A Crisis of Culture

The future looks bleak. Regardless of where we are in the world, we face a changing climate, depleted resources, widespread pollution, the exacerbation of inequities and consequential challenges to health, welfare and geopolitical stability. Humanity is facing a sustainability crisis. I believe that this is largely a crisis of culture.

Culture is complicit because the origins of our sustainability predicament lie in the cultural enactment of ideologies of over-consumption, capitalism and colonialism. Cultural processes can constrain transformational change because of the tenacity of deeply embedded patterns of beliefs, practices and material expectations. Yet culture can also be a powerful force for change. Culture can quickly adapt to new circumstances, and much can be learned from the many cultures that have long known what it takes to live sustainably.

Reader, I feel you nodding. Such sweeping statements are easy to agree with. But what does culture mean in these contexts? How do we even understand culture?

In a lay sense, culture is an attractive concept when it comes to explaining sustainability problems. It is a convenient catch-all term for everything that is mystifying or hard to change about human collective behaviour. It can be used to generalise the problem to a point of abstraction (e.g. ‘the problem is Western culture’) or to over-simplify the solution (e.g. ‘we just have to change our culture’). It is used as a device for directing criticism at others (e.g. ‘their organisational culture is terrible’) or for deflecting criticism away from ourselves (e.g. ‘that’s just our culture’). It is often used tautologically (‘culture is the problem but that’s the way culture works’) or as a reason for inaction (‘it’s culture so it’s not going to change’). It is afflicted with the curse of common sense (‘of course everyone knows what culture is’) and the curse of the residual (‘it’s everything about humans that we can’t explain or don’t understand’). So while culture is an attractive idea, using it simplistically can be worse than useless: it actively supports the unsustainable status quo by giving it an excuse.

If culture is an elusive concept in its lay sense, it is many times worse in its academic sense. Culture is claimed and used in very specific ways in different disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, media studies, business management, consumption studies, creative arts and in the biological sciences. Some disciplines have developed such specialised terminologies to describe their interpretation of culture that their work has essentially become a closed shop, inaccessible to those in other disciplines. Within disciplines there may be further divergences of meaning based on obscure points of theory. To compound its slipperiness, I have noticed that culture is often undefined in academic articles, books and policy reports, leaving it to the reader to bring their own assumptions and understandings. It is hardly surprising that academic and cultural critic Raymond Williams famously called culture ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’ (Williams, 1976: 76).

Culture deserves to be better understood. Like a deep, slow river, it has a deceptively smooth surface that reflects back what we bring to it. For culture to become a useful concept for sustainability analysis, we need to peer into the depths to become aware of culture’s many channels, divergences and undercurrents. We need to look upstream to become aware of its origins and its journey over time and space. We need to find ways of harnessing its power to help navigate our way to a sustainable future.

This book is concerned not just with culture’s meaning, but also with what culture is and does. At its most fundamental, culture is about difference between groups of people. We are aware that our partner’s family have their own rituals around meals and celebrations. We notice when people wear clothes or eat food that are beyond our concept of normal. We can see that our friend’s workplace is less hierarchical than ours. Some of the words and symbols used by teenagers are a mystery to us. And yet our own way of life seems entirely normal. It can be hard to see our own culture without stepping outside of it.

This very quality of differentiation means that culture can be an ideological weapon. The colonial project was in large part driven by the conviction that Western culture was the peak of civilisation and Western nations therefore had the right to global domination. The resulting cultural hegemony led to the destruction and ongoing domination and repression of many non-Western societies. Cultural difference is at the heart of othering: in beliefs about entitlement, in cultural appropriation and in culture wars. Culture is intimately related to power.

If we look more deeply again, culture reflects one side of the foundational nature–culture schism in dominant Western conceptualisations of the world. Nature is perceived to be fundamentally separate from humans and their ideas, beliefs, actions and products. This nature–culture dichotomy shaped Western science, impelled particular forms of economy and business, and underpins the belief that nature is infinitely replaceable by human ingenuity: a belief whose danger we are now learning to our peril. This duality shapes most European language systems, such that word couplings like ‘bio-cultural’ or ‘social-ecological’ are required to refer to the wholeness of existence. Through the language used by many of us, this binary code creates habits of thought that are hard to elude. In contrast, many Indigenous societies perceive people and nature to be seamlessly entangled, and this is reflected in their languages and practices. Within many Indigenous worldviews, there is no directly equivalent term to culture that sets it as separate to nature, because elements of nature are kin. Those of us accustomed to a Western worldview must take care that we are not automatically dismissing non-Western ontologies in our conceptualisations of culture.

