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Learning from Co-Founders of Grassroots Initiatives: Personal
Resilience, Transition, and Behavioral Change a Salutogenic
Gesa Maschkowski
*, Niko Schäpke
, Janina Grabs
and Nina Langen
NOT FOR QUOTATION….to appear in
Henfrey, T. & G. Maschkowski (eds.) 2015.
Resilience, Community Action and Social Transformation. Lisbon: FFCUL and Transition
Research Network.
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-University of Bonn, Institute for Food and Resource Economics,
Nussallee 21, 53115 Bonn, Germany
Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Institute for Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research,
Scharnhorststr. 1, 21335 Lüneburg, Germany
*corresponding author:
1. Introduction
The societal transformation toward a sustainable and low carbon society faces a number of technical and
structural challenges. But it has become more and more obvious that among the main barriers blocking
the desired change are basic ‘mental infrastructures’ - that is, how the promise of infinite economic
growth has been embraced in the minds and hearts and in the hopes and dreams of Western societies.
Sustainability and climate change discourses reveal the inherent tension between this desire for permanent
economic growth and the claim for a fair division of the Earth´s resources within and across generations.
People often find themselves in moral predicaments when ecologically harmful practices are invested
with worthy purposes through social, national, and economic justifications.
Moreover, the situation is characterized by displacement and diffusion of responsibility.
Some attribute
the responsibility to take action to governments whereas others attribute it to consumer citizens.
As a
result, the vast majority of citizens do not engage sufficiently into pro-environmental behaviour.
On the
contrary, environmental campaigning and media coverage about causes and effects of climate change can
provoke a backlash and ‘climate fatigue’, ‘eco-anxiety or ‘post-petroleum stress disorder’.
Kenis and
Welzer, H., 2011. Mental Infrastructures: How Growth Entered the World and Our Souls. Berlin: Heinrich Böll Foundation.
Jackson, T,. 2009. Wirtschaft ohne Wachstum. Munich: Oekom.Pp:130ff
Bandura, A. 2007. Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement. Int. Journal of Innovation and
Sustainable Development 2(1):8–35
Grunwald, A. 2010. Wider die Privatisierung der Nachhaltigkeit Warum ökologisch korrekter Konsum die Umwelt nicht
retten kann. [Against Privatisation of Sustainability – Why Consuming Ecologically Correct Products Will Not Save the
Environment] GAIA - Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society 19(3):178-182.
Osbaldiston, R. and J.P. Schott. 2012. Environmental Sustainability and Behavioral Science: Meta Analysis of
Proenvironmental Behavior Experiments. Environment and Behavior 44(2):257-299
Kerr R. A., 2009. Amid worrisome signs of warming, 'Climate Fatigue' sets in. Science, 326(5955): 926-928. Doherty T.J. and
S. Clayton, 2011. The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change. American Psychologist 66 (4), 265–276 Hopkins, R.,
2008. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Totnes: Green Books
Mathijs observed several obstacles for civic engagement such as the feeling of powerlessness, ‘strategy
scepticism’ and resistance towards being ‘conditioned’ by awareness-raising campaigns.
In this situation characterized by complexity and unclear responsibilities there exist rising numbers of
people and groupings that search for alternative answers peripheral to what can be called the
´mainstream´. They take responsibility and experiment with sustainable ways of life: in food production
(e. g., Consumer Supported Agriculture, Consumer Supported Enterprises), energy (Energy
Cooperatives), transportation (Car sharing, free public transport) but also regarding new economic
concepts and projects for a post-growth economy (e.g. Gift Economy, local currencies, ‘REconomy
projects). According to Seyfang and Smith, these so-called grassroots movements are
‘‘[I]nnovative networks of activists and organisations that lead bottom-up solutions for
sustainable development; solutions that respond to the local situation and the interests and values
of the communities involved. In contrast to the greening of mainstream business, grassroots
initiatives tend to operate in civil society arenas and involve committed activists who experiment
with social innovations as well as using greener technologies and techniques.”
On the level of societal niches grassroots movements adopt the role of change agents. Recent research has
demonstrated that change agents in general and engaged citizens in particular can initiate societal
processes of change and contribute to the transformation of societies, provided that certain motivations,
competencies, activities, learning processes and structural frame-conditions concur.
Research on the success conditions of grassroots initiatives reveals that the number of participants is an
important factor influencing the success of initiatives or the so-called ´up scaling´ of movements.
interesting research direction therefore is to understand better the preconditions for engagement. Kristof
points out that the essential psychological difference between change agents (those already active) and
their target audience are their experiences and the associated progress they have already made.
have passed through cognitive, motivational, and behavioral developments that made them change agents.
Perspicuous as this appears, it brings up a number of additional questions with regard to a deeper
understanding of the processes through people become change agents. This research is therefore
motivated by the following questions:
Kenis A and E. Mathijs, 2012. Beyond individual behaviour change: the role of power, knowledge and strategy in tackling
climate change. Environmental Education Research 18(1):45–65.
Seyfang, G. and A. Smith, 2007. Grassroots innovations for sustainable development: towards a new research and policy
agenda. Environmental Politics 16(4), p 585.
Ornetzeder M. and H. Rohracher, 2013. Of Solar Collectors, Wind Power, and Car Sharing: Comparing and Understanding
Successful Cases of Grassroots Innovations. Global Environmental Change, 23(5):856-867. WBGU, 2011. World in Transition –
A Social Contract for Sustainability. Flagship Report, German Advisory Councal on Global Change (WBGU). Berlin: WBGU,
Pp 241ff. Kristof, K. (2010): Wege zum Wandel. Wie wir gesellschaftliche Veränderungen erfolgreich gestalten können. Munich:
Oekom, p 520.
