Transformation in a crisis: reflections on research and action

This is a personal reflection from Lyla Mehta on the Transformations to Sustainability mid-term workshop, which took place virtually in June 2020. Find out more about the meeting and see all related content on the T2S website.


The world has changed dramatically since the Transformations to Sustainability projects started in late 2018. For one, we are witnessing a massive loss of lives and livelihoods due to the COVID-19 pandemic combined with ongoing climate-, water- and food-related uncertainties and crises. Two, the emergence of authoritarian leaders and far right politics in both the global North and South is promoting vigilante nationalism, violent acts against minorities and suppressing protest and dissent, including during the pandemic. Three, neo-liberal capitalist trajectories continue unabated, intensifying inequalities.

These developments may curtail the possibilities for radical societal transformation. But they can also be a pre-condition for something transformed and transformative to emerge.

All these factors make transformative research and action difficult, both politically and practically, raising thorny issues concerning the ethics of co-production, and the imbalanced power, gender and social relations at play in multi-stakeholder research processes, especially with respect to our research partners.

The mid-term meeting of the projects gave us an opportunity to ask how we as a programme are doing in terms of generating new knowledge that is transformative. How is the programme helping to challenge dominant political and economic paradigms affecting transformations to sustainability? What is its emancipatory potential to bring about structural change? The meeting also offered a possibility to reflect on how to deal with the new challenges and ongoing crises that affect our work and ability to do research.

What does transformation mean and how can it work?

Much of our discussions focussed on the multi-faceted and various conceptualizations of transformation and how these are mediated on the ground. The keynote talk by Giuseppe Feola proposed a theorization of transformation that disentangles processes of construction (making) and deconstruction (unmaking), using the concrete case of an ongoing sustainability transformation driven by a peasant movement in Colombia. While he focussed on the ‘unmaking’ of capitalism, clearly there is also a need to ‘unmake’ notions of transformation in a range of contexts, including communitarianism, participatory development processes, etc.

Through the project presentations it became clear that all the projects are grappling with the politics of transformation and what it entails, both conceptually and practically. The projects highlight that both sustainability and transformation are diverse and heterogenous concepts, moulded by cultural, social, gender and power relations. While most projects take a normative view of transformation, seeking to advance social justice and sustainability outcomes, especially for vulnerable and marginalized social groups, a few take a different approach, focussing on immanent processes of change as they are unfolding, e.g. around urbanization or commercialization processes, and are not explicit about the ‘deliberate’ and normative content of transformation. This flags the need to distinguish between ‘change’ and ‘transformation’ and to articulate clearly what we mean when we talk about transformation.

Risks of transformation

Doing transformative research is political, and research needs to be mindful of contradictions on the ground. A longue durée historical perspective can help in observing making and unmaking over time. It also means looking at the dynamics of agency and structure and asking hard questions about how much deliberate transformation is possible in our sites or ‘patches’ (as conceptualized in the Tapestry project), given the contradictions arising due to authoritarian and right-wing government, neo-liberal trajectories and COVID-19. Even well-intentioned and deliberate ideas of transformation can legitimize vested and powerful interests and do not necessarily entail empowerment or address inequalities.

In addition, there are risks to doing transformative research. These include being blind to the messy and fraught nature of the process as well as to its inherently political nature (e.g. shifts in power relations during transformative processes; and being attentive to who has agency, who not; who wins and loses; who decides the trajectory?); as well as the dangers of complacency, co-option and lack of attention to gender and social differences, power and politics.

Making the invisible visible

Another recurring theme across the projects was the need to make visible what is often invisible to powerful actors. That could be: people, such as herders and indigenous peoples who tend to be marginalized and neglected by the mainstream; rights to land, water and rivers that are embedded in informal property regimes and largely invisible to planners; or local / community driven perspectives and knowledge systems (e.g. around mangroves, flooding and tenure) that do not feature in scientific assessments and policy documents.

In making the invisible visible, projects grapple with the role of agency, power, politics and also epistemic justice. This means looking at how dominant ideas or imaginaries travel and who is promoting them. Linked to this is the investigation of unravelling and lifting up of alternative pathways. For example, what alternative pathways for conservation, water management or mining are being missed in dominant assessments and policy processes? How do we lift up bottom-up, locally, culturally rooted perspectives, and how do we succeed in decolonizing dominant perspectives and imaginaries around flood control, agricultural production, tenure relations, or dryland management, to name a few?