So while it may be easy to agree that culture is a critical factor in transitioning to a sustainable future, it is not obvious what to do next. Used in a lay sense, culture can be invisible, unhelpful and unsafe. In the scholarly realm, culture is fragmented by academic understandings and often couched in inaccessible language. Where it is used, it is often undefined which increases the risk of scholars talking past each other. Cultures are diverse, and the identification of difference brings the risk of discrimination and domination. In addition, culture is preloaded with a binary perspective of a world, which is increasingly untenable in addressing the sustainability crisis.

Culture and Sustainability seeks to address this impasse. It aims to make culture an accessible and useable concept for researchers and practitioners working on sustainability challenges. To assist with this, the book describes a framework for cultural analysis that was initially developed to study sustainability issues in energy and transport in New Zealand (Stephenson, 2018, 2020; Stephenson et al., 2010, 2015) and now is widely used in research on sustainability questions and the development of policy advice. The framework has proved particularly fruitful in analysing culture and its relationship to sustainability outcomes, regardless of topic, scale or location. Culture and Sustainability draws from this extensive body of work, with three main aims: to link the cultures framework more closely to the multiverse of scholarly literature on culture; to further develop and expound the framework as a basis for research and as a scaffolding for interdisciplinary and multi-theoretical studies; and to show how the framework can be used to underpin research and policy interventions to support sustainability transitions.

I wrote this book because I am deeply concerned about humanity’s unsustainable trajectory and our apparent inability to change course rapidly enough to avoid catastrophe. I believe that those who have capacity to act to redirect this trajectory have a responsibility to do so. In particular, those of us who are privileged to be in academic or professional roles bear a particular obligation as conscious and informed actors who have personally benefitted from unsustainable systems over our lifetimes.

The book was written with an audience of four in mind: a postgraduate student, a senior policy advisor, the leader of an interdisciplinary research project and an academic specialising in cultural theory. My goal was to offer the student a foundation for their research methodology; to help the practitioner to design policy for sustainability interventions; to show the research leader how the framework can support a multi-method, integrated research programme; and to offer sufficient theoretical robustness and novelty to pique the cultural academic’s interest. In addition, I wanted the book to be accessible to lay readers interested in culture and/or sustainability challenges. Where I refer to ‘we’ in the book, I mean myself and all my readers.

Over the rest of this chapter, I will revisit why cultural analysis has such a key role in achieving a sustainable future and briefly introduce my own work with interdisciplinary research teams that led to the development of the cultures framework. But first, I return to the meanings of culture.

What Is Culture?

Having thoroughly confused my readers with culture’s complexity and slipperiness, it is only fair that I come to your rescue and offer (at least for the time being) a foundation on which to start. In the social sciences, and particularly in anthropology and sociology, culture is a core explanatory concept. It usually refers to shared qualities and social processes that are neither unique to individuals nor common to humanity as a whole. Culture is about how social groups develop and retain distinctive features; how they convey meanings and identity; and how they maintain membership over time. Cultural processes underpin the differences across human societies as well as the relative homogeneity within any given group of social actors.

Put very simply, culture comprises similar patterns across a group of people in how they think, what they do and what they have. In later chapters, I will complicate and refine this notion, but it is a good place to start. Culture reflects the fact that what we think, do and have (at home, in the workplace, online, in the community, with our friends) is strongly influenced by others. Culture comprises ways of understanding and thinking about the world that we share with others and which motivate us to act as we do, actions that we undertake on a regular or irregular basis, and things that we make, use, appreciate or acquire. An important feature of culture is how these are interconnected: shared cognitive features shape what we do and what we have; actions we learn from others shape how we think and what we have; and what we have shapes what we do and how we think. These dynamics are indicated in Fig. 1.1.

