University of Sussex
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Civil society roles in transition: towards sustainable food?

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posted on 2023-06-08, 19:13 authored by Rachael DurrantRachael Durrant
Civil society organisations (CSOs) in the UK are currently engaged in attempts to make food systems more sustainable, i.e. greener, fairer and healthier. These efforts have been maintained over several decades, for instance the Soil Association was launched in response to concerns about modern agriculture and food in 1946. But more sustainable food systems remain marginal. Thus, the aim of this thesis is to improve understanding of the important roles that CSOs can and do play within processes of large-scale social change (or ‘transitions’). It does this by developing a typology of the distinguishable roles played by CSOs in transition, and relating this to empirical findings from three UK case studies. Through a mixture of field observations, documentary analysis and in-depth interviewing, it makes a number of relevant findings. First, it provides detailed empirical characterisation of the activities, relationships with other actors, and stated intentions of specific CSOs. Second, it finds that CSOs chart unique transformative pathways, both individually and collectively, which emerge from their interactions and strategic repositioning over time. Third, rather than being guided by a single shared vision of transition, CSOs are found to be engaged in a plurality of intended transformations that contend with, cross-cut and partially encompass each other. These findings contribute to scholarly knowledge about how civil society innovation operates at different structural levels, targets different elements within socio-technical systems, and engages different kinds of actors and practices. They also reinforce and extend existing understandings of how civil society actors exercise power in the context of transitions, and reveal how systemic perspectives – such as underlie transitions theory – can obfuscate both the intentions and activities of the actors involved, thereby raising questions about the attribution of agency in studies of transition.


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  • SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit Theses

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  • doctoral

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  • phd


  • eng


University of Sussex

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