Feola G & Nunes R.J.(2013). Failure and Success of Transition Initiatives: a study of the international replication of the
Transition Movement’, Research Note 4. Walker Institute for Climate System Research, University of Reading, August 2013.
Seyfang, G.and A. Smith (eds.). 2013. Grassroots Innovations. Global Environmental Change. Special issue, Vol. 23.
Middlemiss, L. and B. Parrish. 2009. Building capacity for low-carbon communities: The role of Grassroots initiatives. Energy
policy 38: 7559-7566.
Kristof, K. (2010): Wege zum Wandel. Wie wir gesellschaftliche Veränderungen erfolgreich gestalten können. Munich:
Oekom, p 515
i) Why do grassroots actors behave differently from the majority; what motivates them to engage
and start an initiative?
ii) What can we learn from grassroots innovators with regard to causes and conditions of civic
iii) To what extent is it possible to ‘mainstream’ these determinants?
To develop a deeper understanding of the psychological processes through which people become change
agents, we adopted a qualitative case study approach to analysis of three different German grassroots
movements. We assumed that their engagement can be interpreted as a healthy reaction, a form of (self-)
empowerment confronted with a complex and frightening situation which causes widespread human harm
and environmental degradation. To analyze their engagement we relied on the concept of salutogenesis.
The concept of salutogenesis is related to positive psychology and personal resilience.
Subsequent sections are structured as follows. Section 2 presents an overview of the salutogenic concept.
Section 3 summarises our aims and research questions. Section 4 provides a brief summary of the three
cases and our research method. Section 5 presents our initial findings. In section 6 we discuss some
insights on the potential and the limitations of grassroots movements for social transformation. Section 7
concludes by highlighting the suitability of the salutogenetic approach for understanding grassroots
engagement. Applying the approach points towards the need for rethinking the aims that founders of
initiatives pursue and considering what are the most promising levers for upscaling grassroots
2. Salutogenesis: Why?
The term and theory of salutogenesis were developed in the 1970s by the medical sociologist Aaron
Antonovsky. The word salutogenesis consists of the Latin term ‘salus’ (health, well-being) and the Greek
word ‘genesis’ meaning emergence or creation. In his work, Antonovsky discovered that some people
stay healthy despite traumatic experiences such as imprisonment in a concentration camp or flight during
wartime. This observation evoked a shift in his intellectual orientation from looking at risk factors of
health to the identification of the strengths of an individual.
A salutogenic orientation does not analyze
why people get sick. Rather, it addresses the question, 'What explains the movement toward the health
pole of the health ease/dis-ease continuum?'
. According to Antonovsky, health is not a static condition;
rather, it can be seen as a continuum that ranges from complete well-being to total dysfunction (Figure 1).
Antonovsky, A. 1997. Salutogenese. Zur Entmystifizierung der Gesundheit. DGVT, Tübingen.
Antonovsky A., 1996. The salutogenic model as a theory to guide health promotion. Health Promo Intl. 11(1):11-18.
Figure 1: Health ease/dis-ease continuum (based on Antonovsky 1997)
The central factor which enables humans to overcome the omnipresent external and internal stressors and
stimuli is the Sense of Coherence (SOC). The SOC is a “way of looking at the world“, defined as an
enduring but flexible...
“...feeling of confidence that (a) the stimuli deriving from one´s internal and external
environments in the course of living are structured, predictable and explicable; (b) the resources
are available to her/him to meet the demands posed by these stimuli; and (c) these demands are
challenges, worthy of investment and engagement.”
He thereby merges three different psychological factors: comprehensibility on a cognitive level;
manageability on a behavioral level; and meaningfulness on an emotional level, in other words the sense
that, “[L]ife is worth the effort, it’s meaningful and creates happiness.”
Figure 2 summarizes these
See footnote 12 p. 36
See footnote 12 p. 37
Figure 2: Dimensions or sense of coherence (based on Antonovsky 1997)
The sense of coherence (SOC) concept has been applied successfully in biomedicine and public health
research to assess personal resilience in areas such as health promotion, education, work-life, and war and
post-conflict settings.
Bengel et al. have demonstrated that SOC is essentially a construct of
psychological health and is linked to personal resilience.
Other results show positive relations between
SOC and self-efficacy,
and between SOC and the quality of life.
These findings have led to the
integration of the salutogenic approach into competence-oriented health promotion and education.
3. Goal and Research Questions
To the authors’ knowledge, the theory of salutogenesis has not yet been applied to new social movements.
In this paper, we use it to analyze why and how protagonists in grassroots movements manage to engage
for change despite a situation marked by uncertainty and unclear responsibilities. We operationalize the
concept of salutogenesis as the following core research questions:
Almedon, A.M., Tesfamichael, B., Saeed Mohammed, Z., Mascietaylor C. G. N. and A. Zemui, 2007. Use of
´sense of coherence (SOC)´ Scale to measure Resilience in Eritrea: Interrogating Both, the Data and the Scale. Journal of
Biosocial Science 39 (1): 91-107. Eriksson M.and B.J. Lindström, 2007. Antonovsky's sense of coherence scale and its relation
with quality of life: a systematic review. Epidemiol Community Healt. 61(11): 938–44.
Bengel J., Strittmatter R. and H. Willmann, 2001. Was erhält Menschen gesund? Antonovskys Modell der Salutogenese -
Diskussionsstand und Stellenwert. Köln: BzgA.
Kröninger-Jungaberle, H. and D. Grevenstein, 2013. Development of salutogenetic factors in mental health - Antonovsky’s
sense of coherence and Bandura’s self-efficacy related to Derogatis’symptom check list (SCL-90-R). Health and Quality of Life
Outcomes 11(80):3-9.