Fig. 1.1
A cyclic diagram includes have, think, and do.

Fundamental elements and dynamics of culture

Exploring the implications of culture for sustainability is a somewhat different task to examining culture more generally. Rather than examining cultures that are definable by, say, particular musical tastes or beliefs about the afterlife, I am interested in aspects of culture(s) that have implications for societal, environmental and/or economic wellbeing. There is a sturdy thread of such studies, such as work on cultures of consumption (McCracken, 1990), cultures of waste (Hawkins & Muecke, 2003), petrocultures (Wilson et al., 2017) and on automobility, the cultural norming of car ownership (Urry, 2004). Culture also has positive associations with a more sustainable future, such as the worldviews, values and associated practices of at least some Indigenous cultures (Artelle et al., 2018; Berkes, 1999) and those of groups who work on environmental causes (e.g. Peace et al., 2012) or intentionally change their behaviours and consumption choices (e.g. Quinn & Westwood, 2018). At a governance scale, actions and decisions are shaped by ‘political cultures’ (Geels et al., 2007) and ‘policy cultures’ (Bailey, 2007), and nations may have different ‘energy cultures’ (Stephenson et al., 2021).

In all these senses and more, culture can be seen to play an important role in causing the unsustainable world we now inhabit and to have the potential to play an even more important role in transitioning to a sustainable one (Goggins et al., 2022; Sovacool & Griffiths, 2020a, 2020b). The past ten years have seen a surge of interest in social science research on culture, much of it in the field of energy and transport. However, culture is largely overlooked in most sustainability literature or is placed in a residual category of influences rather than being recognised as the powerful force that it is. Accordingly, this book aims to make culture more accessible as a concept, and more effective as an analytical lens.

Why Culture Matters

The nature of the sustainability crisis is well traversed elsewhere and does not need to be repeated here in any detail: it is a cascading destabilisation of Earth’s natural systems, with terrifying implications for the health and wellbeing of humans and other living things. The crisis tends to be described through partial descriptors such as climate change, mass extinctions, pollution, deforestation or ocean acidification, and its human impacts through labels like food crises, climate migration, financial crashes, geopolitical tensions and intergenerational inequities (United Nations, 2015). The crisis, however, does not come in neat packages. It comprises the totality of these and other measures of destabilisation and the linkages between them (Lade et al., 2020; Steffen et al., 2015). Its fundamental causes are systems of exploitation, production and consumption that are founded in a belief that Earth’s systems have an infinite capacity to act as a source of resources and a sink for waste (Klein, 2015).

Responsibility for the sustainability crisis is unevenly shared. Considering just greenhouse gas emissions, the world’s wealthiest countries (including the United States, Canada, Japan and much of western Europe) are responsible for 50% of all greenhouse gases (GHG) produced from industry and fossil fuels since 1850, despite comprising only 12% of the global population (Andrew & Peters, 2021). Analysed in relation to businesses, two-thirds of historical greenhouse gas emissions between 1880 to 2010 were produced by only 90 companies (Ekwurzel et al., 2017), and since 1998, 71% of the global GHG emissions have been produced by just 100 companies (Griffin, 2017). Looking at comparative responsibility another way, the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population were responsible for around 50% of global emissions in 2020, with the wealthiest 1% responsible for 15% of emissions. In contrast, the world’s poorest 50% were responsible for only 7% of global GHG emissions (Kartha et al., 2020).

Accordingly, a small proportion of nations, corporations and individuals are the prime promulgators (and beneficiaries) of unsustainable systems of production and consumption. Their motivations, actions and material choices have dominated the degradation of the world’s natural systems as well as amassing wealth in few hands. Capitalism inherently requires inequalities in order to thrive (Piketty, 2020). Because of these actors and their actions, much of the remainder of humanity has either been exploited and distanced from any ability to establish a modest sustainable livelihood, or has become inexorably captured by the pursuit of unsustainable consumption, such that living beyond planetary limits has become normalised and largely unquestionable. Despite widespread knowledge of the damage they are causing, these powerful actors have continued to enrich themselves and exploit others at the cost of the stability of global systems (Dunlap & Brulle, 2020). This is implicitly supported by the widely shared belief that humans and organisations have the right to pursue their wealth and power objectives despite the extreme costs borne by the rest of humanity and other species, now and into the future.

