PhD: Civil society roles in transition: towards sustainable food? (Rachael Durrant)

Civil society organisations (CSOs) in the UK are currently engaged in attempts to make food systems more sustainable, i.e. greener, fairer and healthier. These efforts have been maintained over several decades, for instance the Soil Association was launched in response to concerns about modern agriculture and food in 1946. But more sustainable food systems remain marginal. Thus, the aim of this thesis is to improve understanding of the important roles that CSOs can and do play within processes of large-scale social change (or ‘transitions’). It does this by developing a typology of the distinguishable roles played by CSOs in transition, and relating this to empirical findings from three UK case studies. Through a mixture of field observations, documentary analysis and in-depth interviewing, it makes a number of relevant findings. First, it provides detailed empirical characterisation of the activities, relationships with other actors, and stated intentions of specific CSOs. Second, it finds that CSOs chart unique transformative pathways, both individually and collectively, which emerge from their interactions and strategic repositioning over time. Third, rather than being guided by a single shared vision of transition, CSOs are found to be engaged in a plurality of intended transformations that contend with, cross-cut and partially encompass each other.
These findings contribute to scholarly knowledge about how civil society innovation operates at different structural levels, targets different elements within socio-technical systems, and engages different kinds of actors and practices. They also reinforce and extend existing understandings of how civil society actors exercise power in the context of transitions, and reveal how systemic perspectives – such as underlie transitions theory – can obfuscate both the intentions and activities of the actors involved, thereby raising questions about the attribution of agency in studies of transition.
(Full text can be downloaded free of charge from

PhD awarded 2014, supervised by Adrian Smith


Rachel Durrant

Research Fellow (SPRU – Science Policy Research Unit). Rachael is currently working on an EU-funded project (ARTS), within which she is both analysing existing efforts to improve urban sustainability and developing new strategies to accelerate progress in European city-regions. See for more info.Rachel Durrant

SPRU, University of Sussex

working paper:
This briefing paper, written by Dr Rachael Durrant from the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, draws attention to the disconnection between the narrowly constrained treatment of CSOs within policy circles, and the broad range of different ways that they actually engage with and influence policy and market conditions. Its purpose is to provoke new ways of thinking about civil society and provide CSOs with a new logic (and evidence) to underpin their efforts to leverage resources. The development of this paper was supported by the following project steering team members: Sue Dibb, Eating Better; Dr Rob Macmillan, Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham; Ben Reynolds, Sustain; and Hannah Brinsden, World Obesity Federation.  See link below.