of what, for whom, by whom? (II): Agency and pathways of change” examines how agency is triggered to bring about individual transformations and how these in turn relate to and spur collective action that may lead to systemic change. The third session “Transformations of what, for whom, by whom? (III): Barriers and enablers focuses on the factors that enable or challenge desired social-ecological transformations, using case-studies from urban and peri-urban areas that have been affected by rapid change.

Overall description linking all sessions: Transformation of what, for whom, by whom? Revisiting agency, scale and power in efforts to shift towards “desirable” pathways

Understanding transformations has emerged as a core concept for integrative scholarships such as resilience, sustainability science, environmental justice that all seek to steer societies towards desirable futures. Less attention has been paid however to the issue of what is meant by “desirable”. Who are the agents creating particular futures? What do these futures look like for particular groups and places, and what is the role of agency, power, and resistance in shaping these transformation pathways?

In this 2019 AAG session, we will develop a more nuanced and systematic understanding of transformations that clarifies the linkages existing among multiple approaches to transformation(s) that operate at different scales and come from diverse disciplines (e.g. forced vs. deliberate, emergent/uncoordinated vs. planned, reformist vs. radical). What do these imply in the proposed ‘solutions’ for steering towards “desirable” sustainable pathways?

Most studies of social-ecological transformations focus on deliberate system-level transformations, those that are strategically guided by a set of influential actors (Westley et al. 2013; Moore et al. 2014; Werbeloff et al. 2016). However, system-level transformations may also occur as the result of emergent uncoordinated transformations (Kates et al. 2012; Feola 2015), and are often resulting from conflicts and resistance to dominant views and paradigms (Temper et al. 2018). In some instances, initiatives defined as transformative may in fact reinforce structures that prevent broader level transformation towards sustainable pathways (Warner and Kuzdas 2017). If transformative action requires a radical reinvention of how social and natural systems operate (O’Brien 2012, Pelling et al. 2015, Manuel-Navarrete and Pelling 2015), people, and especially marginalized groups, will need to confront and challenge dominant structures and processes, and imagine new alternatives. How does this occur and how may we measure success? More research is needed to understand how different transformative actions co-exist, putting emphasis on agency, power and the constraining role of existing political, economic and cultural structures. Focusing on the interplay between agents and structures is essential to identify what underlying normative goal underpins these transformation processes and existing challenges and opportunities to realize said transformations. We thus ask: in what ways do particular transformative activities reinforce and/or challenge specific dimensions of dominant social structures and economies? What transformation pathways are being forged, by whom and for whom? How are different dimensions of transformations– for instance the personal, practical and political (O’Brien and Sygna 2003) – co-constitutive?

Paper topics include discussion of:
• Theoretical and/or case-studies that discuss the linkages between different types of transformations (forced vs. deliberate, emergent vs. planned; radical vs. reformist)
• Agency and structure in transformative processes: how do agents challenge and/or reinforce particular transformative pathways?
• Redefining agency: imagining and creating new presents and futures
• Scale and teleconnections in transformation(s): the role of surprises and unexpected outcomes
• Intersectionality and transformation(s): how are transformations in place/sector/group affecting another place/sector/group?
• Interplay between different spheres of transformation (personal, political, practical)
• Integration of different disciplinary approaches to understandings of transformation

Feola, G. (2015) Societal transformation in response to global environmental change: A review of emerging concepts. Ambio, 44, 376-390.

Kates RW, Travis WR, Wilbanks TJ: Transformational adaptation when incremental adaptations to climate change are insufficient. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2012, 109:7156-7161

Moore, M. L., O. Tjornbo, E. Enfors, C. Knapp, J. Hodbod, J. A. Baggio, A. Norstrom, P. Olsson & D. Biggs (2014) Studying the complexity of change: Toward an analytical framework for understanding deliberate social-ecological transformations. Ecology and Society, 19.

O'Brien, K. (2012) Global environmental change II: From adaptation to deliberate transformation. Progress in Human Geography, 36, 667-676.

O'Brien, K. & L. Sygna (2013) Responding to Climate Change: The Three Spheres of Transformation. Proceedings of Transformation in a Changing Climate, 16-23.

Pelling M, O’Brien K, Matyas D: Adaptation and transformation. Clim Change 2015, 133:113-127

Manuel-Navarrete D, Pelling M: Subjectivity and the politics of transformation in response to development and environmental change. Glob Environ Change 2015, 35:558-569

Temper, L., M. Walter, I. Rodriguez, A. Kothari & E. Turhan (2018) A radical perspective on transformations to sustainability: resistances, movements, alternatives. Sustain Sci.

Warner, Benjamin P, and Christopher P Kuzdas. “The Role of Political Economy in Framing and Producing Transformative Adaptation.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 29 (2017): 69–74.

Werbeloff, L., R. R. Brown & D. Loorbach (2016) Pathways of system transformation: Strategic agency to support regime change. Environmental Science & Policy, 66, 119-128.

Westley, F. R., O. Tjornbo, L. Schultz, P. Olsson, C. Folke, B. Crona & Ö. Bodin (2013) A Theory of Transformative Agency in Linked Social-Ecological Systems. Ecology and Society, 18.


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter Karina Benessaiah*, McGill University, Hallie Eakin, Arizona State University, Crisis, Transformation, and Agency: Why are People Going Back to the Land in Greece? 20 9:55 AM
Presenter Jessica Blythe*, Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, Brock University, Steve Alexander, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Derek Armitage, School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability, University of Waterloo, Julia Baird, Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, Brock University, Cheryl Chan, International Development Research Centre, Gillian Dale, Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, Brock University, Emily Darling, Wildlife Conservation Society, Noella Gray, Department of Geography, University of Guelph, Georgina Gurney, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, Marilyne Jollineau, Geography and Tourism Studies, Brock University, Gary Pickering, Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, Brock University, Jeremy Pittman, School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, University of Waterloo, Ryan Plummer, Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, Brock University, A collective action framework for transformations to sustainability 20 10:15 AM
Presenter Jeanne Firth*, London School of Economics, Foodscape Lagniappe: Philanthropy in the 'new' New Orleans 20 10:35 AM
Presenter Stephen Axon*, , Othering, public engagement, and community-based sustainability: The cultural geographies of addressing climate change 20 10:55 AM
Discussant Karen O'Brien University of Oslo 20 11:15 AM

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