Eriksson M.and B.J. Lindström, 2007. Antonovsky's sense of coherence scale and its relation with quality of life: a systematic
review. Epidemiol Community Healt. 61(11): 938–44.
Krause, C., 2011. Der salutogenetische Blick. Fachstandard in der Arbeit von Erzieher/innen? In: Textor M.R.(ed.)
Kindergartenpädagogik- Online-Handbuch.
Methfessel, B., 2007. Salutogenese – ein Modell fordert zum Umdenken heraus. Ernährungs-Umschau 54:704-709.
Comprehensibility: How do founders of grassroots initiatives understand and explain the current
problems and challenges of our society?
Meaningfulness: Why do they believe that their commitments make enough sense to be worth the
Manageability: Why do they feel capable of making a difference?
Quality of Life: How does the commitment of the actors influence their perceived quality of life?
4. Cases Studied and Methods Used
This exploratory case study focuses on six key persons, co-founders of three grassroots movements
present in Germany, namely:
i) Carrot Mob Cologne: organisers of temporary ‘buycotts’ in the form of purchase flash mobs by a
crowd of carrot mobbers. They buy a lot of goods from one company in a small time period to encourage
sustainable business behavior and initiate substantial carbon reductions in the selected (food) retail
ii) Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Bonn: a locally-based economic model of food production
and distribution that directly connects farmers and consumers;
iii) The Food Sharing and Food Saving Network: tackling food waste by facilitating the non-monetary
exchange of ´to-be-wasted´ foodstuffs between private persons and groceries, retailers and supermarkets.
A more in-depth explanation of the three initiatives is in Table 1.
Carrot Mob (CM) Cologne
Foodsharing Germany and
Foodsharing Cologne
CSA Bonn
Founded in
Level of activity
City level
City level and nationwide
City and its surroundings
Share of turnover invested
in CO
savings, 6 mobs in
Cologne between 2010-
2012, currently limited
Almost 35,000 kg food
saved (03.06.2014)
Various: e.g. creation of 2.5
workplaces, high levels of
satisfaction among members,
organization of 7 community events
per year, 6-7 voluntary work
assignments per member per year
Core group
6 core members.
In the four weeks before a
mob: 50 hours per week
20 persons working 200
hours per week on voluntary
10 persons working 80 hours per
week on voluntary basis
Number of
Large number of
‘mobbers’ (up to 350). 350
followers on Twitter
3,500 activists saving food,
40,000 users registered
online, 660 traders and
120 members
Budget, annual
No budget. Flyers etc.
financed by donations and
the team
€40,000 for external services
such as programming work,
posters etc.
€105,000 for organic agriculture,
including €2,000 for the expenses of
the core group
No formal organization,
voluntary work
Registered charity, voluntary
No formal organization voluntary
Table 1: Comparative overview of the three movements
Hypotheses were generated on the basis of a broad literature review on grassroots movements’
motivations and success factors and drawing on different theories. Based on our hypotheses we
established and tested a semi-structured interview schedule, including questions about the main
components of salutogenesis described above. Analysis of interview data took an inductive approach,
using the principles of qualitative content analysis,
meaning that inductive codes were formulated step
by step out of the material. We subsequently analysed connections between the codes and the components
of the concept of salutogenesis using Atlas.ti 7.1.8 software for computer-based analysis of qualitative
In the following section we present initial findings, organised into four categories that map onto the four
components of salutogenesis. The category ‘comprehensibility’ includes statements that explain problems
with our current societal system: their dimensions, individual evaluations, and feelings and thoughts on
the topic. The category ‘meaningfulness’ is based on answers to the question, “Why is your engagement
worth the effort?”, along with relevant responses elsewhere in interviews. We define ‘manageabilityas
the extent to which a person believes that he or she can mobilise the resources necessary to execute a
project successfully. This category encompasses answers to the question, “Why do you feel capable of
making a difference?” It also includes other factors enhancing self-efficacy mentioned by the
interviewees, such as attitudes. Quality of life (QoL), the fourth category, includes statements about the
effects engagement has on interviewees’ perceived quality of life. QoL is not directly a part of SOC.
Longitudinal studies confirm the predictive value of SOC for a good QoL: the stronger the SOC, the
better the QoL.
We therefore used QoL as control variable.
5 Results
5.1. Comprehensibility: How do Founders of Grassroots Initiatives Explain the Current Challenges
Facing Society?
Interviewees highlighted two different problem areas. The first consists of problems that describe tangible
negative effects of our present economic and societal systems on the environment and people, such as
lack of resources, waste of food, inequality, population increase, over globalization.
“I just said trash, CO
, overpopulation, sealing of the soil, heaps of things have been going on -
over indebtedness - it is LUNATIC a lot of what has been going on.” (CSA, P1:64)
In particular, co-founders of the German foodsaving movement stressed the systemic tendency of the
current monetary system towards increasing injustice and to oblige people to act against their values and
needs. The massive slaughter of animals, for example, would never be done voluntarily. It happens
because people are paid for doing it:
Mayring, Philipp (2000). Qualitative Content Analysis. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative
Social Research, 1(2), Art. 20,
Eriksson M.and B.J. Lindström, 2007. Antonovsky's sense of coherence scale and its relation with quality of life:
a systematic review. Epidemiol Community Healt. 61(11): 938–44.
”If we somehow boil it down to the people who like to kill animals while aiming to do society a
huge favor, there would be far fewer people doing it than at the moment.” (Foodsharing 2,
The second problem area emphasised in the interviews is the way our society deals with the
aforementioned problems, including system-based constraints and anxieties.
