Dissertation ProjectOpening the toolbox... Cultural anthropological insights into current “sustainability” efforts

Dissertation Project at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology at Goethe University Frankfurt.

Doctoral Canditate: Britta Acksel
Supervisor: Prof. Gisela Welz (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt).
Second Supervisor: Prof. Jörg Niewöhner (Humboldt-Universität Berlin)
Funded by: Studienförderwerk Klaus Murmann within the Think Lab „Energie-Gesellschaft-Wandel“.

A project of the Virtual Institute (VI) “Energy Transition NRW”

Basis of the research project is the question how political, economic and civil society actors as well as actors from administration and research try to make cities more sustainable and resilient in light of current and predicted climate change. One answer is that they try to do so using Transformation Instruments (TI). TI is a term developed based on the concept of Policy Instrumentation to describe Instruments such as Actionsweeks, Idealabs, Roadmaps and Masterplans. They are “’new’ soft forms of governance” (Bruno et al. 2006, 519) and are characterized by flexibility, voluntariness and limited temporality, as well as through their communicative and consultative character.

Starting with the question how actors try to transform cities towards “sustainability”, four basic functionalities of TIs were identified: Planning, Innovation, Information and Activating Focus. In context of a new Anthropology of Policy (AoP) based on concepts from Science and Technology Studies, and in relation to political sociology policy research approaches, the thesis is that TIs are not neutral, but political. They do not only have agency in terms of Latour, but are analytical windows that enable insights into ongoing transformation processes (Adam, Vonderau 2014, 17f). In six ethnographic case studies in the European cities Essen (Germany), Malmö (Sweden), and Almada (Portugal), three questions will be answered:
1. How is the practicality and plausibility of TIs constituted?
2. How do TIs work and how are they applied?
3. What (unintended) effects und implications do TIs have exceeding classical evaluations?

In each city one Action Week was chosen as example for a TI with an Activating Focus. The second case in each city, was chosen according to to one of the other three functionalities: in Almada research will be doneon a TI with Planning Focus, the Strategic Energy Action Plan of the city, in Essen about the title of the European Green Capital a TI with Information Focus, and in Malmö about a TI with an Innovation Focus, the Idea Lab for sustainable development Kommendanthuset. This allows a comparison between cities concerning the TIs with an Activating Focus, while at the same time the other three case studies will be conducted according to the US-American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973, 26) who suggested: “not to generalize across cases […] but within them“. Following this call, it will be possible to generate new insides by doing single case analyses.

An increased understanding about the practices that are used to make cities more sustainable and resilient is highly relevant, since cities are not only especially vulnerable to effects of climate change , they are also the places were (Bulkeley 2013; Giddens 2009) more than half of the worldwide CO2 emissions are emitted.

A summary of the dissertation project you can find here.