It is still possible to change direction, but, as is evident from the recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations, we have very little time left (IPCC, 2022; United Nations, 2022). Within one generation (25 years), the world needs to achieve net zero carbon emissions alongside markedly reducing other critical exceedances. This will require radical changes to established ways of sourcing materials, providing services and creating products as well as to accepted levels of consumption by the (relatively) wealthy. It will require transformations in all sectors of society including governance agencies, businesses, communities and households. The scope of the challenge cannot be underestimated. It involves restoring the integrity of environmental systems while grappling with the impacts of climate change and other self-inflicted destabilisations, along with developing sustainable livelihoods and resilient communities, and ensuring that inequities are addressed or at least not exacerbated. If these radical changes are not achieved, more radical changes will be forced upon us all by an unravelling planet.

Visions of how deep-seated the transition needs to be are hugely varied. The most widely promoted concept of a sustainable future is captured by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These were adopted by all United Nations Member States as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2015). The seventeen SDGs include ending poverty and other deprivations, improving health and education, reducing inequality, tackling climate change and preserving oceans and forests, while at the same time spurring economic growth. A similar approach is taken by the International Energy Agency, which aligns renewable energy expansion with jobs and economic growth (International Energy Agency, 2020). In these visions, sustainability means the concurrent pursuit of social, economic and environmental goals, while overlooking that many will be incommensurable and thus require trade-offs (Spangenberg, 2017). If the main measure of success is economic growth, then it is inevitable that social and environmental goals will suffer.

Yet it is increasingly clear that aspirations for everlasting economic growth as promoted by orthodox economics will need to be tempered by biophysical realities (Boston, 2022). An alternative perspective recognises that the functions of natural systems cannot be substituted, that growth and resource use cannot be sufficiently decoupled, and that humans must constrain their consumption to avoid destroying the natural processes on which we depend (Ayres et al., 2001; Parrique et al., 2019). This is reflected in ‘doughnut economics’ which takes the position that economic activity should operate within a safe and just space for humanity. Consumption aspirations must be tempered so that all people have access to the essentials of life (e.g. sufficient food, housing, a political voice, adequate health care) while not overshooting Earth’s natural systems (Raworth, 2017).

Other analysts call for an even more profound re-visioning of local and global economies, arguing that to live within biophysical limits will involve radical reductions in expectations of financial wealth and consumer items, and living in simpler, more locally focused ways. This will require degrowth (i.e. purposeful reductions in GDP) and is argued by some to require new economic systems such as post-growth or post-capitalist economies (Büchs & Koch, 2019; Jackson, 2021; Kallis, 2018).

Regardless of how far-reaching the changes will need to be, the process of getting there will be complicated and hard. It will involve the transformation of systems of production and consumption that have caused the global sustainability crisis. It requires major adjustments away from business-as-usual at all scales, and the realisation of ideas that only a decade ago seemed radical, such as embargoes on new fossil fuel developments, circular economies, net zero housing, carbon-negative cities and regenerative agriculture. Most fundamentally, it requires discarding ideologies that have underpinned the unsustainable economic system over the past 200 years, and developing new shared ideologies, institutions and practices that will enable humans to live within planetary limits and ensure that sustainability transitions incorporate and achieve distributional, procedural and restorative justice (McCauley & Heffron, 2018).

Unfortunately, there is insufficient traction with any of these ambitions. The United Nations reports that the sustainable development goals for 2030 seem increasingly unachievable, and that humanity’s own survival is in grave danger as a result of interlinked and cascading crises (United Nations, 2022). The rate of species extinctions is accelerating and is hundreds of times higher than in the past 10 million years (IPBES, 2019). If current country policies continue, the globe is on track for a temperature increase of between 2 and 3.6 degrees by 2100. Even if pledges and targets made as part of countries’ nationally determined contributions are put into effect, there will still be a rise of around 2.1 degrees by the end of the century (Climate Analytics & New Climate Institute, 2022). Despite their apparent intent to take action, nations and sectors are not changing quickly enough and are unwilling to undertake change at the scale and depth required.