“It is like a huge clockwork [device] and everybody is caught in their own little cogwheel,
everything is entangled and it is so darned difficult to get out, because the wheels are turning and
turning and you yourself are only a small cog in a big machine. And you have to try very actively
and consciously to stop your cogwheel and step out of the system. And when you have taken the
first step, the next one is easier, but the majority of people is caught in the cogwheel …and
dependency and fear as well…“ (CSA, P3:44)
One aspect that many interviewees mentioned is widespread ignorance and even suppression of the
problems, meaning people accept and make do with the current state of the system, instead of
acknowledging the problem and taking responsibility for changing the situation. This leads to the
acceptance of conditions that violate basic social values.
“… through Foodsharing many [managers of] grocery stores for the first time realized how much
they actually throw away. The employees knew this, since they were doing it on a daily basis. But,
since there were no numbers, no transcripts, this was sacrificed for a commercial logic: the
shelves must always be filled … “(Foodsharing 1, P6:58)
Feelings in the Face of the Problems
Frustration, powerlessness, anxiety, monotony these were feelings associated with the predominant
problems. Anger was the most commonly-mentioned emotion. It arose, for instance, when the current
system was perceived to be violating strongly held personal values of interviewees (e.g. on the nature of
“Good food and good drinks and food culture in itself has always fascinated me and the more I
understood about the food industry over the years the more repulsed and also angry I got (…).
That is our source of life. We are what we eat and if we don’t produce our food in a sustainable
way we destroy everything and we destroy the soil, we destroy our energy resources through
influences of the market.” (CSA 2, P3:20)
Many interviewees perceived problems as complicated and overwhelming.
“It´s maddeningly complicated […] you never understand everything. At least you have to
develop a certain attitude, without saying, ‘I have to become an expert’ because you can only be
an expert on a small area, you have to try to keep an overview.” (Foodsharing 1, P6:54).
5.2 Meaningfulness: Why do Co-founders of Grassroots Initiatives Consider these Challenges
Worthy of Investment and Commitment?
From interviewees responses we could infer strategies to cope with challenging problems such as the
wish to act in accordance with intrinsic values and to stay authentic and credible.
“To keep face and to not go with the flow and well, to create also for oneself a livable life, a
livable environment, and a livable structure, that is the change I want to achieve.” (CSA 2
“So I really do only what I am convinced of 100 percent.” (Foodsharing 2, P8:48).
Other major sources of meaningfulness were positive emotions, such as joy and fun, arising from
connecting positive visions with positive action and building of social cohesion:
“In the CSA and in the Transition Town Movement you do something that creates joy. It is a
positive impulse. It is not going against [the unsustainable solution], rather just doing it
differently, without asking the politicians, this is fascinating. That you can choose a different way
in a society and just realize it. And that by these means, a lot of other things are made possible.”
(CSA 2, P3: 25)
“The main reason [for my engagement] is, as I just explained, the personal contact, the people.”
(CSA 1, P1: 33)
Personal engagement is assessed as valuable because it is a way to reach people in different social classes.
Common sources of motivation mentioned include the wish to create awareness and to give a thought-
provoking impulse in order to encourage rethinking. This awareness-impulse was in some cases classified
as more important than the project itself.
“When the entrepreneur AFTER the activity said, ‘Hey that was awesome’, and his turnover was
increased and he would now look forward to new investments also on matters of the environment.
THAT has persuaded me more and more. (…) One could easily notice: something moved in his
head.” (Carrotmob 1, P5:74)
“And I believe that something is happening in the background which is AT LEAST just as
important, that everyone who shares their food or receives food gets their mind nudged about why
we throw so much away. And they start to reconsider their consumer behavior. Essentially, that is
an important goal for me because the mere distribution of excess food is not a proper solution in
the strict ecological sense.” (Foodsharing 1 P6:58)
5.3 Manageability: What Makes People Confident they have Access to the Resources Necessary to
Meet the Challenges?
Intereviewess mentioned numerous factors that support them to feel capable of making a difference.
These include:
External factors such as positive role models, best practice examples, supporters and mentors:
“There are enough positive examples, why shouldn´t we make it?” (Laughs out) (CSA 2, P3:64)
Personal factors such as previous positive life experiences with change (mastery experiences)
Strategies such as expectation management, meaning that anticipated and targeted results are
concrete, feasible and realistic:
“I am soberingly realistic….. I do not expect that my action has so much impact, that’s a
great relief.” (CSA 2, P3: 59)
“I start with small baby steps and I don´t have the feeling of being able to change much […],
but it’s fun to work together with the group, to work together with the farmer and it would be
even more fun to work on the field.” (CSA 1, P1:77)
Positive experiences and emotions associated with the engagement itself, in particular positive
group processes and complimentary feedback:
“This is the first time that I feel a great success by reaching people, but also for myself, that I
am happier instead of getting annoyed with something.”
(Foodsharing 2, P8:72)
When we asked about conditions necessary for up-scaling movements, interviewees stressed the
importance of enabling other people to gain positive and concrete experiences, for instance by providing
low-threshold opportunities to engage:
People have to be invited; I think […] therefore, the Foodsharing and Foodsaving movement is a
good starting point. It is practical, it is easy to understand, and when people deal with that
problem they can recognize that this concrete example is only a symptom. And then, they can look
for the causes of the problem.” (Foodsharing 2, P8:392)
Attitudes for Action
Interviewees mentioned several attitudes associated with personal engagement, namely: Non-conformity
or radicalism, naivety, curiosity, cooperation instead of dominanation, healthy confidence, courage and a
healthy megalomania, and feelings of responsibility.
