, Volume 44, Issue 5, pp 376–390 | Cite as

Societal transformation in response to global environmental change: A review of emerging concepts

  • Giuseppe FeolaEmail author


The study of societal transformation in response to environmental change has become established, yet little consensus exists regarding the conceptual basis of transformation. This paper aims to provide structure to the dialog on transformation, and to reflect on the challenges of social research in this area. Concepts of transformation are identified through a literature review, and examined using four analytical criteria. It is found that the term ‘transformation’ is frequently used merely as a metaphor. When transformation is not used as a metaphor, eight concepts are most frequently employed. They differ with respect to (i) system conceptualization, (ii) notions of social consciousness (deliberate/emergent), and (iii) outcome (prescriptive/descriptive). Problem-based research tends to adopt concepts of deliberate transformation with prescriptive outcome, while concepts of emergent transformation with no prescriptive outcome tend to inform descriptive-analytical research. Dialog around the complementarities of different concepts and their empirical testing are priorities for future research.


Environmental change Transformation Sustainability Social science 



I am grateful to Mark Charlesworth, Ika Darnhofer and Chuks Okereke for their comments on a previous version of this manuscript, and to two anonymous reviewers and the journal editor for their insightful and challenging comments during the peer-review process. This research was funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Trust research grant.

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© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Geography and Environmental ScienceUniversity of ReadingReadingUK

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