We can point the finger of blame in many directions: at politicians who fear backlash from their voters; at powerful industries that see most profits in the status quo; at economic systems that favour short-term profit over long-term benefits; at business sectors that keep doing the same thing because it is the easiest; at policies that give favour to business-as-usual; at social media for promulgating denial and unrealistic expectations; or at householders who aspire to live what, to them, seems to be a normal life. While some are more responsible than others, all are complicit in perpetuating the crisis, and none can solely deliver the solutions we need. Across all of these actors, the fundamental issue is the intractability of unsustainable beliefs, ideologies, values, practices and material expectations—a crisis of culture.

Culture is fundamental to the transformative changes that are needed to avert the worst impacts of a destabilising planet and to create a more hopeful and just future. Sustainability transitions, as they are often called, necessarily involve societal transformations as well as political, economic and technological ones. Most perspectives on transitions to date have paid little attention to culture, although some work in the field of socio-technical transitions has explored aspects of culture’s influence within broader processes (e.g. Geels & Verhees, 2011; Sovacool & Griffiths, 2020a, 2020b). Winkler (2020) describes the current crisis as primarily resulting from cultural hegemony by the ruling class who share an ideology that centralises economic growth, with unsustainable consequences that include a damaged environment and social inequities. He proposes that this dominant culture can only be altered by change agents from civil society, business and government who promote the destabilisation of the dominant regime and its replacement with new ideologies and related material and non-material conditions that align with sustainable outcomes. Purposeful cultural change at multiple scales is critical to achieving sustainability transitions.

Introducing the Cultures Framework

Culture—as it relates to sustainability—urgently needs to be better understood. If we are to have a chance of getting to the end of this century without completely undermining planetary life-support systems, we need to understand how culture operates. We need to know how and why some cultures change while others remain relatively static. We need to discover how more sustainable cultures have emerged in the past, and whether and how they have maintained these characteristics. We need to understand the reach and influence of powerful unsustainable cultures, and how these might be refashioned. We need to see how new cultural arrangements—new ways of thinking, doing and having—are sparked, emerge and spread.

But we have a problem. Culture is one of the most widely used concepts in the social sciences, yet academics disagree on what it means, and lay people have vague and varied understandings. Academics can be critical of how non-specialists use the concept of culture, while, from a lay perspective, academic preciousness and jargon make its meaning almost impossible to penetrate. How, then, to effectively use the concept of culture as an analytical framing to assist in achieving the sustainability transition? Instead of being obscure and unreachable, or alternatively used as an excuse or an accusation, how can we make culture comprehensible and applicable by anyone to the sustainability problems they face?

The cultures framework (Fig. 1.2) is an extensively tested answer to these questions. It is introduced fully in Chapter 4 and elaborated with examples in Chapters 58. It is a conceptual framework representing the dynamic ensemble of culture and its relationship with sustainability outcomes. As shown in Fig. 1.2, it draws attention to broader influences on culture that may act to reinforce cultural patterns or alternatively may enable change. The framework centres on any actors in whom we are interested—such as individuals, households, communities, organisations, businesses or governments—and takes account of their agency (their ability to make choices and act) because ultimately the sustainability transition will not occur without actors having the ability to make purposeful change to their cultural ensembles.

Fig. 1.2
A cyclic diagram involves materiality, motivators, and activities with external influence supporting cultural change impacting them. At the bottom is a triangle labeled outcomes with a double ended arrow pointing upwards.

The cultures framework

The cultures framework is simultaneously a framework to support interdisciplinary, multi-theory investigations into culture, and a model that can be used for analysis in its own right. At the time of writing, it had been used to underpin or inform over 100 research projects in more than 30 countries by researchers from a wide range of knowledge systems and disciplines. It has been shown to provide fruitful insights into both cultural inertia and processes of cultural change. At its most basic, the framework helps researchers and lay people to ‘see’ culture as a tangible, dynamic process rather than a puzzling and immutable feature of the social realm.