5.4 Quality of Life
Examination of the SOC would be incomplete if we omitted the question of how dedication affects the
quality of actors’ lives. Answers were comparatively simple. When asking the question, “Do you have the
feeling that you are giving up something due to your commitment?” all interviewees reacted with surprise
and disagreement, and highlighted the positive sides of their dedication such as:
- Creativity and learning
- Feelings of connectedness to the city and the people
- New social relations
- Pleasure and health following the motto ‘less is more’
Restriction of freedom of choice, such as in food, was either ranked as insignificant or even as time
saving and a relief. It is also notable how often positive feelings were mentioned when interviewees
explained personal experiences they had during their engagement.
“I think it is totally beautiful and I am totally happy that I am able to be part of this.
Having taken this step and being able to initiate this. Well, being able to bring the topic
here.” (Foodsharing 2, P8:253)
Interviewees mentioned positive feelings such as luck or enthusiasm far more frequently than they did
feelings such as anger or frustration. The latter did come up when interviewees talked about root
problems (see 5.1). This points towards a key result of the engagement: engaging in the grassroots
initiatives in a manageable, meaningful and thus salutogenic way seems to be correlated with a higher
quality of life (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Personal Drivers of Engagement (own illustration)
6. Discussion
The characteristics of the grassroots movements involved are different. Dimensions of variation include
their target groups (customers, retailers, or citizens), their budget (none to several thousand Euros per
year) and their scale (city-wide to nation-wide). Analysis of interviews, however, reveals a number of
common patterns.
6.1 Comprehensibility and the Limits of Cognitive Knowledge
The collective action frame of the grassroot activists described the conflict between the growth paradigm
on the one side and the exhaustion of earthly resources on the other. Even though interviewees did not
explicitly identify themselves as members of global justice movements, the issues mentioned showed a
close connection to these.
Co-founders of the initiatives felt anxious and powerless considering the very
Schlichting, I. and A. Schmidt. 2012. Strategische Deutungen des Klimawandels. Frames und ihre Sponsoren.
Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen 25 (2): 29–41.
large dimensions of current social and ecological problems. Similar results have already been reported in
the literature.
Despite these feelings, grassroots actors were still able to engage for change. This leads to our research
question of, “How do they achieve comprehensibility, as the ability to make sense of extreme and
stressful events?” It is notable that the co-founders of grassroots initiatives relied on attitudes and values
to explain and structure the problems, as mentioned by Foodsharing 1, “…you [will] never understand
everything. At least you have to develop a certain attitude.” From a salutogenic point of view the positive
deviance of grassroots actors, i.e. taking action in the face of widespread ignorance and/or apathy, seems
to rely on values and attitudes rather than purely cognitive assessments of problems. This finding is
supported by Kay Milton´s work who argues that, “[T]he emotional and constitutive role of nature and
natural things has been underplayed in western environmental debates, which have been dominated by a
rationalist scientific discourse in which emotion is suppressed and emotionalism denigrated.”
findings underscore the crucial role of emotions as the link between appraisal of a situation and
motivation to take action.
6.2 Meaningfulness and Quality of Life Through Civic Engagement
The aims of the three initiatives as expressed by their co-founders challenge the ideological foundation of
the consumer society which still adheres to the narrative of, The more we consume the better off we are.’
In the latter line of thought, demands to reduce the material impact of human activities are likely to be
perceived as constraining human welfare and threatening quality of life.
Accordingly, co-founders of
grassroots initiatives can be expected to suffer from lower quality of life, due to their reduced
consumption and time-consuming activism.
The results of the study however show that different narratives and effects prevail: interviewees reported
that it is gratifying to act in ways consistent with their own values. Personal commitment and assumption
of responsibility for ones own environment leads to empowerment and social learning for oneself and
others. Social capital is created by social cohesion in initiatives and connections among people who
would not otherwise have met. Interviewees were inspired by the possibility to create awareness and
initiate small system changes. ‘Meaningfulness’ in the salutogenic sense was created by their attempts to
express positive and constructive attitudes and values in their own lives. Tensions between the inability of
the current economic system to reproduce fundamental values such as justice and human rights and the
desire of grassroot actors to act according to these values were resolved by their refusal to tolerate the
situation and assumption of personal responsibility for change. In that regard, founders acted in the
tradition of ´classic´ social movements.
Kenis A and E. Mathijs, 2012. Beyond individual behaviour change: the role of power, knowledge and strategy in
tackling climate change. Environmental Education Research 18(1):45–65.
Milton K. 2002. Loving Nature: towards an ecology of emotion by Kay Milton London : Routledge , p.91
Klandermans, B. 2004. The demand and supply of participation: Social psychological correlates of participation
in a social movement. Pp. 360-379 in: Snow D.A., Soule, S. and HP Kriesi (eds.) Blackwell Companion to Social
Movements. Oxford: Blackwell.
Jackson, T., 2005. Live better by consuming less? Is there a double dividend in sustainable consumption? Journal
of Industrial Ecology 9(1–2): 19–36.
Della Porta D. and M. Diani, 2006. Social movements: an introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Pp 64ff.
By cultivating inner consistency, building social capital and initiating processes of social learning the
grassroots actors reported to have improved their perceived quality of life. Recent research similarly
showed that commitment to a Transition Together Initiative had positive effects on various aspects of
health and well-being,
primarily attributed to community engagement and collaborating with immediate
neighbors. This relates to Tim Jackson’s suggested ‘double dividend’ potentially inherent in sustainable
consumption: the ability to live better by consuming less, to reduce our impact on the environment and to
become (more) human as a result. Nevertheless, Jackson himself is cautious about the prospects for a
double dividend and draws attentions to the role of societal frameworks: “Such win-win’ solutions may
exist but will require a concerted societal effort to realize [on a broader scale].”
6.3 Manageability: Enhancing Self-Efficacy through Concrete and Collective Action
Conditions supporting manageability include factors around behavior change highlighted as relevant also
by other theories relevant in the field of behaviour change such as the Social Cognitive Theory developed
by Albert Bandura
.Our research findings demonstrate high relevance for mastery experiences, regarded
in the SOC approach as the strongest influence on perceived self-efficacy.
