The Pathways Approach

In today’s complex, dynamic world, how might pathways to sustainability be built, which link environmental integrity and social justice? The STEPS Centre has developed a ‘pathways approach’ as a guide to thinking and action around emerging sustainability challenges associated with climate change, energy, pandemic disease, water scarcity, hunger, poverty and inequality.


Our pathways approach recognises that who you are shapes how you ‘frame’ – or understand – a system. For instance, a farmer, a seed merchant, a member of parliament and a multinational food company might all frame an agricultural system in different ways. Those various framings will lead to different narratives being told about the same system and different choices being made.

Too often the narratives of powerful actors and institutions become the motorways channelling policy, governance and interventions, overrunning the valuable pathways responding to poorer people’s own goals, knowledge and values.

Our pathways approach pays attention to multiple pathways and, backed by a variety of practical methods, helps open up space for more plural and dynamic sustainabilities. It also aims to open up the political process of building pathways which are currently hidden, obscured or oppressed.

Given deeply entrenched power and interests, building pathways to sustainability involves formidable challenges. Yet they are vital ones if the urgent global problems are to be genuinely addressed.

Lecture: The Pathways Approach

Part of the online course on Pathways to Sustainability, this talk by Ian Scoones gives an overview of the Pathways Approach and how it has been used in practice.

Pathways Methods: A guide

Of all the diverse pathways to social, technological and environmental sustainability that are typically viable in any given setting, various self-reinforcing dynamics typically mean that pathways are often ‘crowded out’. Attention often becomes focussed in on those pathways that are favoured by the most powerful interests. The real challenge, then, is to find ways ‘open up’ this politics of pathways.

This section shares research methods and methodologies that open up alternative social, technological and environmental pathways to sustainability that favour the rights, interests and values of marginalised and excluded people. We draw on examples from both our own and others’ work.

Click on each section below to reveal a slideshow and video by STEPS co-director Andy Stirling, exploring different aspects of methods and methodologies.

1. Appreciating pathways

Helping to appreciate alternative pathways

Slideshow #1

How do different people understand and construct pathways to sustainability? How do different people’s subjective and contending knowledges and values build pictures of the world that attempt to take in to account the world’s many under-determined realities?

Video #1

A short video (5 mins) of Professor Andy Stirling, co-director of the STEPS Centre talking about appreciating alternative pathways to sustainability.

2. Wider context

Wider context in governance, politics and institutions

Slideshow #2

How and why might we can consider ‘broadening out’ the scope of what appraisal methods take into account. and ‘opening up’ the effects they have on the  political policy processes to which they relate? How do ‘STEPS methods’ make sense in the wider What kinds of procedures and frameworks can allow us to broaden out appraisals and convey them in a way that makes sense to wider political discourse politics of pathways?

Video #2

A short video (7 mins) of Professor Andy Stirling, co-director of the STEPS, talking about the wider context of research methods and methodologies, with respect to governance, politics and institutions.

3. power and plurality

Issues of methods and power around uncertainty and plurality

Slideshow and video #3

A video (24mins) of Professor Andy Stirling, co-director of the STEPS Centre talking about issues around uncertainty and plurality during a lecture entitled “From Risk Assessment to Knowledge Mapping” given at the Royal College of Surgeons, London. The relevant slides are embedded in the video.

4. Spanning cultures

Spanning positive and interpretive epistemic cultures

Slideshow #4

Reflexivity and positioning in between positive and interpretive epistemic cultures.

Video #4

A video of Professor Andy Stirling, co-director of the STEPS Centre, talking about reflexivity and governance in a lecture entitled From Sustainability through Diversity to Transformation: towards more reflexive governance of innovation (keynote presentation for Third Berlin Forum on Innovation in Governance, Berlin, May 2012).

5. Building repertoires

Towards repertoires of mixed methods

Slideshow #5

Our aim is to help catalyse new political spaces and open up wider debate, rather than close it down. So repertoires of methods need to have the effect of being broader – in the perspectives, options, values, intentions, assumptions and uncertainties that they take in to account. And the outputs in to wider politics should have the effect of opening up, not closing down, critical debate.

Video #5

A short video (9 mins) of Professor Andy Stirling, co-director of the STEPS Centre talking about key qualities and methods for opening up and broadening out debate

6. Stages & tasks

Methods: Functions, Stages and Tasks

Slideshow #6

How can the methods we suggest be used to appreciate alternative pathways in a particular setting? This section deals with the broad aspects and functions of different methods (scoping, focusing and linking) and the different practical stages in their implementation (engaging actors, exploring framings, addressing the dynamic systems involved over time and revealing actors’ own strategies agency). In each stage, it identifies a series of concrete tasks for consideration.

Video #6

A video (18 mins) of Professor Andy Stirling, co-director of the STEPS Centre, talking about contexts, aims, styles and repertoires.

7. Illustrative Methods

Particular Illustrative Methods

Slideshow #7

Many particular methods can fit together within the overall STEPS methodology. We need to think about appropriate ways to link these together, so that they triangulate and complement each other in order to deliver on all the various aspects, stages and tasks involved. In the end, we hope by this means to help open up a political space that better appreciates alternative pathways.

<< Methods homepage