A dynamic model of socio-technical change : institutions, actors and technologies in interaction

Fünfschilling, Lea. A dynamic model of socio-technical change : institutions, actors and technologies in interaction. 2014, PhD Thesis, University of Basel, Faculty of Humanities.


Official URL: http://edoc.unibas.ch/diss/DissB_11029


Many of today’s societal problems, such as climate change, resource scarcity or environmental degradation call for some sort of radical social and often also technological change. Especially utility sectors like water, energy or transportation are increasingly pressured to transition to a more sustainable mode of operation, as for instance seen in the recent political efforts in Switzerland and Germany to introduce a transition in the energy sector from fossil and nuclear to renewable energy sources (‘Energiewende’). However, the transformation of existing, highly institutionalized social structures and technologies has proven to be a rather challenging societal undertaking. Utility sectors are particularly demanding, since they provide essential services for society, which are often critical for public health and which affect multiple value-laden areas of life. Moreover, infrastructures are heavily comprised of technical as well as social elements that are highly intertwined and have co-evolved over a long period of time, which leads to a significant amount of path-dependency and inertia. Therefore, the questions of how socio-technical change unfolds and how a transition from one socio-technical configuration to the next can be achieved have become crucial in politics and academia alike.
Scholars from different disciplines have picked up this question of social and technological change and generated important insights into the typical features and crucial aspects of such transformation processes. In science and technology studies, for instance, theoretical approaches like large technical systems or literature on socio-technical transitions have conceptualized the interdependence, co-evolution and rigidity of technological and social elements in a system, such as actors, regulations, norms, cognitive mindsets and technologies, and have drawn conclusions for technological innovation and change processes. Approaches from institutional theory, on the other hand, have addressed questions of societal change without a specific focus on technology, instead emphasizing the influence of institutional structures like norms, values or cultural-cognitive frames on the behavior of actors and the development of practices as well as the analysis of the creation, persistence and destabilization of institutions.
The dissertation at hand shall be understood as a contribution to these discourses. The purpose of the thesis is to increase knowledge of socio-technical change by elaborating the relevance of a dynamic understanding of institutional structures, as brought forward in institutional theory, without ignoring the role of technologies, as stressed in science and technology studies. Socio-technical transitions are thus conceptualized as processes of institutional change with a particular awareness for technological specificities. The co-evolutionary processes between institutions and technologies are put forward. Literature on socio-technical transitions, institutional logics and institutionalization build the basis to identify and analyze institutional structures in an organizational field, assess their degree of institutionalization and demonstrate their effect on the development and transformation of the field. In addition, the question of institutional change will be further highlighted by elaborating more closely on the dialectic relationship between structure and agency. Drawing on the concept of institutional work, an embedded agency perspective is presented that contributes to the understanding of change and/or persistence of prevailing institutional logics in a field, including the development and diffusion of certain technologies.
The overall goal of this dissertation is thus to contribute to an understanding of socio-technical change by presenting a framework that incorporates a) the description and analysis of prevailing institutional structures and their influences on actors and practices, b) a conceptualization of agency that bridges the gap between micro-individualistic and macro-structural approaches and c) a socio-technical perspective, that accounts for the coevolution of technology and society.
Empirically, this dissertation is based on an extensive study of the urban water sector in Australia. Maltreated by severe water scarcity as well as flooding problems, this water sector has been put under a lot of pressure, which resulted in a big public and political debate regarding future arrangements and changes. This state of turmoil makes it an interesting case study object. The empirical analysis focuses on the identification of institutional logics in the water sector since the 1970ies, applying a particular focus on changes in field logics through institutional competition and contradiction, general uncertainty and the role of agency processes. The results suggest that a transformation is visible from the traditional Hydraulic Logic based on the logics of the state and the engineering profession towards a more hybrid variant including a Water Market Logic as well as a Water Sensitive Logic, increasingly incorporating elements of the market, corporation and community logics. However, the degrees of institutionalization of the logics highly differ and therefore also their influences on the direction of field level change. This aspect is analyzed in more detail through an in-depth study of the diffusion of seawater desalination plants around Australia. The diffusion of the technology can be understood as a result of prevailing institutional logics and specific types of institutional work and interpreted as leading to an entrenchment of traditional structures, thereby probably impeding a transformation to alternative development pathways.
Advisors:Maasen, Sabine
Committee Members:Truffer, Bernard
Faculties and Departments:04 Faculty of Humanities > Departement Gesellschaftswissenschaften > Fachbereich Wissenschaftsforschung > Wissenschaftsforschung (Maasen)
Item Type:Thesis
Thesis no:11029
Bibsysno:Link to catalogue
Number of Pages:177 S.
Identification Number:
Last Modified:30 Jun 2016 10:56
Deposited On:04 Feb 2015 15:27

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