Given the complex and
frightening social and ecological problems that are mentioned in 5.1, realistic expectations regarding
outcomes also seem to be very important. Feasible action plans allow transformation of frustration and
anxiety into motivation and a sense of achievement. This finding is in accordance with research of
Kristof, who reported that establishing concrete and realistic steps is a necessary prerequisite for reducing
fear of transformation and change.
Interviewees also mentioned best practice examples and role models as supporting factors. This so called
´social modeling´ is reported to be an important strategy for behavior change, successfully used in health
and environmental education
. Grassroots networks, such as the Transition network, the Network of
Consumer Supported Agriculture, Foodsharing Network or the Carrotmob Network fulfil an important
role by providing these examples and models.
Finally, our research shows that grassroots initiatives provide opportunities to build positive emotions, for
instance through group processes and collective action. Improving emotional state is also regarded as an
Richardson J, Nichols A. and T. Henry, 2012. Do transition towns have the potential to promote health and well-
being? A health impact assessment of a transition town initiative. Public Health 126(11): 982-9.
Jackson, T., 2005. Live better by consuming less? Is there a double dividend in sustainable consumption? Journal
of Industrial Ecology 9(1–2): 19–36.
Bandura, A., 2002. Environmental sustainability by sociocognitive deceleration of population growth. Pp. 209-
238 in Schmuch P. and W. Schultz (eds.). The psychology of sustainable development. Dordrecht, The Netherlands:
McAlister, A., Perry, C. and G. Parcel, 2008. How individuals, environments and health behaviors interact. In K.
Glanz, B. Rimer, and K. Viswinath (eds.) Health Behavior and Health Education. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, Calif,
USA, 4th edition: 167-188.
Kristof, K. (2010):
Wege zum Wandel. Wie wir gesellschaftliche Veränderungen erfolgreich gestalten können
Munich: Oekom, p 542
see fotnote 31.
important strategy for increasing beliefs of self-efficacy
Moreover, positive action provoked positive
feedback loops, enhancing feelings of manageability and contributing to empowerment of those involved.
The study however should not create the impression that constraints, failures, and negative experiences
are absent from grassroots initiatives.
A common example is when scarcity of resources such as time
and money provokes decomposition of an initiative. In the case of the Foodsharing initiative it led to a
sustained effort to be independent from money in order to achieve more autonomy and free up time for
grassroots work. Group dynamics are another crucial factor, not only with regard to success as already
mentioned, but also in relation to failure of initiatives. This requires further analysis, beyond the scope of
this paper.
7. Conclusion: Potentials and Limitations of Grassroots Initiatives
In this study we aimed to understand reasons for the engagement of individuals in grassroots initiatives.
We understood this engagement as a ´salutogenetic´ process: a healthy reaction to being confronted with
the intellectually and morally overwhelming situation of current unsustainability. To understand the
psychological processes underlying this positive action, and thus identify potential levers for upscaling
engagement in initiatives, we used Antonovsky’s concept of salutogenesis. According to Antonovsky, the
ability of a person confronted with a major challenge to take constructive action depends on the sense of
coherence they are able to maintain. This sense of coherence in turn can be broken down into aspects of
manageability, comprehensibility and meaningfulness. We used these concepts to analyze interviews with
founders of grassroots movements.
A core result of this study is that use of the concept of salutogenesis can provide a deeper understanding
of psychological factors motivating change agents to initiate grassroots movements. Founders of
initiatives perceive the given, unsustainable situation as a challenging, potentially frightening one. They
try to stay healthy and active in this situation by developing meaningful engagement, based on a
comprehensive interpretation of given the situation and challenges, and taking manageable actions. In
particular, the salutogenetic approach as applied here may contribute to the discourse on societal change
towards sustainability the following three insights, related to comprehensibility, manageability and
1. The scale and complexity of current problems are beyond the scope of attempts at purely
cognitive explanation. The ability to comprehend associated challenges in a salutogenic way
is connected to the role of attitudes and values, helping actors to explain and organize
otherwise overwhelming information. Learning from grassroots co-founders as persons acting
in a salutogenic way would imply that people need opportunities to (re-)connect with internal
values and to act accordingly. At this point, the question should be posed of to what extent
McAlister, A., Perry, C. and G. Parcel, 2008. How individuals, environments and health behaviors interact. In K.
Glanz, B. Rimer, and K. Viswinath (eds.) Health Behavior and Health Education. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, Calif,
USA, 4th edition: 167-188.
Feola G & Nunes R.J.(2013). Failure and Success of Transition Initiatives: a study of the international
replication of the Transition Movement’, Research Note 4. Walker Institute for Climate System Research, University
of Reading, August 2013
expert-dominated discourses about climate and social change, and associated striving for
objectivity, and for technical and rational solutions, are both patronizing and constitute a
potential obstacle to ´comprehensibility´ in itself: are they hindering the (re-) connection with
attitudes and values necessary to understand, explain and deal with the problems? Do we need
a shift of awareness from detached observers to engaged participants, from objectivity to
critical subjectivity?
And would this critical subjectivity be needed in many parts of society
- from citizens, to politics, the media and science?
2. The manageability of action on current challenges is enhanced by positive action, realistic
aims, and best practice models, and in particular by positive group processes. This is a
completely different approach from current governmental strategies to foster sustainable
lifestyles by addressing individuals in their roles as consumers. It raises the question of when,
how and where the majority of people have the opportunity to make positive, collective
experiences of change, enhancing self-efficacy and therefore feelings of manageability.