I played a leading role in the development, testing and refinement of what we initially called the ‘energy cultures framework’ in the interdisciplinary Energy Cultures research programmes which we carried out in New Zealand between 2008 and 2016. Our core interest at that time was in exploring why it was so difficult for households and businesses to change to more energy-efficient behaviours and/or technologies. Existing discipline-based analytical approaches offered only partial insights into why change was so hard. We looked at explanations from microeconomics, behavioural economics, technology adoption models, social and environmental psychology and various sociological theories including socio-technical systems and practice theories. Each offered a window on an aspect of behaviour change, but most did not deal well with the fact that humans live within a complex system of influences that cannot be reduced to simple linear explanations of cause and effect. We had a hunch that the messy interplay of personal, societal and technological factors—including social norms, people’s relationships with technologies, organisational behaviours and broad-scale ideologies and institutions—was strongly influential in maintaining the status quo. But while aspects of this puzzling mélange were well examined through particular disciplines or theories, we lacked a conceptual framework to consider this complex of influences as a whole.

From its first iteration, the cultures framework drew from multiple theories and explanations of behaviour from the social sciences, and aimed to span research traditions centred on the individual and those focused on wider social processes (detailed in Stephenson, 2018; Stephenson et al., 2010; Stephenson, Barton, et al., 2015). Its theoretical roots included concepts of habitus (Bourdieu, 1977), structuration (Giddens, 1984), practice (Reckwitz, 2002; Shove & Spurling, 2013), lifestyles (Chaney, 1996), socio-technical systems (Geels, 2002), actor-network theory (Latour, 1996), systems thinking (Midgely, 2003) and anthropological and sociological approaches to culture (Hays, 1994; Ortner, 1984). From the outset, the framework depicted culture as the interplay between how people think and what they do and have. The terminology of this triad has evolved as the framework has been tested, revised and applied to an increasingly wider range of topics, but the concept of three core elements of culture has endured.

Team members in the first major Energy Cultures research programme were from the disciplines of physics, economics, law, consumer psychology and sociology. The cultures framework not only offered a conceptual centrepiece for the design of a multidisciplinary research programme, but also supported interdisciplinary collaborations, the integration of findings and the development of policy advice. The second Energy Cultures research programme involved an even broader array of disciplines and covered questions to do with efficiency, sustainability and technology adoption in the energy and transport sectors, and focused on both households and businesses as cultural actors. The cultures framework continued to prove its value as a conceptual framing and analytical model, and as an integrator of findings and the basis of further policy briefs (Stephenson, 2018, 2020).

Over the seven years of these two programmes, the framework underpinned research findings on many different topics including household energy efficiency (Lawson & Williams, 2012), solar lighting (Walton et al., 2014), timber drying (Bell et al., 2014), youth mobility (Hopkins & Stephenson, 2014, 2016), urban freight (Hopkins & McCarthy, 2016), household solar generation (Ford et al., 2017), transport transitions (Stephenson, Hopkins, et al., 2015), household energy efficiency interventions (Scott et al., 2016), driver efficiency (Scott & Lawson, 2018), business energy efficiency (Walton et al., 2020) and policy advice (Stephenson et al., 2016). These applications tested its ‘completeness’ as a model as well as its ability to produce reliable and useful findings. Importantly, we started to realise how well it communicated the concept of culture (and the implications of cultural dynamics) to policymakers, politicians and community members. They were easily able to pick it up as a thinking tool and see its relevance to their fields of interest.

Since the end of the research programme, I and some of the other original team members have continued to use the framework in our own work, as have some of our postgraduate students. But excitingly, the framework took on a life of its own. From an early stage, it was adopted by other researchers internationally, often applied to energy-related topics but also to issues as varied as personal reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (Young & Middlemiss, 2012), domestic water demand (Manouseli et al., 2018), cooking (Jürisoo et al., 2019) and gender (Johnson et al., 2019). It was clear that the framework produced useful and insightful findings across a far wider range of fields than we had envisaged. By 2018 I was writing about it as a generic framework that could help investigate ‘sustainability cultures’, as most of its applications were in the general field of sustainability (Stephenson, 2018, 2020).

