Sustainability Science

, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 483–496 | Cite as

Action, research and participation: roles of researchers in sustainability transitions

  • Julia M. WittmayerEmail author
  • Niko Schäpke
Original Article


In sustainability science, the tension between more descriptive–analytical and more process-oriented approaches is receiving increasing attention. The latter entails a number of roles for researchers, which have largely been neglected in the literature. Based on the rich tradition of action research and on a specific process-oriented approach to sustainability transitions (transition management), we establish an in-depth understanding of the activities and roles of researchers. This is done by specifying ideal-type roles that researchers take when dealing with key issues in creating and maintaining space for societal learning—a core activity in process-oriented approaches. These roles are change agent, knowledge broker, reflective scientist, self-reflexive scientist and process facilitator. To better understand these ideal-type roles, we use them as a heuristic to explore a case of transition management in Rotterdam. In the analysis, we discuss the implications of this set of ideal-type roles for the self-reflexivity of researchers, role conflicts and potentials, and for the changing role of the researcher and of science in general.


Roles of researchers Process-oriented sustainability science Transition management Action research Transdisciplinarity 



This article is based on research from 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. The authors would like to thank Frank van Steenbergen, Tim O’Riordan, Jill Jaeger, Derk Loorbach, Georg Feiner, Ines Omann, Mirijam Mock and Stefanie Baasch of the InContext team. Special thanks go to the four anonymous reviewers of Sustainability Science for their valuable feedback and comments on an earlier draft of this article.


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dutch Research Institute for Transitions (DRIFT)Erasmus University RotterdamRotterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Institute for Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability ResearchLeuphana University of LüneburgLüneburgGermany

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