3. Interviews with co-founders of grassroots movements contain a great diversity of positive
narratives explaining why it is joyful and meaningful to work for change. Those who hoped
that wider society can learn from grassroots initiatives how to make consumerism ‘greener’
within our hegemonic social system will be disappointed on this point. The goal of the co-
founders is not in the first place to change consumer behavior within the given system. They
identify the system itself, its environmental and social problems, as targets of collective
action. They create awareness of the need of systemic change and start to build alternatives on
a niche basis. In this case, the change of consumer behavior is a positive and certainly
desirable consequence but not the main motivation, which is the prospect of deeper societal
These insights have consequences concerning potential levers to upscale involvement in grassroots
initiatives as a mechanism for societal change. To identify these levers, the very processes that allow
initiatives to contribute to societal change need to be reconsidered: upscaling and mainstreaming the
activities and experiences of the co-founders of grassroots initiatives would thus mean upscaling and
mainstreaming opportunities for citizens to engage collectively, to shape their environments, and thus
gain positive experiences by making small realistic steps with the support of others. Or in Otto
Scharmer’s words, “[By] creat[ing] infrastructure innovations that allow all citizens to become aware of
their real power in co-creating the intentional ecosystem economy and in deepening our democracy.”
We are not, therefore, discussing the upscaling of green consumerism and some general green or
sustainability engagement schemes applicable to defined contexts, but the upscaling of social learning and
empowerment allowing people to take action in their particular way: manageable, meaningful and
comprehensive. We therewith agree with recent discussions pointing towards the need of scaling-up
Sterling, S. 2007. Riding the Storm: towards a connective cultural consciousness. pp. 63-82 in: Wals, A.E.J
(2007) (ed.) Social Learning Towards a Sustainable World, Principle, perspectives and praxis. Wageningen:
Wageningen Academic Publishers
Scharmer, U. (2009). Seven Acupuncture Points for Shifting Capitalism to Create a Regenerative Ecosystem
Economy. Paper prepared for presentation at the: Roundtable on Transforming Capitalism to Create a Regenerative
Economy1 MIT, June 8–9; Sept. 21, 2009
processes instead of objects or product designs
and to understanding societal transformation as a
process of social learning.
It would be an excessive demand, however, to place the responsibility for social transformation solely on
the shoulders of citizens. Successful projects for lifestyle change have always been supported by multi-
level approaches. This was impressively shown by the Finnish project ‘Health in all Policies’ which
changed the food habits of the entire Finnish society over a 20 year time frame and led to tremendous
reductions in mortality rates from cardiovascular diseases. The project pursued a community-based
approach, accompanied by effective measures in public health care, social modeling, media campaigns
(local and national), the economy (new products), and politics (taxes).
When aiming for widespread
societal change it therefore could be indicative to ask the salutogenic question on every level: What do
politicians, businesses, scientists, teachers, students, the administration, and citizens, or in other words,
what does our society need to gain a deeper and simultaneously more flexible feeling of trust that the
transformation towards a sustainable low carbon society is comprehensible, manageable and makes
The research leading to this working paper was done as part of the research project “Close up on
Grassroots”, generously funded by the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Research of North Rhine-
Westphalia and the Competence Centre for Consumer Research of North Rhine-Westphalia.
This article is based on the presentation “Personal Resilience, Transition and Behaviour Change - a
Salutogenetic Approach” given in the Session “Resilience, Community Action and Social
Transformation”, 6
May 2014. Montpellier, France. This session was organized by the Transition
Research Network and ECOLISE as part of the Resilience 2014 conference.
We would like to express our special thanks to Tom Henfrey for careful editing of the manuscript and his
insightful comments and suggestions.
Smith A., 2014. Scaling-up inclusive innovation: asking the right questions? http://steps-
e.g. InContext
Puska P. and T. Ståhl, 2010. Health in All Policies — The Finnish Initiative: Background, Principles, and Current
Issues. Annual Review of Public Health (31):315-28
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... This is in line with Mock et al. (2019) who find in their study on the wellbeing of people engaged in sustainability initiatives that positive relations with others is the most mentioned motivating factor for their engagement. Similarly, Maschkowski et al. (2014) highlight group dynamics as a crucial factor, "not only with regard to success . . . but also in relation to failure of initiatives" (p. ...
... 21). Secondly, identification provides inner consistency as individuals can act according to their own values (Maschkowski et al., 2014). In addition, individuals can feel a sense of belonging to a group and stability by experiencing a feeling of commonality with its members (Wakefield et al., 2017). ...
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This review explores the current evidence on the role and success factors of grassroots initiatives in sustainability transitions, with special attention given to social innovations and the transformation of urban food systems, a field that is still rather scantly dealt with in literature compared to technological innovations in other sectors such as energy. In addition to their contributions to get the necessary transformation towards sustainable futures off the ground, the preconditions for grassroots initiatives to thrive are presented—as well as limitations regarding their possibilities and the challenges they face. Increasingly, the importance of civil society and social movements in facilitating societal transformation is recognized by both researchers and policy makers. Within their radical niches, grassroots initiatives do not have to adhere to the logics of the wider systems in which they are embedded. This allows them to experiment with diverse solutions to sustainability challenges such as local food security and sovereignty. By means of democratic, inclusive and participatory processes, they create new pathways and pilot a change of course. Nevertheless, upscaling often comes at the loss of the transformative potential of grassroots initiatives.