The framework consistently offers insights into how culture operates to constrain and/or enable human and organisational change. It has been applied at scales from the intimate (e.g. the lives of families in fuel poverty [McKague et al., 2016]) to pan-national comparisons of decarbonisation pathways (Stephenson et al., 2021). It has been used by researchers from a broad range of disciplines, and frequently by interdisciplinary teams. As I will elaborate in Chapter 8, most studies have used qualitative methods, either designing interviews around the elements of the framework (e.g. Hopkins & McCarthy, 2016) or applying the framework retrospectively to analyse qualitative data (e.g. Dew et al., 2017). Others have used quantitative methods, for example using national demographic data sets to identify clusters of actors with similar cultural characteristics (e.g. Bardazzi & Pazienza, 2017) or using the framework to integrate large quantitative data sets (e.g. Manouseli et al., 2018). Still others have used a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods (e.g. Scott et al., 2016). Findings are consistently fruitful and provide insights not achievable through other methods of analysis (Dew et al., 2017).

Writing this book has provided an opportunity to review this large body of work that has used, tested and extended the cultures framework. I am deeply grateful to the many authors whose work I have mined for their insights and suggestions. Writing the book over a period of sabbatical also gave me the luxury of time to return to the origins and evolution of culture as a concept. These two sources have been incredibly rewarding because they enabled me to take a fresh look at the framework to see how it stacked up, both in a theoretical sense (relating to theories of culture) and in a practical sense (relating to the insights from its many users). In Chapter 4, I present the outcomes of this exercise, revealing some additions and adjustments to earlier iterations of the framework, but with its core set of concepts having survived the test.


We need to better understand the role that culture plays in our unsustainable past and present, and the part it will play in achieving a sustainable future. Regardless of the scope and scale of the transition that we face—and this will vary from country to country and community to community—culture will be central to failure and at the core of success. We will not achieve sustainability transitions if we fail to understand how culture operates: as a force of power and dominance, and as a source of wisdom and inspiration; as a reproducer of the status quo, and as a creative force for transformation.

Using culture as an overarching frame is particularly advantageous for sustainability inquiries, as it enables a coherent interpretation of a complex array of influences on a given outcome. The cultures framework has shown promise in this regard, but so too do other interpretations of culture. The next two chapters focus on the concept of culture and trace its etymology and academic evolution into multiple streams of meaning. Chapter 2 discusses divergence and differences, and Chapter 3 explores common threads across these meanings. In this sense, the two chapters work as a tapestry—Chapter 2 as the warp and Chapter 3 the weft. Out of this exercise, certain patterns appear which find their way into Chapter 4.

In Chapter 4, I fully introduce the cultures framework as an analytical frame for the study of culture in relation to sustainability. I start by discussing the difference between theories and frameworks, and the concept of causality in social research. I then proceed to describe each element of the framework in some detail, as well as how the framework operates as a whole.

Chapters 5 and 6 are full of stories. They draw mainly from the many applications of the cultures framework in research projects around the world, describing how it has been used and the understandings it has delivered. I also draw out more general insights from across the studies about how culture operates. Chapter 5 covers cultural stability—how and why cultures tend to retain the same or similar patterns of features over time and tend to resist change. Chapter 6 explores cultural change through examples of minor or major cultural transformations that have improved sustainability outcomes, and the processes by which this has occurred.

The cultures framework has proved particularly helpful in identifying opportunities for policy design or other actions to support cultural transformations. Drawing from research-based examples, Chapter 7 discusses how to use the framework for policy design and evaluation, as well as more generally to assist groups and organisations to notice their own culture and potential avenues for change.

In Chapter 8, I discuss how the framework can be used to underpin research, and the kinds of questions it can be used to explore. I show how it can be used as a model by a single researcher or as an integrating framing for interdisciplinary (multi-theoretical) research. Using examples, I discuss the range of qualitative and quantitative methods that have been effectively used with the framework to date. I suggest ways in which the various interpretations of culture introduced in Chapter 2 can contribute to the sustainability research agenda.

Chapter 9 draws the book to a close. I reflect on culture through a sustainability lens and sustainability through a cultural lens. I discuss the implications of cultural processes for local and global sustainability challenges. I suggest further potential applications of the framework and further testing of its propositions. Although I am excited at the potential of the cultures framework to underpin sound research, policy and action, I believe that all forms of cultural scholarship have much to contribute to resolving the sustainability crisis.