Critical Approaches to Transitions Theory

Part of the Hexagon Series on Human and Environmental Security and Peace book series (HSHES, volume 10)


Since its emergence as a theory of sustainability transformation, transitions theory has started to gain currency with both policymakers and researchers. As transitions approaches become established in research and policy, a process of institutionalization can be witnessed. Yet notwithstanding this mainstreaming, transitions theory continues to be controversial. Questions have been raised about its theorization of agency and transformation dynamics, and especially about the normative assumptions underlying its intervention strategies. Arguably, these recurring questions call for ‘critical approaches’ to transitions theory. This contribution explores these, guided by a constructive attitude. The argument starts from the consideration that transitions theory harboursdistinctly ‘critical’ elements, and that polemical juxtapositions between critical and uncritical transitions approaches are unnecessary: What are the critical contents of transitions theory? How can the critical contents of transitions theory be retained and developed further? These questions are answered through a historical comparison with the critical-theoretical project as initiated by Marx, Horkheimer and Adorno, amongst others.As with transitions studies, this project was meant to diagnose the social problems of its time, and to articulate corresponding remedial strategies. It ran into various internal contradictions, however, and these provide useful insights for the further development of critical transitions. The main conclusion is that transitions theory is well equipped to deal with these critical-theoretical paradoxes, but also displays tendencies towards relapsing into the pitfalls.


Transitions critical theory politics transformation paradoxes normative foundations 


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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Université Libre de BruxellesBruxellesBelgium
  2. 2.Erasmus University RotterdamRotterdamThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Innovation ScienceEindhoven University of Technology (TIS)EindhovenThe Netherlands

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