Opening the toolbox…

Cultural anthropological insights into current sustainability efforts

Britta Acksel is a PhD student at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology at Goethe University Frankfurt, funded by the Klaus Murmann Foundation. Supervision: Prof. Gisela Welz (Goethe-University Frankfurt), Jörg Niewöhner (Humboldt-University Berlin)

Basis of the research project is the question how political, economic and civil society actors as well as actors from administration and research try to make cities more sustainable and resilient in light of current and predicted climate change.

One answer is that they try to do so using Transformation Instruments (TI). TI is a term developed based on the concept of Policy Instrumentation to describe Instruments such as Actionsweeks, Idealabs, Roadmaps and Masterplans. They are “’new’ soft forms of governance” (Bruno et al. 2006, 519) and are characterized by flexibility, voluntariness and limited temporality, as well as through their communicative and consultative character.

Starting with the question how actors try to transform cities towards “sustainability”, four basic functionalities of TIs were identified: Planning, Innovation, Information and Activating Focus. In context of a new Anthropology of Policy (AoP) based on concepts from Science and Technology Studies, and in relation to political sociology policy research approaches, my thesis is that TIs are not neutral, but political. They do not only have agency in terms of Latour, but are analytical windows that enable insights into ongoing transformation processes (Adam, Vonderau 2014, 17f).

In six ethnographic case studies in the European cities Essen (Germany), Malmö (Sweden), and Almada (Portugal), I will answer three questions:

  1. How is the practicality and plausibility of TIs constituted?
  2. how do TIs work and how are they applied?
  3. What (unintended) effects und implications do TIs have exceeding classical evaluations?

In each city I chose an Action Week as example for a TI with an Activating Focus. The second case in each city, I chose according to one of the other three functionalities: in Almada I will do research on a TI with a Planning Focus, the Strategic Energy Action Plan of the city, in Essen about the title of the European Green Capital a TI with Information Focus, and in Malmö about a TI with an Innovation Focus, the Idea Lab for sustainable development Kommendanthuset. This allows a comparison between cities concerning the TIs with an Activating Focus, while at the same time I will conduct the other three case studies according to the US-American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973, 26) who suggested: “not to generalize across cases […] but within them“. Following this call, I will be able to generate new insides by doing single case analyses.

An increased understanding about the practices that are used to make cities more sustainable and resilient is highly relevant, since cities are not only especially vulnerable to effects of climate change , they are also the places were (Bulkeley 2013; Giddens 2009).more than half of the worldwide CO2 emissions are emitted.

Kontakt Britta Acksel


Grafik: kstudija / 123RF Lizenzfreie Bilder

Coordination: Karin Schürmann (Forschungszentrum Jülich)

Cooperating Partner: Bochum University of Applied Sciences (Prof. Dr. Petra Schweizer-Ries, Dr. Oliver Stengel, Moritz Rüller), RWTH Aachen University (Prof. Dr. Reinhard Madlener, Hendrik Schmitz, Maria Garbuzova-Schlifter), Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy (Dr. Alexandra Büttgen, Melanie Lukas), Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (Dr. Steven Engler, Esther Trost)

Funded by: Ministerium für Innovation, Wissenschaft und Forschung (MIWF); In cooperation with the Cluster EnergieForschung.NRW

Duration: 03/2015 – 05/2017