Societal transformation

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In sociology, societal transformation refers to “a deep and sustained, nonlinear systemic change” [1] in a society. Transformational changes can occur within a particular system, such as a city, a transport or energy system. Societal transformations can also refer to changes of an entire culture or civilization. Such transformations often include not only social changes but cultural, technological, political, and economic, as well as environmental. Transformations can be seen as occurring over several centuries, such as the Neolithic Revolution or at a rapid pace, such as the rapid expansion of megacities in China.[2]

Whereas social transformation is typically used within sociology to characterize the process of change either in an individual’s ascribed social status, or in social structures, such as institutional relationships, habits, norms, and values, societal transformation refers to a wider set of societal structural changes.

The concept of societal transformations have for some time been used in academic disciplines such as political economy,[3] development economics,[4][5] history[6] or anthropology.[7] Since 2010, the concept has been increasingly used in policy-making, research and media to point out that small adjustments of present habits, technologies and policies does not suffice to meet the environmental, climate and sustainable development goals.[8][9][10][11][12] The Decision of the United Nations 2030 Agenda outlining the Sustainable Development Goals bears the heading “transforming our world”. The special report on global warming of 1.5 °C by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that curbing global warming to 1.5 °C compared to preindustrial levels “would require transformative systemic change, integrated with sustainable development”.[13] Similarly, the 2019 global assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) concludes that transformative changes in society are crucial for nature protection.[14] The European Green Deal, proposed by the European Commission, see deeply transformative policies to restructure the EU's economy as fundamental for its vision of a healthier, greener and more prosperous Europe.[15]

Further reading[edit]

  • Björn-Ola Linnér and Victoria Wibeck (2019). Sustainability Transformations: Agents and Drivers across Societies. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press
  • Ian Scoones, Melissa Leach, Peter Newell, eds. (2015). The Politics of Green Transformations. London: Routledge.
  • Robin Leichenko and Karen O’Brien (2019). Climate and Society: Transforming the Future. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Björn-Ola Linnér & Victoria Wibeck (2020), Conceptualising variations in societal transformations towards sustainability, Environmental Science & Policy.106:222
  2. ^ Björn-Ola Linnér & Victoria Wibeck (2019) Sustainability Transformations: Agents and Drivers across Societies. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press
  3. ^ Karl Polanyi (1944). The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. New York: Farrar & Rinehart Inc.
  4. ^ Moshe Syrquin, (1988). Patterns of structural change. In: Hollis Chenery and T. N., Srinivasan. (eds.) Handbook of Development Economics. Vol 1. New York: Elsevier, 205–273
  5. ^ Clemens Breisinger, & Xinshen Diao (2008). Economic transformation in theory and practice: what are the messages for Africa? International Food Policy Research Discussion paper 797. Ideas.
  6. ^ Barry Buzan, B. & George Lawson (2015). The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and the Making of International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
  7. ^ Kajsa Ekholm Friedman & Jonathan Friedman (2008). Historical Transformations: The Anthropology of Global Systems. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press
  8. ^ Ioan Fazey, Peter Moug, Simon Allen, Kate Beckmann, David Blackwood, Mike Bonaventura, Kathryn Burnett, Mike Danson, Ruth Falconer, Alexandre S. Gagnon, Rachel Harkness, Anthony Hodgson, Lorens Holm, Katherine N. Irvine, Ragne Low, Christopher Lyon, Anna Moss, Clare Moran, Larissa Naylor, Karen O'Brien, Shona Russell, Sarah Skerratt, Jennifer Rao-Williams & Ruth Wolstenholme (2018). Transformation in a changing climate: a research agenda. Climate and Development, 10, 197–217
  9. ^ Guiseppe Feola (2015). Societal transformation in response to global environmental change: a review of emerging concepts. Ambio, 44, 376–390
  10. ^ Karen O’Brien (2018). Is the 1.5°C target possible? Exploring the three spheres of transformation. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 31, 153–160
  11. ^ Jeffrey D. Sachs, Guido Schmidt-Traub, Mariana Mazzucato, Dirk Messner, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, and Johan Rockström (2019). “Six Transformations to Achieve the +Sustainable Development Goals.” Nature Sustainability 2 (9): 805–14
  12. ^ Waddock, S., Waddell, S., Goldstein, B., Linnér, B-O., Schäpke, N., Vogel, C. (2020). Transformation: How To Spur Radical Change. In Future Earth. Our Future on Earth 2020: 82-89
  13. ^ IPCC (2018). Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the Impacts of Global Warming of 1.5°C above Pre-Industrial Levels and Related Global Greenhouse Gas Emission Pathways, in the Context of Strengthening the Global Response to the Threat of Climate Change, Sustainable Development, and Efforts to Eradicate Poverty. Masson-Delmotte, V., Zhai, P., Pörtner, H.-O., et al. (eds.). Geneva: World Meteorological Organization: 16
  14. ^ IPBES (2019). Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Brondizio, E. S., Settele, J., Díaz, S., and Ngo, H. T. (eds.). Bonn: IPBES Secretariat
  15. ^ The European Commission (2019). The European Green Deal. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions.