Comments on seminar ‘Identities and Transition’

I would like to share with you some thoughts about the seminar of three weeks ago. I believe we missed an important part of the topic we set out to discuss. It would be great if you could share your thoughts on this, and maybe even point to relevant literature.

 As a newcomer, both to the scientific community and the study sustainable transitions, I may have overlooked some parts of the seminar and the material that was discussed. I hope you can point this out if necessary.

 First of all I would like to say that I enjoyed the seminar. I came to England hoping to learn something about the role of identity within transitions towards a more sustainable future. But I came back to Amsterdam with a far more diverse set of insights, ranging from consensual decision making to different conceptions of activism. However, on my way back I couldn’t  help but feel that we missed an important part of the story. To be precise, we didn’t really address the second research question of the seminar outline: “How identities might change and be reconfigured through the process of transition to a sustainable, low carbon future?” Although most of the presentations and discussions focused on the link between social context and identity in sustainable transitions, very few focused on the dynamics behind this relation: how do identities change? How do identities get reconfigured?

 In this light, two very interesting categories of processes deserve more attention: 1. the influence of social context on the transformation of identity (why and how do some circumstances lead to individual or collective transformation/reconfiguration of identity?) and 2.  the influence of identity transformation on the sustainable transition itself: in what way do different identities affect the transition differently?

 I have to admit that this point is not devoid of some self-interest: such a focus fits closely to my own research. This is of course why I hoped the seminar would have dealt with this issue more specifically. In my research I aim to investigate the role of inter-stakeholder conflict in sustainable transitions. My (very preliminary) hypothesis is that conflict (and some kind of conflict resolution) is an important motor of change (in sustainable transitions) as it can put a severe strain on the identity of the stakeholders involved, resulting in some form of collective learning and corresponding transformation of individual or collective identity. Hence, my research fits within both of the categories described above: how does conflict relate to the transformation of identity, and how does this subsequently influence the transition trajectory?

 These thoughts of course depend on some specific definition of identity, social context and conflict. It is not my intention to delve into this matter here. I hope that you understand what I’m trying to say, even without such minimal academic rigour. What do you think about this? Maybe some of you have interesting articles covering these issues? Perhaps some of you disagree? Or maybe you have something to add?

[Post by Misha Velthuis]


  1. Hi Misha,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the seminar and got a lot out of it. I think you are right that, compared to other issues, we didn’t really end up debating the question of how identities might be reconfigured in the process of transitions to a sustainable, low carbon future in enough depth.

    The questions you pose are important ones and I would like to see them discussed further. Also, as I pointed out in the introduction to the seminar, I think a lot more work needs to be done to think about the political ecology of social identities (and identity politics) in the Global North over the last half century. More than this, I think how (and the extent to which) identities change really depends on what type of sustainability transition is achieved – a ‘business as usual’ transition to low carbon electricity without other substantial changes in consumption practices is unlikely to instigate significant changes in how people perform and understand their identities. The final point I want to make is that identities are contextual and relational – not all identities will change in the same ways or to the same extent, whatever sustainability transition is enacted. We cannot discuss identities and social difference without attending to the uneven power relations between different social groups in specific geographical contexts.

    I hope this response helps provoke further discussion and debate.