1. Introduction to the Pathways Approach

STEPS Learning > Course: Pathways to Sustainability > 1. Introduction to the Pathways Approach

This is the first section of our online course on Pathways to Sustainability. By the end of this section, you’ll be able to:

  1. Define what the Pathways Approach is.
  2. Articulate why, in a complex, uncertain world, it makes more sense to think of multiple pathways to sustainability than any singular notion of “sustainability” or “development”.
  3. Illustrate an explanation of the Pathways Approach with applied examples.

In this section

1.1 What is the Pathways Approach?

1.2 Case study: Liquid Dynamics

1.3 Case study: Maize Innovation in Kenya


1.1: What is the Pathways Approach?

The Pathways Approach is the core conceptual approach of the STEPS Centre. It aims to guide thinking and action on sustainability challenges in a complex, dynamic world.

Essential reading

Leach. M., Scoones, I. and Stirling, A. (2007) Pathways to Sustainability: an overview of the STEPS Centre approach, STEPS Approach Paper, Brighton: STEPS Centre (OA)

Questions to guide reading

  1. What do the authors argue constitute the shortcomings of traditional approaches to policy for sustainable development and linear accounts of socio-ecological processes?
  2. How do the authors define “sustainability” and what normative goals are they interested in?
  3. What do the authors mean by “pathways” to sustainability?
  4. How do the authors understand the roles of “framing” and “narratives” in defining which pathways to sustainability are realised and which are not?
  5. In what way does this constitute a political reading of sustainability? What is the role of power in the construction of pathways?
  6. In what way do the authors attempt to resolve traditional distinctions between “constructivist” and “positivist” perspectives?

Lecture: The Pathways Approach

In this lecture, STEPS Director Ian Scoones gives an overview of the Pathways Approach and how it can help to draw out political debates and neglected perspectives on sustainability challenges.

Additional reading

Leach, M., Scoones, I. and Stirling, A. C. (2010) Dynamic Sustainabilities: Technology, Environment, Social Justice, Routledge/Earthscan

Assessment questions

  1. How does the Pathways Approach differ from singular notions of “sustainability” and “development”?
  2. Apply the Pathways Approach to discuss critically the limitations of traditional, linear accounts of socio-ecological approaches. Use examples to illustrate your answer.

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1.2: Case study: Liquid dynamics

Pathways to sustainability in water and sanitation are complex. Access to water and sanitation is determined by many different processes – social, technological and ecological. Added to this are new uncertainties that arise from urbanisation and climate change.

Essential reading

Mehta, L., Marshall, F., Movik, S., Stirling, A., Shah, E., Smith, A. and Thompson, J. (2007) Liquid Dynamics: challenges for sustainability in water and sanitation, STEPS Working Paper 6 (OA)

Questions to guide reading

  1. What have been the dominant pathways in global water and sanitation debates?
  2. Does the STEPS Pathways Approach help in challenging some of these? If so, how?
  3. What are the challenges of applying the STEPS approach in peri-urban contexts?

Lecture: Pathways Approach case – Liquid Dynamics

In this lecture, Lyla Mehta (Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies) illustrates how the pathways approach has been used in research on water and sanitation in developing countries, including a case from peri-urban Delhi.

Additional reading

Nicol, A., Mehta, L. and Allouche, J. (2012) Introduction: ‘Some for All Rather than More for Some’? Contested Pathways and Politics since the 1990 New Delhi Statement (pdf), IDS Bulletin (OA)

Assessment activity

Use the empirical examples you have been introduced to in this part of Module 1 to illustrate your answers to the assessment activities suggested under Module 1, Part 1: The Pathways Approach.

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1.3: Case study: Maize innovation in kenya

The Pathways Approach has been used to explore options for maize in Kenya, looking at different people’s visions of possible futures for food and farming in the country.

Essential reading

Brooks, S., Thompson, J., Odame, H., Kibaara, B., Nderitu, S., Karin, F. and Millstone, E. (2009) Environmental Change and Maize Innovation in Kenya: Exploring Pathways In and Out of Maize, STEPS Working Paper 36, Brighton: STEPS Centre (OA)

Questions to guide reading

  1. How was the Pathways Approach used to challenge the dominant view that ‘maize security’ was equal to ‘food security’ in Kenya?
  2. What two axes were used to establish a typology of ‘pathways in and out of maize’?
  3. What alternative, non-maize pathways were opened up through this analysis and what challenges and opportunities did they pose for agricultural development in risk-prone, dryland areas?

Lecture: Maize innovation in Kenya

Dr John Thompson (Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies) explains how the Pathways Approach was used in a research project in Kenya, about potential futures for maize farmers in the context of climate change and other pressures.

Additional reading

For additional readings, see the bibliography in the essential reading (Environmental Change and Maize Innovation in Kenya: Exploring Pathways In and Out of Maize).

Assessment activity

Use the empirical examples you have been introduced to in this part of the module to illustrate your answers to the assessment activities suggested under Part 1: What is the Pathways Approach?

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