While many projects focus on inclusiveness and participation, both in the research and wider planning and policy processes, participation needs to go beyond just being a ‘stakeholder’ or being invited to the table. It also means having one’s hitherto invisible perspectives count and shape dominant framings and narratives. In many cases, for example, in the realms of urbanization, pastoralism and agriculture, we noted how invisible power has led to the internalization of dominant norms and standards as well as the all-embracing nature of capitalist trajectories around consumption and growth. Many of the groups we are working with may not perceive the injustices that they are subjected to, and many, especially the younger generation, may reject livelihoods that researchers are promoting as sustainable (e.g. pastoralism in a dryland) and may have other aspirations towards consumption/growth and urban lifestyles.

A changing picture

Most of the projects reveal that local wellbeing and identities are linked to rights, resources, place attachments and territories, but it’s important to pay attention to how these are in flux, due to intergenerational differences and differences related to gender/caste/class.

Local solidarities and civic action allow for transformation from below but, in most cases, we are all grappling with distinguishing between incremental and long-term changes, and ensuring that changes in particular places and localities can then endure and go to scale. Further, what could seem to be a small incremental change could be a step towards long-term shifts and transformations, underscoring the need for an historical perspective.

While at a programme level, we are seeking to come up with heuristics around transformation, as social scientists we need to avoid being hubristic about what is possible or not. Hubristic research has served to control and colonize. Transformation may be like a kaleidoscope with multiple facets that are contested and in flux. We need to exercise humility in our perspectives. Thus, there are multiple trade-offs linked with ethics, methods and policies.

In sum, social science perspectives on transformation are perhaps less ‘grand’ than in the earth system or natural sciences. It is normative and concerned with deliberate change. We may deliberately seek to be more modest in terms of what is possible, and while we may want a universal framework, social science tells us to avoid trusting too much to the capacity of science and technology to provide universal solutions. Instead, it means being aware of the complexity and pitfalls of research for transformation.

Research in a pandemic

Finally, can doing research in the midst of a pandemic be seen as an opportunity for transformation? The pandemic has laid bare problems of inequalities, from local to global level, unequal access to public goods such as health, water and sanitation, and the unsustainable nature of human-nature relations. The pandemic has also intersected with ongoing crises of food, water and climate, thus threatening already fragile livelihoods, especially in marginal environments, compounding uncertainties and vulnerabilities for marginalized people. COVID-19 has highlighted the key but invisible, neglected role played by informal workers and informal economies in propping up capitalist systems.

In most countries, the responses from above have been inadequate, too late, or complete failures. In some cases, authoritarian leaders have used the pandemic to ‘other’ and victimize certain groups and polarize society along racial, ethnic and religious lines. While responses from ‘above’ have been inadequate, in many cases – even in our research sites – there has been a burst of local forms of mutual aid and solidarity as well as civic action. There are also many examples of resilience at the local level, especially amongst communities that have largely relied on subsistence production.

Large-scale protests from all walks of life have also challenged racial inequality and injustices (e.g. the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA and around Europe). These have called for a fairer and more just future.

COVID-19 has also highlighted the need for investment in public goods such as public health systems, water and sanitation. Behaviour change concerning mobility, travel and consumption, which can drastically address climate change, took place almost overnight in response to COVID-19.

Lockdown isolation and webinars connecting people from all around the world have allowed many to reflect on the possibilities for reimagining transformative pathways towards just and sustainable futures. Historical studies of epidemics have shown how they can lead to protest and also new visions about political and societal organization. The post-COVID recovery period should thus build on these reflections, trends and lessons and hopefully bring about the systemic shifts badly needed to address locally appropriate and socially just transformations to sustainability.

This blog post first appeared on the Transformations to Sustainability website.


About the author

Lyla Mehta is project leader of the TAPESTRY project (‘Transformation as Praxis: Exploring Socially Just and Transdisciplinary Pathways to Sustainability in Marginal Environments’).

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