Making sense of sustainability transitions locally: how action research contributes to addressing societal challenges

Julia Maria Wittmayer*, Niko Schäpke, Frank van Steenbergen, Ines Omann

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

81 Citations (Scopus)


Today’s society is facing a broad array of societal challenges, such as an unstable economic system, climate change and lasting poverty. There are no straightforward solutions, rather these challenges ask for fundamental societal changes, that is, sustainability transitions. Faced with the question of how these challenges can be understood and dealt with, we argue for action research as a promising approach. Focusing on their localized manifestations, we ask whether and how action research can support understanding and addressing societal challenges and making sustainability meaningful locally. We tackle this question on the basis of two case studies in local communities based on principles of transition management. Our main finding is that societal challenges, sustainability and sustainability transitions acquire meaning through practice and interactions in the local context. Action research can offer a space in which alternative ideas (e.g., knowledge, future visions), practices (e.g., practical experiments, transformative action) and social relations (e.g., new actors) can emerge to further a sustainability transition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)465-485
Number of pages21
JournalCritical Policy Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2 Oct 2014
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This article is based on research carried out as part of the project ‘InContext – Supportive environments for sustainable living’ which was funded by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) under grant agreement 265191. The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. We would like to thank Tim O’Riordan, the symposium editor Koen Bartels and the two anonymous reviewers of CPS for their constructive comments on earlier versions of this paper.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014, © 2014 Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.


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