In order to achieve sustainable societies, we need models of behavior that go beyond individuals equating wellbeing and material consumption levels. Lowering individual footprints might be more acceptable once we include social relations, adopting responsibilities for other human and non-human life as well as civic engagement as complementary sources of wellbeing. Grassroots initiatives that stimulate collective action and social learning contribute to these diverse sources of wellbeing when striving to facilitate sustainable consumption. Thus, they can become role models for societal change. This review sets out to investigate why grassroots initiatives are created and developed successfully by focusing on the processes of founding, engaging in, developing and maintaining grassroots initiatives. We look at insights from different disciplines that address behavioral change and social learning to develop an overview of factors that are from an interdisciplinary perspective highly relevant to understand societal change processes. By means of organizing the analysis along three levels of human behavior – the individual level, the group level, and the societal level – we capture the multifaceted relationships influencing the success of grassroots initiatives. We present theoretical and empirical evidence connecting a broad spectrum of concepts that can subsequently be used as testable factors in fieldwork for in-depth investigations of grassroots success.
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Background: The paper analyses how resilience factors and mental health problems interrelate in a 3-year-longitudinal study with 16-19 year olds. Methods: Resilience was measured with a 13-item short version of the Life-Orientation-Scale by Antonovsky (sense-of-coherence, SOC) and a 10-item self-efficacy-scale (SWE) by Jerusalem and Schwarzer. Mental health problems were measured with Derogatis Symptom Check list (SCL-90-R). The data set included 155 participants and was analyzed using Structural Equation Modeling (SEM) designed to examine mutual influence in longitudinal data with Mplus software. Results: The descriptive data analysis indicates (1) negative correlations between SOC and SCL-90-R at both age 16 and 19 in all subscales but somatization and likewise (2) between self-efficacy and SCL-90-R. (3) SOC correlates positively with SWE at age 16 and 19. Results of SEM analysis were based on the assumption of two latent variables at two points in time: resilience as measured with mean SOC and mean self-efficacy scores and health problems measured with sub scale scores of SCL-90-R - both at ages 16 and 19. The first SEM model included all possible paths between the two latent variables across time. We found (4) that resilience influences mental health problems cross-sectionally at age 16 and at age 19 but not across time. (5) Both resilience and mental health problems influenced their own development over time. A respecified SEM model included only significant paths. (6) Resilience at age 16 significantly influences health problems at age 16 as well as resilience at age 19. Health problems at age 16 influence those at age 19 and resilience at age 19 influences health problems at age 19. Conclusion: (a) SOC and self-efficacy instruments measure similar phenomena. (b) Since an influence of resilience on mental health problems and vice versa over time could not be shown there must be additional factors important to development. (c) SOC and self-efficacy are both very stable at 16 and 19 years. This refutes Antonovsky's assumption that SOC achieves stability first around the age of 30. SOC and self-efficacy are protective factors but they seem to form in (early) childhood.
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Industrial ecology has mainly been concerned with improving the efficiency of production systems. But addressing consumption is also vital in reducing the impact of society on its environment. The concept of sustainable consumption is a response to this. But the debates about sustainable consumption can only really be understood in the context of much wider and deeper debates about consumption and about consumer behavior itself. This article explores some of these wider debates. In particular, it draws attention to a fundamental disagreement that runs through the literature on consumption and haunts the debate on sustainable consumption: the question of whether, or to what extent, consumption can be taken as “good for us.” Some approaches assume that increasing consumption is more or less synonymous with improved well-being: the more we consume the better off we are. Others argue, just as vehemently, that the scale of consumption in modern society is both environmentally and psychologically damaging, and that we could reduce consumption significantly without threatening the quality of our lives. This second viewpoint suggests that a kind of “double dividend” is inherent in sustainable consumption: the ability to live better by consuming less and reduce our impact on the environment in the process. In the final analysis, this article argues, such “win-win” solutions may exist but will require a concerted societal effort to realize.
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The aim of this paper is to synthesise findings on the salutogenic concept, sense of coherence (SOC), and its correlation with quality of life (QoL). This study is descriptive and analytic, with a systematic integration of the contemporary knowledge base on the salutogenic research published in 1992-2003. This review includes 458 scientific publications and 13 doctoral theses on salutogenesis. In all, 32 papers had the main objective of investigating the relationship between SOC and QoL. This study is based on scientific publications in eight authorised databases, doctoral theses and available books. The SOC seems to have an impact on the QoL; the stronger the SOC, the better the QoL. Furthermore, longitudinal studies confirm the predictive validity of the SOC for a good QoL. The findings correspond to the core of the Ottawa Charter--that is, the process of enabling people to live a good life. Therefore, a certain possibility to modify and extend the health construct is becoming discernible, implicating a construct including salutogenesis and QoL. The SOC concept is a health resource, influencing QoL.
The present chapter addresses environmental sustainability through deceleration ofpopulation growth. Serial dramatizations founded on social cognitive theory serve as the principal vehicle for personal and society-wide changes. These mass media productions inform people, enable them with effective strategies and resilient efficacy beliefs, and guide, motivate, and support them in their efforts to exercise control over their rate ofchild bearing and otherwise improve their life condition. Global applications in Asia, Africa, and Latin America raise viewers ’ perceived efficacy to determine their family size, increase approval of family planning, raise the status of women in familial, social and educational life, and increase use of family planning services and adoption ofcontraceptive methods. In applications in Africa, the media productions also increase condom use and reduce the number ofsexual partners to check the spread of HIV infection. This generic model of social change can also promote environmental preservation practices.
Many historical developments, such as the Alma Ata Declaration or the Ottawa Charter, have drawn attention to the need for intersectoral work and for considering the health aspects of different policy proposals. In the 1970s, Finland started broad actions to change national diets to reduce the high mortality associated with cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). This and other work in Finland have involved many sectors and policies, resulted in significant public health improvements, and paved the way for the Health in All Policies (HiAP) initiative started during the Finnish European Union (EU) presidency in 2006. The initiative and the principles have encouraged further developments in Finland and have been linked with related developments within the EU and the World Health Organization (WHO).
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